James Turrell, "Breathing Light," 2013 (Florian Holzherr )
"James Turrell: A Retrospective" is a bit like a dinner party at which the guest of honor is absent. Family members and friends are there, plus lots of conversation about the one who's missing. But the primary impetus for the get-together couldn't make it.
The missing guest, of course, is Roden Crater — the much written-about volcano in the Northern Arizona desert that the artist has been converting into an elaborate, celestial observatory since he located the dramatic site more than 40 years ago.
The exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art includes extensive documentation of the ongoing project, in the form of models, drawings, plans, photographs and video. (A separate exhibition about Roden Crater is also at Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery.) When it might be completed is not known.
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But the show gives a good sense of Turrell's artistic trajectory, primarily from 10 abstract light-installations that explore perceptual phenomena. His work quickly built on innovations by slightly older Light and Space artists Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler. (Who did what, when, is often contested.) The earliest piece dates from 1966, while the most recent one was commissioned for the retrospective.
"Afrum (White)" (1966) is an intense beam of white light from a projector hidden in the ceiling, which creates an illusion of geometric form in a corner across the room. "Breathing Light" (2013) is a walk-in environment — an elevated white room with curved corners, reached by climbing an imposing stairway and flooded with indescribable colors from a computer-driven sequence of changing electric lights.
In both works, the art finally exists within a viewer's eye, rather than outside it. Looking at an artwork gives way to being immersed within its perceptual gymnastics and, finally, seeing oneself see.
Light, the essential ingredient for sight, is Turrell's principal medium. Spiritual perception is his art's aim. The ancient metaphor of light as the engine of enlightenment is conjured in a modern way.
It's easy to get lost in that metaphor too, given its affinities for the vague abstractions of New Age spirituality. The irreverent jokes come easily, as a light-besotted visitor wonders whether the museum shop will be carrying medical marijuana or if Roden Crater is the world's biggest hot tub. And sometimes the art is overwhelmed by science, with a viewer feeling reduced to the helpless condition of lab rat.
Yet, spiritual perception has a long tradition in American art. It dates at least to the mid-19th century.
"I become a transparent eyeball," Ralph Waldo Emerson deliriously wrote in "Nature," his celebrated 1836 essay on transcendentalist philosophy. "I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me — I am part or particle of God."
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Painters such as Fitz Henry Lane, Martin Johnson Heade and John Frederick Kensett organized their landscape views according to mathematical principles of geometry, infusing the idealized forms with exquisite luminosity. In fact, one way to think about Turrell's work is as the illumination of an interior landscape, rather than the external one of his painting forebears.
However, in addition to paintings like Lane's or Kensett's, a different mid-19th century development seems very much to the point. Turrell's art resonates with the 1839 invention of photography, sometimes called "the art of fixing shadows."
The long arc of camera history exploded in the 1960s, when Turrell's work began to coalesce. Inexpensive Polaroids made "fixing shadows" common and instantaneous; digital cameras waited in the wings to join analog ones for amateur use; and, a spellbound world watched live pictures of an extraterrestrial man walking on the moon, bathed in reflected light. Cameras became the image technology defining contemporary life.
Turrell's retrospective even starts with a camera, though you'll need to look closely to find it. Documentation describes "The Mendota Stoppages," a pivotal environment Turrell developed from 1969 to 1974. Rooms in an old Santa Monica hotel were sealed off, the window apertures controlled by the artist to allow natural and artificial light to enter the darkened spaces in specific ways.
The piece was long ago dismantled (the building now houses a Starbucks). But "The Mendota Stoppages" was essentially a giant camera obscura, a rudimentary image-making device as old as Aristotle.
"Afrum (White)," the mesmerizing and beautiful projection piece in the second gallery, shows how conceptually dizzying Turrell's best work can be. A six-sided geometric shape is projected into the corner of a white room.
PHOTOS: James Turrell, shaper of light