The "thingness," or the physicality of light, has been a focus of exploration for artist James Turrell for five decades. This summer, three major exhibitions of Turrell's work opened in Los Angeles, Houston, and New York, where he turned the Guggenheim Museum’s rotunda into, what one critic described as, a "meditative spectacle."
At the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Turrell's Gard Blue, a projected light work, dates to the 1960s, when the artist first started exploring the potential of light.
Light as a physical presence
It’s the Friday before the exhibition opening at the Spencer Museum of Art. On a tall ladder, a worker carefully paints a newly constructed wall a bright shade of blue. Museum director Saralyn Reece Hardy, with her hair coiled in a loose bun, steps inside a small box-like room containing James Turrell’s projection piece, Gard Blue; the blue light illuminates her face.
"There’s really no distance between the art and the space," says Hardy. "It’s very much about the viewer, the space, the light, and perception."
Since childhood, Turrell has been fascinated with light. His studies in perceptual psychology led to experimenting with natural and artificial light. Early works, created in the 1960s and 70s in a former hotel in Santa Monica, were light projections of geometric shapes, like the glowing pyramid in Gard Blue.
A dream to bring Turrell's work to the Spencer
Saralyn Reece Hardy says she’s followed Turrell’s work for a number of years, and stood in many lines to view it all over the world. Hardy says it’s been a dream of hers to bring his work, such as Gard Blue, to others.
"There's something that Turrell once said, that he's always been interested in the light that appears in dreams, and to me, this exhibition is like the light that appears in one of my dreams. It is serious and enlightening and important and life changing," Hardy says. "No work would please me more than this beautiful, elegant work that comes from the period where the ideas were just beginning to soar."
"This (Gard Blue) is the earliest, in a way, it’s my beginning of figuring out what to do and how to do it,” says James Terrell. “And it’s always interesting to see artists’ early work. And it’s interesting for me to confront that, too, (and) to come back and see it. I haven’t seen this in awhile."
An artist to be rediscovered
Terrell is 70, with a full white beard, a lined face, and keen brown eyes. During a public talk on Sunday with the artist, an audience of students, curators, artists, and academics filled the auditorium and an overflow room. Collectors Mark Booth, a KU alumnus, and his wife, Lauren, loaned Gard Blue to the museum. And Mark Booth led the conversation with Turrell.
"When would you say that the art world understood what you were up to?," asked Booth. “When do you think you started to move from the artist who was creating these new ideas, to being more established?"
"Several weeks ago, I think," Turrell replied, to laughter from the audience. "I’m one of those artists that keeps being rediscovered."
After the talk, a line snaked its way around the dark exterior of the room enclosing Gard Blue, in the middle of the museum’s Central Court. Turrell’s more recent holograms on the walls cast viewers in shades of green, red, and orange.
Reflecting on the impact of the work, and the artist
Outside the museum, contemporary art collectors Margaret and Jerry Nerman walked along the path amid the din of cicadas. Margaret Nerman says, "We wanted to see this show because we have his work in our house."
The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Overland Park, is named for the couple. Many of Turrell’s works are on public view, but some are in the homes of private collectors, like the Nermans.
"James Turrell made it in 2004. It’s a hologram," says Jerry Nerman. "It has a big projector, it’s one of the early ones. It’s a good piece, and we enjoy it."
When asked what appealed to them about Turrell’s work, Margaret Nerman replied, with a laugh, "We try to do something different."
"In a way, he’s making magic," says Lawrence based artist Yuri Zupancic, who’s stood in line twice before to view Turrell’s work. Zupancic attended the talk, but decided to return another day to see Gard Blue. He calls the artist’s visit to Lawrence a high-water mark.
"I’m inspired and so excited that the Spencer could make this happen," says Zupancic. "I’m going to be thinking about everything that James Turrell said for awhile because it exceeded all expectation."
For Turrell, the experience is primary. He says his art is one that can be collected, or paid for by others, but as a viewer, you own it.
'James Turrell: Gard Blue,' runs through August 3, 2014 at the Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas, 1301 Mississippi Street, Lawrence, Kansas. 785-864-4710.