5 things you might not know about james turell: from nude gallery tours to drake's woes

As the seminal California artist opens his newest solo show at Pace Gallery’s just-opened Palo Alto space, we take a look at what makes the enigmatic master of light and space so iconic.

by Emily Manning
Apr 28 2016, 2:10pm

Today, Pace Gallery opens the first show in its new Palo Alto outpost with a solo exhibition by one of California's most iconic artists, James Turrell. The 72-year-old master of light manipulation began creating art in the late 60s, but his cult status was cemented in 2013, when three major American institutions — the LACMA, Guggenheim, and Museum of Fine Arts Houston — ran concurrent career retrospectives. Turrell's artworks are products of his expertise in physics, geology, mathematics, astronomy, and perceptual psychology (for which he holds a bachelor's degree), but they also assume a nearly indescribable spiritual dimension — he injects celestial bodies with a heavenly technicolor glow; he brings the cosmos down to Earth. While we marvel over his newest pieces, discover five things you might not know about one of America's most vibrant dreamers.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons

His first studio was an abandoned hotel: In 1967 — after spending a year in jail for teaching young men how to avoid the Vietnam war draft — Turrell moved into the Mendota, a shuttered hotel in Santa Monica's Ocean Park district. For seven years, Turrell lived on the space's second floor and used its ground level as his studio and exhibition space, conducting early light and space experiments that profoundly shape his work today. After toying with projector bulbs in the hotel's rooms, paint-sealing its windows to scratch them with narrow slits, and altering its walls to create hidden light chambers, he started making more extreme alterations to the building — like cutting holes in its ceiling. "He found that it was possible to eliminate the sense of depth, so the sky appeared to be painted directly on the ceiling," noted Wil S. Hylton in his fascinating New York Times profile of the artist. "He discovered that when he changed the color of the electric lights, he could change the apparent color of the sky."

He owns an inactive volcano in Arizona: The Mendota owners booted Turrell in 1974, so he bought a plane and took off, scanning the desert below for his next adventure. "Each evening, he would land the plane wherever he happened to be, unfurling a bedroll to sleep beneath its wing. In the morning, he was back in flight," Hylton noted. After nearly a year of searching, he found the Roden Crater, an inactive volcano surrounded by sprawling plains in Flagstaff, Arizona. Turrell managed to convince the landowners to sell him the property — a 227-square-mile active ranch — and began converting the crater into a naked eye observatory, a project that's become his life's work. Turrell has yet to open the space to the public and is famously particular about who gets to experience its majesty.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons

In fact, you can only visit if you've completed the Turrell World Tour, or have a few thousand to drop on a one-night stay: One of the world's most prolific land artists, Turrell has created works in 18 states and 23 countries across the globe. If you're a diehard fan looking to gain access to the mysterious crater, you can complete the "Turrell World Tour," aka seeing 137 works in 85 venues around the world. "Turrell World Tour will function as a passport that is signed and stamped at each of the 85 destinations. Upon completing the tour, the reader will be invited as a personal guest of the artist's to the Roden Crater," Pace noted in 2009. Don't have the time to bathe in 137 giant light rooms? $6,500 might get you to Roden. Last year, Turrell invited "serious patrons of the arts," with a spare seven G's to come experience the Crater at a sleepover fundraising event. And bonus: it's handicap accessible! Turrell converted the Crater for his friend and fellow American art icon, Chuck Close.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons

If you do want to tackle the Turrell Tour, hit up Australia, where you can see his work naked: Last year, artist Stuart Ringholt organized three extra special 50-person guided tours of Turrell's retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Canberra, offering art lovers the chance to experience the artist's work totally nude. "Naked, our whole body experiences color," Ringholt told the Huffington Post. "Nudity frees the spirit…It is educational. Education through feeling." Even more interestingly, it was the museum who reached out to Ringholt to commission the nude tours on Turrell's personal advisement. Apparently, the artist has become increasingly fascinated with nudists viewing his work after hearing about several Japanese gallery-goers electing to experience his most extreme pieces, the Perceptual Cells — self-described "invasive" and "oppressive" personal light immersion pods — totally naked.

He's "flattered to know Drake fucks with me": When Drake released his "Hotline Bling" video last October, we more or less expected that countless memes and a truly ridiculous Donald Trump video would follow it. But we definitely weren't expecting Turrell to weigh in. Though the video's creator, Director X, has repeatedly asserted Turrell's art bore no influence on his visuals, it's a little difficult to believe the artist's installations weren't on a storyboard somewhere — considering Turrell's Skyscapes have incorporated similar stair components (and Drake Instagramed his LACMA show). Nevertheless, Turrell's lawyer issued an incredible statement in response: "While I am truly flattered to learn that Drake f*cks with me, I nevertheless wish to make clear that neither I nor any of my woes was involved in any way in the making of the 'Hotline Bling' video."

'James Turrell' is on view at Pace Palo Alto until July 30, 2016. More information here


Text Emily Manning
Image via Station to Station: James Turrell - Perception

James Turrell