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Turn on the light

Special to The Times

FOR nearly 40 years, James Turrell has been making art out of little more than thin air -- at least that’s how his indoor and outdoor installations feel when you give yourself over to their dazzling attractions. Think of his super-refined Minimalism as a spa for consciousness: an urbane oasis and thinking citizen’s entertainment center all rolled into one impeccably designed whole that is both elegant and spectacular.

Turrell’s newest project -- and first public installation in Southern California -- is what has come to be known as a “Skyspace,” a sophisticated architectural structure that doesn’t call attention to itself but humbly serves anyone who passes through it. Titled “Dividing the Light,” this open-air pavilion on the campus of his alma mater, Pomona College, goes out of its way to make whatever time you spend with it satisfying, whether you’re an enthusiastic pilgrim who has traveled far to experience Turrell’s work or a casual passerby who just happens upon it. The longer you linger, the more you experience.

During the day, its red granite benches, black granite floor, serene reflecting pool, sleek metal columns and gently curved canopy provide a relaxing escape from everyday busyness. The seemingly weightless steel canopy shades the comfortable seats and forms a frame around a big square of sky.

The magic happens at sunset, sunrise and on every hour throughout the night. Hidden LED lights illuminate the canopy from below. Turrell has programmed them to shift in intensity at twilight and dawn, depending on the season and time. This causes the sky that is visible through the nearly 16-foot-square opening to appear to be palpable -- less like a distant dome sprinkled with stars and more like a velvety chunk of color close enough to reach out and touch. At night, the canopy is softly illuminated. Every hour, the lights flicker and shift, in what Turrell calls “the visual equivalent of church bells chiming.”

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Every night is different, depending on the weather, the smog, your mood. What is constant is Turrell’s capacity to pull experiences of sensual refinement out of the heavens -- to make down-to-earth, experience-it-for-yourself art out of light and space -- and to get visitors not only interested in the subtleties of our perceptions but thrilled by the wonder of it all.

Light is something of an obsession for Turrell. “From the very beginning,” he says, “I was very interested just in light, and art seemed to be a way to work with it. If you think about art, if you look at Rembrandt and Vermeer and Caravaggio, if you look at Turner and Constable and all the Impressionists and the Hudson River School, there’s a tradition of light in art, especially painting. So in that respect [what I do] is nothing unusual. It’s just that I didn’t want to do a work that was about light, I wanted to do a work that was light. That’s a sort of American, direct viewpoint.”

The desire for directness reflects a way of thinking that infuses Turrell’s world view and, below the studied beauty, gives his work a resonance that carries it into the realm of the political. First, though, comes the experience of the light.

At the Pomona College Museum of Art, a yearlong exhibition features a selection of Turrell’s interior works. It includes a dozen or so models of sci-fi buildings designed for particular perceptual experiences and a pair of high-tech “paintings,” sheets of glass embedded in the walls and illuminated, from behind, by slowly shifting fields of color, like space-age Mark Rothkos or huge, tranquillity-inducing screen-savers.

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The centerpiece is a room reached by walking down an unlighted corridor toward a doorway out of which blue light pours. To step across the threshold is to be immersed in light and to stand, face to face, with a wall-size rectangle of blueness that seems to reach infinity.

Turrell has designed “End Around” to undermine depth perception, curving the room’s corners, ramping the floor and painting every square inch of its interior bright snowy white. The immediate effect is spectacular and trippy. But it eventually settles into a type of serenity that is as stimulating as it is soothing. The piece slows you down, then lets you savor unexpected details, like the way the blue light becomes pink at the periphery of your vision or the way your body seems to be drifting without your feet leaving the ground.

Turrell says: “Basically I think anything that develops over time has a certain richness. It’s how thoughts develop. Even epiphanies have things that go before them that help ease them on their way -- which is often finally putting it all together after you have known it for a long time, seeing it differently. That’s always wonderful. We make our reality with such great assumptions that sometimes it’s nice to question those assumptions. Those are things I enjoy.”

His largest work, Roden Crater, has been developing over time. It is something of a legend: a nearly completed complex of chambers, tunnels and viewing rooms that Turrell has been carving out of an extinct volcano for nearly 30 years, changing the design -- and postponing the finishing date -- since 2000.

He purchased the 600-foot-high elliptical cinder cone in 1977. To ensure that the view from it remains pristine, he has bought or holds the grazing rights to 156 square miles of land around it. It is on the edge of the Painted Desert, about 40 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz., where Turrell has lived since 1979, when he is not traveling around the world for exhibitions, installations and appearances that keep the construction of his multimillion-dollar masterpiece going.

