A glossary of ways in which the spectrum can be layered, thickened, smoothed, and blended, the art of James Turrell has the sort of beauty that is fed by social media but, at the same time, floats above it. Since 2013, the year of the artist’s three colossal museum retrospectives (at LACMA, M.F.A. Houston, and the Guggenheim), Turrell’s work has inspired endless selfies, memes, and articles with titles like “A Quick Look at James Turrell, the 72-Year-Old Artist Who Inspired Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ Video.” Somehow, the retweets don’t cheapen the originals. Turrell’s light installations—currently the subject of a major exhibition at Museo Jumex, in Mexico City—seem even more singular. (A London show on the artist opens at Pace Gallery on February 11.)
Few artists make critics feel so bad at their jobs. Turrell, who graduated from Pomona College in 1965 with a degree in perceptual psychology, uses an assortment of lighting effects that waver somewhere between very-difficult-to-put-into-words and impossible. He fills his installation sites, ranging from roofless little rooms to the entire Guggenheim rotunda, with otherworldly glows. At his headiest, he uses colored light the way Van Gogh used paint, caking it on until you forget what’s near and what’s far, what’s solid and what’s air. This can be overwhelming, but more often his work feels gentle and intimate, as if your senses are being politely dimmed instead of drowned.
Discussions of Turrell’s art tend to take on an uncommonly religious air: the experiences he gives you, partly because they’re so difficult to articulate, come to feel sublime, even divine. But sooner or later even Turrell acolytes have to think about the crasser side of art superstardom—money, corporate sponsorship, celebrity cronies, and the like. Last November, Turrell accepted $10 million from Kanye West for the completion of Roden Crater, an extinct volcano he’s spent the last three decades polishing and perforating with tunnels so that it may one day function as a vast naked-eye observatory. You could interpret this kind of anecdote as a sign that Turrell’s projects are overblown or constrained by their blockbuster bulk. But I see Turrell’s recent career, like Kanye’s, as a productive dialogue between the worldly and spiritual halves of art. If a Turrell exhibition is a kind of church, it’s the Vegas chapel where buzzed couples get married at three A.M. But it’s still a church. —Jackson Arn