Review of The Man Who Walked in Color
Univocal Publishing, Minneapolis, 2017
82 pp., illus. Paper, $22.95
I first encountered the work of James Turrell completely by chance while on a high-school field trip to the Whitney Museum in 1980, and my idea of art, and indeed my way of looking at the world, was forever changed. The intensity of light that is Turrell’s main material impressed itself on my wide-open, 17-year-old eyes. The exhibit, “James Turrell: Light and Space,” filled one entire floor of the museum with the artist’s large-scale light-projection works, whose radiant shapes and glowing edges create a sense of perceptual indeterminacy. Indeed, such was the illusionism of the works on display at the Whitney, that two separate viewers would file suit against the museum, claiming the art had made them “disoriented and confused” and caused them literally to fall down and injure themselves in the gallery. The mix of ecstasy and threat induced by what is, after all, completely abstract work, gives Turrell’s art a special status: It acts upon the viewer, effecting a transformation.
In his slim but densely structured philosophical study, which takes the form of an extended fable, French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman explores the visionary quality of Turrell’s work in both its spiritual and phenomenological dimensions. Written in 2001 and translated here into English, the book begins where it ends, with Turrell’s massive, decades-in-the-making, still unfinished, and perhaps impossible project the Roden Crater, an ancient volcanic mountain in the Arizona desert with a series of experiential chambers designed to present natural light phenomena with infinite subtlety for viewing over protracted periods of time. Didi-Huberman’s first chapter is a meditation on the Book of Exodus as an analog to Turrell’s own wandering quest through the desert and the artist’s rejection of the graven image in favor of a faith in the power of a vision shown only in its absence, demanding a sort of sacrifice and a waiting.
Continuing the theological theme, Didi-Huberman goes on to explore the paradox of seeing light and color in the absence of a distinct object of sight, as manifest in medieval stained-glass windows and, in particular, in the Byzantine gold and jeweled screen behind the altar in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, known as the Pala d’oro. For worshippers the work was physically at a remove but visually present as a glowing patch that brought itself near to the viewer. One could not approach the thing itself, but “the radiant brilliance encounters me” (19). This distant intimacy is at the core of Turrell’s project, as evidenced in his early and mid-career works installed into the architecture of the gallery, such that an apparent glowing rectangular field on a wall is in fact a cut-out opening into a dazzling void. Instead of an illuminated surface, the viewer encounters an illumination devoid of its object: “Light is no longer this abstract quality that makes objects visible—concrete and paradoxical, and whose paradox Turrell intensifies by rendering light massive—light is itself the object of vision” (36).
Turrell painstakingly structures the conditions for experiencing the ineffable, thus “presenting the limitless within the framework of a rigorous architectural description” (34). He is in this way not so much an artist as a “constructor of temples,” but one who nonetheless sacrifices the theological and mythical underpinnings of temples in favor of a predominantly perceptual framework.
In his Skyspaces, Turrell frames overhead sections of the sky, with an emphasis on those early and late times of day when the light changes. My most recent experience of Turrell’s work was his Skyspace on the campus of Rice University in Houston, where a pre-programmed Twilight Epiphany takes place every evening (a large square of crepuscular sky is framed by a sort of ceiling on which is projected a sequence of saturated colors). The piece requires roughly an hour of the spectator’s time. One cannot “grasp” the work as a typical art object, in one’s own time, but rather one is subjected to the unfolding time of the sky at sunset with its dynamic gradations. The sky becomes radically foregrounded; it “is no longer a neutral background for seeing things, but an active field of unpredictable visual experience” (68). Such works, suggests Didi-Huberman, are at once about a depth that comes toward us, and a flatness that gives way to infinite space: “So what then do we see? Neither a sculpture nor a painting. But the architectural condition of an experimentation for going beyond both painting or sculpture as genres of the Fine Arts” (68).
Given the myriad spiritual associations of the sky and the heavens which become Turrell’s overarching subject as well as his primary material, Didi-Huberman asks, are Turrell’s works ultimately mystical in nature? His answer: “Absolutely not, if the work simply remains at this level: emptying out spaces in order to produce nameless places, without symbols, without watchwords, without laws, without any other function than a visual one” (80). But this absence of symbolism, or larger graspable “meaning,” is what makes Turrell’s works ultimately so meaningful. It also makes the project of analysis a pointless one insofar as there are too many potential interpretations and none of them sufficient. Hence the self-consciously fabular nature of this book, which, like its subject, ventures shifting ways of looking, without trying, or indeed being able, to fix an object in its sight.