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Early James Turrell Works Reveal a Master in the Making

Crafted way before "Hotline Bling" and Roden Crater, the light and space artist’s works from the late 60s are currently on view at Pace Gallery.

As much as James Turrell is fascinated with the earthbound qualities of light and shadows, he is also always looking upwards—to the invisible and unstructured quarries of space. His meeting rooms, enclosed areas with apertures that allow only a cluster of people in at a time, reveal a direct connection between earth and the galaxies above. Meanwhile, his light sculptures are attempts to create dimensionalities that merge the formless, unexplained miasmas usually associated with space, and humbler shapes familiar to our everyday lives: a cube or a pyramid. This proclivity was sparked by increasing interest in space exploration in 60s Los Angeles, an interest that also affected Doug Wheeler and Robert Irwin, two artists grouped with Turrell in the Light and Space movement.

Afrum, Pale Pink, 1967. Cross corner projection. Dimensions variable. Photograph by Florian Holzherr © James Turrell, courtesy Pace Gallery

Turrell recently opened three solo shows across the US at Pace Gallery locations: one at West 25th Street, the second at East 57th Street, and the third inaugurating Pace’s Palo Alto space. Titled 67 68 89, the exhibitions in Chelsea and the Upper East Side pay homage to Turrell’s early years and his work from the late 60s—before the meeting rooms, before his guesthouse in rural Japan House of Light, before the Drake fiasco, and before the initiation of his ongoing Roden crater project, where he is sculpting a natural cinder volcanic crater into a naked eye observatory intended for star and planet gazing.

Juke, Green, 1968. Cross corner projection, dimensions variable. Photograph by Florian Holzherr © James Turrell, courtesy Pace Gallery

The Chelsea space comprises four light projections, one print, and 36 drawings of projection models on graph paper. Each projection creates a kind of intangible chiaroscuro that models light into three-dimensional illusions. Seeing his first light projection ever—the white-pinkish cubic Afrum that suffused the room in a naked yellow glow—is akin having a holy moment. The psychological back-and-forth between the piece appearing like a cube and the knowledge of the piece simply being light projected into a corner seriously messed with my faith in my senses and reality. No wonder, considering Turrell has stated many times that his work is inspired by his Quaker sensibilities. Also apparent—perhaps in this piece more than the others in the space, whose sucker-punch colors of luminescent blue and green perhaps mark bolder turns in Turrell’s career—is the exploration of the ganzfeld effect, a type of visual deprivation that causes the brain to produce more neural noise in order to fill in gaps in perception.

Orca, Blue, 1969. Single wall projection, dimensions variable. Photograph by Florian Holzherr © James Turrell, courtesy Pace Gallery

The drawings on graph paper are also fascinating simply because they are static prototypes of the light projections to come. The sketched projections are exactly as they appear to the human eye—three-dimensional shapes that are not really there, with no instruction as to how to create these illusions. Stripped of color and using the barest of lines to illustrate the shapes, the zen drawings might have appeared, in the early 60s, as pipe dreams or fantasies. Today, alongside the knowledge of Turrell’s behemoth of a career, they are papers of evidence showing in every sense that there is more than meets the eye.  

All drawings: Projection Piece Drawings, 1970-197136 ink on paper drawings. From 11" x 8-1/2" (27.9 cm x 21.6 cm) to 8-1/2" x 11" (21.6 cm x 27.9 cm), 36 drawings. Photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate / Pace Gallery

To learn more about 67 68 69, visit Pace Gallery through June 18th in New York and Palo Alto, California.

Related:

The James Turrell Skyspace Experience

For $6500 You Can Visit James Turrell's Unfinished Observatory

Watch The Guggenheim Install A James Turrell Light Sculpture