Artist James Turrell in front of his Roden Crater Project at sunset in October, 2001. (Photo courtesy Florian Holzherr/Los Angeles County Museum of Art )
Artist James Turrell in front of his Roden Crater Project at sunset in October, 2001. (Photo courtesy Florian Holzherr/Los Angeles County Museum of Art )

There are those who will expound, in grandiloquent art-speak, on what James Turrell’s work is all about. I am simply going to say you won’t believe your eyes. And that’s the point.

I come to art to be immersed, overwhelmed, moved, dazzled, challenged; Turrell’s work does all that and more.

You may not believe your eyes, but they — and you — will be grateful for the monumental James Turrell: A Retrospective at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Make your reservations for LACMA’s show immediately, if not sooner; the buzz has already begun, and it’s going to be wildly popular. It’s so comprehensive that it requires both the second floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) and the Resnick Pavilion at LACMA to encompass its breadth.

Perhaps best known as a “space and light” artist, at a recent LACMA press conference Turrell said, “I like to tweak perception.” That’s an understatement.

Under the influence of Turrell’s work, you can either let go and enter a transcendent meditative state or take a more cerebral approach to understanding what you’re seeing and how your eyes and brain are reacting. Just don’t let the thinking get in the way of the enjoying. He wants you to “see behind your eyes.”

Turrell is also the man behind Roden Crater, his lifelong project to carve out celestial viewing chambers in a remote volcano in the Arizona desert, creating a “naked eye” observatory where you can grasp both the depth and the limits of the universe from within the volcano, with no equipment other than your own eyes. Not yet open to the public, its development is ongoing; more than a few million dollars are needed to complete it. Turrell began this project in 1974 and at the press conference he said he originally anticipated a public opening in the year 2000, “And I’m sticking with that.”

This is a groundbreaking show. It must be experienced and it will take time to get reservations for several of the more immersive installations. The Perceptual Cells’ “Light Reignfall” is already booked through August, because it can accommodate only one viewer at a time, and only three people per hour and it requires a separate admission.

I was able to experience “Breathing Light,” a ganzfeld (from the German meaning “entire field”), accommodating only four people at time. You walk up pyramidal steps into a chamber featuring one wall with a very wide glass screen and a cycle of changing lights that are programmed by the artist.

When I entered, the room was bathed in cotton candy pink light and I was unsure of my footing. I thought, “This is what it must be like to step onto a cloud.” As the ever-shifting gradations of color transition into one another, the intense gold-orange that focused on the wide screen and encompassed the side walls made me feel I was walking right into the sun at sunset.

An L.A. native, Turrell began his career in Santa Monica, where he leased The Mendota, a former Ocean Park hotel, in 1966 and began light-based experimentation first by blocking light from entering the interior spaces, then by projecting light onto the interior walls. Later he cut into the building itself, and controlled the way natural and artificial light entered the studio spaces, creating shifting “architectures.”

In 1968-69, LACMA focused its Art and Technology program on Turrell’s examination of perceptual fields, sensory deprivation and meditation. In the 1970s, LACMA’s troubled history put Turrell off the museum. He became, as he said to wide laughter, “LACMA intolerant.”

But Michael Govan, LACMA’s director, has a long history with Turrell via the Dia Art Foundation, which he led for 12 years and which helped fund Turrell’s purchase of Roden Crater. Now Turrell and LACMA are perfectly paired.

There are 50 works spanning five decades, many of which require specialized equipment and museum guides to help viewers in and out of some of the darker spaces. Imagine the liability insurance, let alone the challenges of gathering up these esoteric pieces from their many collectors and setting up the proper viewing conditions.

Turrell says he’s in the business of “selling blue sky and colored air” and to frame them, he’s created 82 “Skyspaces” cross the globe. I had the privilege of sitting in one, called “Second Meeting,” part of Mandy and Cliff Einstein’s Brentwood-based contemporary art collection. As it happens, this was the world’s first free-standing skyspace and the first in a private collection in the U.S.

Skyspaces feature rectangular, oval or square openings with razor sharp edges set against white frames lit by hidden lights, creating a contrasting effect that “frames” the sky. While there’s daylight, you will see an unending series of “blue paintings” until darkness finally takes over. As one collector says, “Light is Turrell’s paint brush and the sky framed by light becomes the painting.”

James Turrell: A Retrospective is on view through 2014, but you really need to make your reservations now to guarantee your attendance. Find out more at or call (323) 857-6000.


Cinema at the Edgemar


The first annual Cinema at the Edge Independent Film Festival opens tonight, May 30, through June 2 at Main Street’s Edgemar Center for the Arts, featuring four days of screenings, parties, and programs celebrating independent filmmaking. “Knuckle Jack” by John Adams and Toby Poser is the opener, focused on a foul-mouthed drunk with an artistic gift for theft, whose life is upended when he takes over the care of his 8-year-old niece.

“Sugar” by Rotimi Rainwater closes the festival. It’s the story of a 20-year-old homeless girl on the streets of Hollywood and Venice Beach, who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. The movie named winner of the inaugural “Community Visions Award” for its balanced and empathetic treatment of an issue close to the hearts of Santa Monica and Venice residents. Details:


Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for

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