Light is a powerful substance. We have a primal connection to it. But, for something so powerful, situations for its presence are fragile. I like to work with it so that you feel it physically, so you feel the presence of light inhabiting a space. I want to employ sunlight, moonlight, and starlight to empower a work of art.

- James Turrell, from Occluded Front: James Turrell (Los Angeles: Fellows of Contemporary Art and Lapis Press, 1985)

Noted artist James Turrell is featured in an exhibition, Knowing Light, at the Henry Art Gallery on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. The exhibition includes Light Reign, a permanent work in the Skyspace series, which resides in the museum's sculpture court. This and several other pieces in the exhibit are the latest in Turrell's exploration of light, ambience and perception.

There is a striking, if not profound, kinship between the work of James Turrell and the use of lighting in architecture. In its purest sense, architectural lighting is the careful manipulation of light and color to support the visual needs and complement the perceptual intent of functional buildings. Turrell taps the ability of light to affect perception and creates environmental situations in which light is free of the boundaries of function, able to be what the viewer perceives. For those experienced in architectural lighting, viewing Turrell is to enjoy an inspiration in our commonly held medium of light.

Turrell is considered a member of the light and space art movement. The artist's works have been shown in over 100 solo and numerous group exhibitions in top museums throughout the world since the late 1960s. He has been the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, an Arizona Visual Arts Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is the winner of the Wolf Prize (Israel, 1998), the Arizona Governor's Award (1997), the Friedrich Prize (Germany, 1992) and the Chevalier (France, 1991). He was also recognized with a Lumen Award from the IESNA New York in 1981.

In 2004, Turrell will complete the first phase of a life's work, an amazing construction at Roden Crater in northern Arizona. A 'vast composition of corridors to funnel celestial lighting into spaces beneath the volcano's cone,' the Roden Crater project represents an investment of over $21 million dollars and 30 years. The result, when the entire project is completed later this decade, will be a modern Stonehenge, a place where the light of cosmic alignment is celebrated in a composition of almost overwhelming scale. Indeed, Roden Crater will be one of the most important art works of the decade, if not the new century.

But back here on earth, the current exhibition includes three temporary environmental works, plus a small collection of drawings, and the plans and models for Roden Crater. Each of the environmental works is a successor to Turrell's dramatic artistic history, representing the latest, best and boldest of his experiences in light and perception. Kemo Sabe, from the Magnetron series, employs the diffused image of a television screen; Shaeffner, a 'spectral wedgework' from his Milk Run series, consists of a wedge wall in a rectangular space, illuminated by slits of light as though through a cracked door; and Spread, the largest piece, is a blue illuminated ganzfeld (broad field) wall on one end of a white box room, from his Wide Out series. But the biggest attraction and most ambitious work is Light Reign, built in celebration of the Henry's 75th anniversary.


Once inside Light Reign, one is encouraged to sit and look up-much as a lighting designer would do upon walking into an interesting room. A luminous ellipse dominates the ceiling's center, with the adjacent ceiling and upper walls illuminated by a continuous neon cove. This piece is elliptical in plan, but Turrell has also created square and rectangular Skyspace installations, including Unseen Blue (2002) at Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory.

By day, the roof opens and the viewer sees sky and clouds; by night, the aperture is closed and illuminated by blue neon. The color contrast between the warm neon cove (about 2800K) and the blue is dramatic: The walls take on the color of a gradient dissolved between the two. One stares at the blue field, experiencing the perceptual possibilities and the feeling of a place that is simply 'light.'

Unlike other Skyspace pieces, which are either interior volumes or solid walled structures, the Seattle work is a building, an elliptical cylinder sitting atop two concrete columns. An aluminum frame supporting vertical facets of backlighted acrylic forms its exterior skin.

The acrylic backlighting is the star of the show. Using a state-of-the-art LED color-changing system, the entire cylinder slowly transforms its exterior color as the viewer watches. The detailing is superb, without a hint of hot spot or striation. This glowing, color-changing sculpture/architecture actually seems at home in the garden, floating in front of the older portion of the gallery, and complementary to the more recent Gwathmey Siegel-designed addition and adjacent entry structure.

However, pondering the color-changing walls, one might ask, haven't I seen this somewhere before? The Color Kinetics lighting system performs flawlessly. But it is reminiscent of building façade projects in New York City and Chicago. The exterior of Skyspace is not Turrell at all, but rather, a well-executed commercial lighting demonstration.

Since architectural lighting is the manipulation of light and perception, a blurring of the distinction between Turrell's art and the modern profession of lighting design was overdue. Turrell has envisioned and pursued the unfolding ability to control light so successfully as to make light-based perceptual psychology and perceptual art possible. But equally, for those of us who design buildings, it is a reminder and inspiration of the capabilities of light and space, and the extent to which, through design, we can affect perception.