Not the pushy sort

As an influential member of Southern California’s first internationally recognized art movement, Light and Space, Turrell is known for combining the optimism of sunny California with a touch of Zen transcendence and a bit of the feel-good hedonism of beach and movie culture. But there’s more to his work than that. Its radically passive nature, its refusal to convey messages or to tell you what to make of it, embodies a deep moral ethos that goes back to the ‘60s and his antiwar activism.

Before Turrell had made a name for himself as an artist, he was drafted, served in the military and returned to the West Coast, where he began graduate studies in art at UC Irvine. Turrell the Vietnam vet became active in the peace movement, working on a committee that provided information and counsel to conscientious objectors and other draftees who opposed the war.

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Informing citizens about their options was perfectly legal. Encouraging them to take any kind of action was not. “We knew better,” Turrell recalls, “than ever to try to convince someone to take a particular path because then you are party to a crime. Of course it is true that we were trying to get people off as conscientious objectors, if they came anywhere near meeting that kind off criteria or even perhaps stretching the criteria.”

It was 1966. Turrell had graduated from Pomona College the year before with a bachelor’s degree in perceptual psychology. He was a 23-year-old Quaker advising 18-year-olds from all walks of life. “You might be surprised,” he says, “what you say over a period of six months. There was a couple. I took the woman to be the man’s mother. She was not. She was an FBI agent.”

The 18-year-old had not been receiving notices sent by the government. But the letters, Turrell says, “were made up. Everything [the couple] said was in truth a lie, and they just wanted to find me saying one thing -- that I thought he should do this. I was positive I never had, I told my lawyer I never had, and then they had a tape of me out in the parking lot and apparently I said this is what he should do. And that was enough. I was arrested and served time in prison. They essentially convicted me of a treasonable offense.

“The truth is, everything I was convicted of I had done, and much more. It’s just that I had a certain kind of self-righteousness.”

That self-righteousness might have mellowed over the last 40 years. It certainly has matured.

In person, Turrell is a soft-spoken charmer who doesn’t suffer fools and is quick to laugh at human folly. He is a salt-of-the-earth dreamer whose youthful convictions are not only intact but a passionate part of his thinking. They are as much a part of his art as its deliberate engineering, its “oh wow!” theatricality and insistence on unhurried, see-for-yourself experience. He is never one to preach, and his art is as anti-authoritarian as his politics.

In a wide-ranging conversation at Griffin Contemporary Exhibitions, Turrell’s Santa Monica gallery, he concluded the story of his incarceration by saying, “I don’t think a democracy should have a mercenary force that is voluntary because it becomes very much like a banana republic, where the military is actually a political arm. I mean, these are total Pollyanna kinds of viewpoints, but I subscribe to them. And art is another one.”

Take it to go

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Turrell’s art might be optimistic, but it is far from naive. Ultimately, all of his works are vehicles for experience. As an artist -- or a designer or sculptor or architect or landscape engineer -- Turrell is less interested in the objects or installations he makes than in what they do to a visitor’s consciousness. You take the most important part of his art with you. It’s free. And impossible to buy and sell.

Turrell is also a perfectionist, and a stickler for details. “Dividing the Light” is a $2.26-million project that occupies a public space and is subject to all the rules and regulations -- not to mention approvals and committee consensuses -- of university and city governance. It was constructed in collaboration with consulting architects Marmol Radziner + Associates, AIA and Amazing Steel.

The result is one of the best works of public art in recent memory, an abstract work in which religion and politics intermingle.

The spiritual associations people sometimes bring to Turrell’s art are OK by him. “If you think of the world as a spiritual experience,” he says, “this doesn’t bother me. Artists have long been doing this. It is in their job description.”

But he keeps institutional affiliations out: “I’m not supporting any particular brand names,” he says, “It’s just important to me that people treasure light. I mean, you can treasure a painting, say a church painting, with the quality of light that is remarkable, but you still have the object to venerate and also to prosper from. Light is a physical thing. But we don’t treat it that way or think of it that way.”

Turrell is equally open to political interpretations of his work. “It would seem to be a political statement,” he says. “And of course if you are a Quaker and have involved yourself with political aspects before, people have that tendency to think that everything you do in your life is a political statement.

“We vote with our lives, it’s true. And I think that it’s enough to just be an artist because that is a statement right there, saying what you believe in, in what you want to see go forward and what you love and your interests and your passions -- and if that’s art, that is a statement.”

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James Turrell’s “Dividing the Light” is located on the Pomona College campus at the corner of 6th Street and College Way in Claremont. “James Turrell at Pomona College” is on view through May 17 at the Pomona College Museum of Art. For information, see www.pomona.edu/museum or call (909) 621-8283.


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