Those who know L.A light consider it unique. This was the light that drew early moviemakers to Hollywood, thrilled by how it pinned the needles of their light meters. This is the light that has tourists squinting, groping for sunglasses, even in January. Blazing above the open grid, this is the light that greets you at the airport, assuring you — especially if you were grew up here and fled — that you are back in L.A. Everything will be brighter now, every object crisply shadowed, every color a postcard of itself. Unless the smog thickens and coastal haze lingers. Then L.A. light filters into pastels silhouetted by palms. But on such days, only wait until sunset to see the brightest pinks and oranges any horizon has to offer. Paris glitters. Rome glares. New York shifts in shadow. But as native Lawrence Wechsler noted, “L.A. glows.” This light, made by the juxtaposition of ocean, desert, and urban sprawl, is not simply a light to see. It must be absorbed.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, L.A.’s light became its own palette. The artists of the movement called Light and Space did not merely capture radiance on canvas. They molded light, sculpted it, framed it. They let it command open walls and vacant rooms. Convinced that light is perceived as much as presented, they toyed with human vision, creating after-images and contrasting colors that some found wondrous and others unnerving. Light and Space artists spoke of their work as “light encasements” and “light entrapments.” “Nothing should hang on a wall,” Maria Nordman said. “The walls are reserved for the sun.” As Light and Space exhibitions spread to New York and London, critics recognized this novel use. “Light turns into a new kind of material,” a London critic wrote. “New kinds of material are fused into light.”
Light and Space was not the first movement to make light its medium. By 1965, Dan Flavin had fashioned neon tubes into geometrical sculptures. Others had screwed incandescent bulbs into canvases or bent fluorescents around steel. But Light and Space used light, not light bulbs, as its found object. Among those who noticed was architect Frank Gehry: “Light is something that every architect talks about but seldom deals with well,” Gehry said. “Artists in L.A. gave us a lesson in that.”
The lesson was team taught. Bruce Nauman suffused narrow spaces with a neon glow and dared museum goers to walk through the garish light. Maria Nordman shot lasers across dark rooms or opened gallery walls, allowing sunlight to come in and play. Mary Corse mixed paint with prismatic beads that made her “White Light Paintings” change color as the viewer moved. Robert Irwin emptied entire rooms, then crafted openings that highlighted the vagaries of natural light. Many thought Irwin’s rooms were empty and walked right through, yet no one ever ignored the light of Light and Space’s most celebrated member, James Turrell.
Growing up in Pasadena, Turrell was surrounded by the “bioluminscent-lichen-light of urban Los Angeles” but his Quaker family urged him to pursue “the light inside.” Turrell’s studies in psychology — notably optics and perception — led to art school where he began to use light as a shape-shifter. First he aimed a standard slide projector at a dark corner. Adjusting the angle to heighten the illusion, Turrell created a floating cube of light whose angles turned and teased the strolling viewer. “Afrum (White),” still featured in Turrrell’s retrospectives, offered a light never before seen in art – light as an object, an illusion so real it demanded to be touched. “You don’t need us,” one professor told Turrell. “Go be an artist.” In 1966, Turrell moved to Santa Monica where he continued to sculpt with light. “It took awhile to get a handle on how to work light,” Turrell recalled. “You don’t carve it away like wood or stone. So getting to work with is almost like making the instrument that helps you form it. . . . more like sound, like music.”
In the smog and sun of Santa Monica, Turrell tapped another L.A. radiance — the ubiquitous traffic and tail lights – to create “Mendota Stoppages.” The performance piece turned his studio into a gallery where outdoor lights danced across bare walls. Turrell likened the “stoppages” to Plato’s cave, where the world is projected in mirror-image. Then in 1968, Turrell experimented with sensory deprivation chambers, sitting for hours in silent darkness. He also studied the Ganzfeld. Discovered by German psychologists in the 1930s, the Ganzfeld (“entire field”) floods a viewer with a uniform, monochromatic light, creating a visual deprivation that can cause hallucinations. Turrell began crafting Ganzfeld installations that suffused viewers with soft violets or swimming pool blues. The effect was mesmerizing, disturbing, and on one occasion, dangerous. Walking through a Turrell exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, one woman leaned against a wall. But the wall was pure light. She fell and broke her wrist. A lawsuit left Turrell determined to show such work only outside the litigious United States.
Now in his seventies, soft-spoken and cerebral with a bushy white beard, Turrell seems a curious blend pre-Socratic philosopher and light-enthralled monk. “We eat light” he often says, “drink it in through our skins.” His best-known works are his skyscapes, open ceilings that frame the sky, letting sun and stars change the gallery lighting. He hopes to someday have skyscapes in all two dozen time zones so that one or another “would always be coming into the sweet spot of twilight.” With seventy-five skyscapes spread from Norway to Argentina to Japan, he might realize his goal. A more elusive project is Roden Crater.
In 1974, Turrell left his studio and took to the air. For seven months, he flew his small plane across the Western United States seeking a platform for his expanding vision. He finally found an extinct volcano fifty miles northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. Backed by the Dia Art Foundation, Turrell purchased the crater and began sketching plans. He expected the Roden Crater Project to be done by 1990, but it is still in progress. Though the site is closed to the public, a few lucky critics have toured it and come away awestruck. Here is the pedestal celestial light has long deserved.
Using foundation funding, including a MacArthur Genius grant, Turrell has transformed Roden Crater into a post-modern Stonehenge. Deep tunnels channel natural light through keyholes of receding radiance. Roden’s Sun and Moon Space glows with a vertical disc filtering moon- or sunlight. Turrell’s East Portal features a staircase ascending to an oval skyspace. Elsewhere, a stone seat faces Polaris, the North Star. From beneath the spinning sky, the viewer senses his own motion through the cosmos. “Turrell’s ultimate skylight,” art historian Michael Auping said, is “an architecture made for the sky.”
Turrell does not know whether he will live to finish the project. Plans for Phase Two are done, he noted, leaving Roden Crater to perhaps become “someone else’s obsession.” But even unfinished, the crater stands as a paean to light on par with the observatories of the ancients. “Roden Crater has knowledge in it and it does something with that knowledge,” Turrell said. “It is an eye, something that is itself perceiving. . . .It has visions, qualities and a universe of possibilities.” Construction continues.