The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
(MFAH), builds on its longstanding commitment to the work of James Turrell with the recent acquisition of a dozen light-based works by the renowned American artist. Turrell titled the grouping Vertical Vintage; the retrospective selection reflects the full arc of Turrells engagement with artificial light, ranging from his first mid-1960s projections to his most recent Tall Glass series.
Vertical Vintage is part of an on-going partnership established by the MFAH and James Turrell, said MFAH interim director Gwendolyn H. Goffe. This project evolved out of many conversations Peter C. Marzio had with the artist, and reflects Dr. Marzios absolute commitment to excellence.
James Turrell worked closely with the MFAH staff and board of trustees as we defined the parameters of this major acquisition, commented Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH curator for contemporary art and special projects. Special thanks are also due to Hiram Butler, of Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston, who has represented the artist for close to two decades, as well as to his former associate Devin Borden. Building from an initial proposal, we chose decisively to create an in-depth representation of Turrells career, complementing our rich holdings of his prints, photographs, and the beloved The Light Inside installation in the Wilson tunnel. This masterpiece, which was acquired through the generosity of Isabel B. and Wallace S. Wilson, has been delighting MFAH visitors since the opening of the Audrey Jones Beck building in 2000.
Born in Los Angeles, Turrell attended Pomona College, where his studies concentrated on psychology and mathematics; he then enrolled in the fine arts program at Claremont Graduate School, where he received an MFA in 1966. In the mid 1960s Turrell began to be associated with a group of artists, including Robert Irwin and Bruce Nauman, who pioneered what came to be known as the Light and Space Movement. Turrell began his experiments with artificial and natural light in a modest storefront studio in the Ocean Park district of Santa Monica in California, seeking to use light itself as his material. Using a projector, he cast a highly focused light beam across a room onto a mural surface. Where the light hit the wall (or corner) it became a sharply rendered geometric form, both defining and dissolving the space around it. These images have been eloquently described by John Coplans as having considerable iconic power . . . the compelling sensuousness of the light and its inexhaustible brilliance are almost hypnotic. The fact that the light source is a mundane tool that is not concealed from the viewer does not rationalize the total effect but adds to its vividness and mysteriousness.
Concurrent with his first projection pieces, Turrell also began a series of works dependent on external and natural light sources. He cut a series of negative shapes from the blocked-off windows of his Mendota Hotel studio through which light could enter the darkened interior. Turrell found that these apertures would subtly amplify changing daylight, as well as street lights and car headlights in the evening. He took a particular interest the colored light sources and in ways of projecting and absorbing their hues into the rooms of the building.
In the 1970s Turrell developed a number of installations that heightened the relationship between light and the architectural frame. The resulting series of Light Spaces, Shallow-Space Constructions, and Wedges manipulated light so that the viewer becomes aware of light as an elemental force and as a plastic material primary to the existence of color. Standing within one of these spaces is a wonderful and even transcendent experience. In 1977 Turrell initiated what would be his most ambitious project, the transformation of Roden Crater, outside Flagstaff, Arizona, into a complex site-specific installation which would both frame the sky and chart the movements of the sun, moon, and stars.
Over the past three decades, Turrell has continued to refine and expand his exploration of light and space, gaining international recognition. This month (March 2011), The American Academy of Arts and Letters announced Turrells election to the organization and later this year, Turrells work will be included in the 54th Venice Biennale, within the ILUMMInations pavilion curated by art historian and critic Bice Curiger. Turrell has also been featured in solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Smithsonian Institute; de Young Museum; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Moderna Museet; and Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg.