Arts feature

James Turrell interview: ‘I sell blue sky and coloured air’

Martin Gayford talks to the pioneering light artist about his resplendent new show at Houghton Hall

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

James Turrell gave me extremely precise instructions. After dinner, I was to walk out through the grounds at Houghton Hall to the skyspace he has built. Here I should observe the gradual darkening above as brightness fell from the Norfolk air. At 9.40 p.m., I was to join him and the Marquess of Cholmondeley to witness the illumination Turrell has devised for the west front of the house.

So we stood in the chill air of an English summer evening and watched as a slowly changing sequence of pinks, mauves, blues and reds lit up the colonnades and Palladian windows designed in the 1720s by Colen Campbell and the domes added by James Gibbs. ‘I feel,’ Turrell remarked, ‘that buildings often have a workaday aspect that you see during the daylight hours, and a more resplendent side that emerges after dark.’

‘Resplendent’ is certainly an apt word for the metamorphosis he has worked at Houghton. Turrell’s illumination brings out the modernist simplicity of Georgian architecture, and underscores the way his own art stands in a tradition. He has embellished the great house just as a baroque firework display would have done, and transformed the entire prospect around it. As darkness increased, the colours on the stonework grew richer, and so too did the mulberries and purples of the cloudscape above.

The façade illumination is part of an exhibition of works at Houghton, LightScape (until October 24), which also includes an array of works by the artists that have been collected by David Cholmondeley over the years. Turrell has been at work here before. The skyspace, entitled ‘Seldom Seen’ — hidden away behind the hedges of Charles Bridgeman’s formal park — dates from 2002 (pictured below) and ‘St Elmo’s Breath’, installed inside a Georgian water tower, from 1992.


Turrell is an artist who works in light. ‘I sell blue sky and coloured air,’ he exclaimed once to me. ‘It is actually done!’ But what he really does is not market empty space, but make light as palpable as a painting or a sculpture. The East Anglia evening, as seen from inside his skyspace, became something like a ceiling fresco or an oil study by Constable.

Turrell loves twilight. He calls it the ‘sweet spot’ between day and night. And, in general, he takes pleasure in what he calls ‘the thingness of light, the physicality of it, when you actually feel it in the air’. That, he went on, ‘is how we experience light in a dream, very suffused and radiating off people, filling space’.It appeared almost flat on the ceiling — an effect created by the way Turrell balances internal illumination against the fading sun (he advised us to stick our heads through the door from time to time to compare this with the much less intense hues visible outside). But if the skyspace suggested a Tiepolo, it was a picture that constantly moved and changed, a pink tinge appearing or disappearing, clouds drifting, clear blue turning sombre purple.


Indeed, encountering a Turrell can be a little dreamlike. On view at Houghton, for example, are several of his pieces in which a light is projected into the corner of a room so that a regular solid — a pyramid, a cube — seems to materialise before your eyes. It simultaneously is and isn’t there. Looking at ‘Shirim’ (2015), one of his tall glass series, is a little like watching an animated Mark Rothko (pictured below). Soft shapes and colours slowly shift and morph in an indeterminate space behind the transparent surface.


Turrell’s medium of choice, light, makes his work both radical and rooted deep in the past. He traces his artistic antecedents back into prehistory. These include the creators of a 5,000-year-old mound at Newgrange in Ireland, who made sure the sun’s rays would shine directly into the passageway at the winter solstice. So an 18th-century English mansion comes easily into his remit.

Turrell hails from Pasadena, Arizona, where he sited his most wildly ambitious scheme (pictured below) — the transformation of an extinct volcano into a colossal combination of contemporary art work and astronomical observatory (models and photographs of the project are on view at Houghton).

Turrell at Roden Crater
Turrell at Roden Crater

When I arrived and sat down with Turrell to drink some tea in a majestic Palladian room, he told me something of his background. His Quaker ancestors left Northumberland for Ireland in the time of Oliver Cromwell before eventually sailing to the New World.

His grandmother’s injunction at Quaker meetings to ‘go inside and greet the light’ has often been suggested as an inspiration for his life’s work. When I ask him whether his art has a spiritual meaning, however, he only half agrees. ‘In a way, light unites the spiritual world and the ephemeral, physical world. People frequently talk about spiritual experiences using the vocabulary of light: Saul on the road to Damascus, near-death experiences, samadhi or the light-filled void of Buddhist enlightenment. I don’t think my work is about the spiritual life, but it certainly touches on it.’

Raethro Red
James Turrell’s Raethro Red (1968)

There is, however, another practical and technical aspect to Turrell (the combination of the nuts-and-bolts and the visionary is one of the most American things about him). He has had a pilot’s licence since he was 16. His first subject was psychology. You don’t talk to him for long without straying into astronomy, the science of perception or meteorology.

In Houghton, he quickly launched into a rhapsody on the subject of English damp. He loves it, or more precisely, he is partial to the effect that has on our national light. ‘This is an island in the middle of the sea, and you really sense that; the moisture holds the light and softens it, towards evening you get amazing blushes in the sky.’ (I saw some of those later on.)

Turrell is unfashionably nostalgic about the vanished smog of London — and also of his native Los Angeles. ‘Coal smoke made for much greater fogs and mists,’ he declared. ‘The thickening of the air and wonderful softening of the light.’ At this point, he diverts into a technical explanation: such vapour will normally appear within three or four degrees of dew-point, but at higher temperatures if there are particles in the air around which it can form.

Then he turned back to art. ‘Whistler very much loved the fogs of the Thames, and Monet did too — mist really made an impressionist’s life — but the most prescient was Turner.’ Now 72, Turrell sports a magnificent white beard and moustache, which give him the air of a genial sage and bring to mind Monet (though without the latter’s nicotine stains). But it is Turner, a great painter of sunset and dawn, to whom Turrell often returns in conversation.


He also came to mind when we walked out of Houghton and encountered the setting sun, streaming golden rays across the park, in a way irresistibly reminiscent of Turner’s paintings of Petworth. Of course, there is a long history of the artist in the English country house, into which Turrell has consciously fitted himself. When he was younger, one of his problems, he told me, was how to produce saleable works.

Many of his light pieces were not only intangible, but also — paradoxically — rather bulky. ‘If they required at a minimum your whole living room and maybe your backyard too, was it any wonder why my works didn’t sell like hot cakes? Because I always have to make a space that protects the light, presents it for our perception. So I thought I would make follies, those could sell.’ And Britain, he adds, is ‘a good country for follies’.

The work at Houghton could be thought of as contemporary follies but, like the best of those, they are also objects of beauty that invite contemplation. Though products of the 21st-century avant-garde, they fit comfortably into this Palladian masterpiece: an example of contemporary art entirely suited to a venerable setting.

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  • Callipygian

    According to the artist’s website, he was born in California, not Arizona (even though there is indeed a Pasadena, Arizona). It also tells us that he was born in L. A. and attended Pasadena high school (in Los Angeles): this clears up my confusion!

  • MildredCLewis



  • justlookin

    Those not held back by boarding a one hour flight to Europe will have the chance to enjoy a permanent Turrell collection at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover. I know, it doesn’t sound fancy does it.