It's sunset on a winter day at the Brentwood home of Mandy and Cliff Einstein, the latter a trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Outside, on what had been the family's tennis court, sits a 20-foot white cube that, from the exterior, seems an unlikely candidate for a work of art. The interior is another matter.
We enter through a doorway. The walls are white, lined with inclined wooden benches. Above the benches, recessed yellowish tungsten lighting is aimed up the walls at the ceiling, which has a 12-foot-square opening that shows the sky. We sit and gaze up as the light blue sky slowly gives way to darker blue. The square of color appears to be at once incredibly deep and perfectly flat, as if it's painted on the ceiling like the sky in Giotto's "Last Judgment" at Scrovegni Chapel in Padua: a perfect illusion but for the little angels pulling at the edges of the backdrop.
Through the doorway, the sky is completely different, with less color and density. As we stare up inside, the deep blue gradually gives way to an impossibly velveteen black, a transition so seamless that we're at a loss to pinpoint the moment of change.
The artist who designed the cube, James Turrell, likes to say that night doesn't fall, it rises like a veil. The effect here is bizarre and wonderful, not unlike watching the stars come out at Joshua Tree after dropping acid--but without the saucer eyeballs and the three-day brain burn. Here you come home, pour a glass of Chardonnay, spend 40 minutes in the Turrell and still make your dinner reservation.
It is the only large-scale Turrell work on permanent display in Los Angeles, and the first to be viewed by the public in more than 10 years. But the world is about to see more Turrells. A full-scale "lightwork" opens March 16 in an installation commissioned by the cell-phone giant Nokia at the Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills.
More significantly, Turrell's monumental work in the high Arizona desert, Roden Crater, will open to the public soon (although Turrell is coy about the date, which has been postponed before). It is the product of a quarter-century of labor to convert the immense volcanic cone into an elaborate light and space installation. Could it be among the most important artworks of the 21st century?
If so, it will be a remarkable legacy for an artist who doesn't paint, sculpt or make objects that are easily bought and sold. Most of his works are too large to fit into a museum. Even the small ones can be seen only with a lot of effort. His materials are light, empty space, silence and darkness.
Those have been his media since the late 1960s, when he surfaced as a member of an obscure group of avant-garde artists living and working in Venice and Ocean Park. In the decades since, as we entered the age of celebrity artists and architects who design billion-dollar museums, Turrell became a cattle rancher and something of a recluse, one of a small group of American artists who continue to challenge the form and function of museums and their basic claim to contain the full range of contemporary art.
James Turrell has always stood out. Born in Pasadena on May 6, 1943, the son of an aerospace engineer and technical instructor, he became an Eagle Scout at 13 and Pasadena's "boy of the year" in 1960. He earned a bachelor's degree at Pomona College in perceptual psychology and also studied art and art history before attending graduate school at the Claremont Colleges.
He burst out of art school as a member of the groundbreaking Los Angeles scene of the late '60s and early '70s. This group, drawn to Venice and Ocean Park by the cheap rents, boho vibe and beach, included diverse artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Bruce Nauman, Peter Alexander, Billy Al Bengston and Ed Moses. Tagged variously as Light & Space or Finish Fetish, they pushed the bounds of art beyond even the New York minimalists of the early '60s: Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt.
The minimalists' purpose had been to rescue art from the illusionistic, emotional, tragic hero postures of the Abstract Expressionists of the postwar period and to refocus modernism's gaze on basic questions of form. Instead of making paintings that depicted some thing or feeling, they made objects that "meant" nothing beyond their literality--real things in real places in real time. "What you see is what you see," said the artist Frank Stella. Hip galleries were filled with blank cubes, square white paintings and bare fluorescent bulbs propped against the walls.
In New York City, the work was about a physical paring away, accompanied with a flourish of rhetorical pronouncements from reviewers and the artists themselves. But in Los Angeles, minimalism was a comparatively quiet movement. It was more sensual than New York minimalism, full of rich surfaces made with industrial materials such as resins, plastics and glass, and influenced by the culture of customized cars and surfboards.