Long before the 2013 trio of blockbuster exhibitions in New York, Houston, and Los Angeles, many lighting designers had experienced the work of James Turrell, a key figure in the “Light and Space” art movement of the 1960s, for the first time in museums. His early installations were undeniable demonstrations of the potential of light to create powerful and new perceptual experiences and they paved the way for more ambitious architectural lighting design solutions throughout the built environment.
By framing a view of the sky, viewers of Turrell’s Skyspaces, such as Meeting (1980-86/2016) at MoMA/PS1 in New York (shown), perceive shifting environmental conditions with no spatial depth. Eliminating cues of distance and scale, Turrell presents a familiar composition of passing clouds against the sky as a flattened picture, causing us to question our assumptions about the most common of lighting conditions: daylight. At dusk, a linear warm-white light source concealed behind the high bench back softly illuminates the frame of the ceiling aperture. By illuminating the Skyspace interior with a complementary color, the viewer’s perception of the shifting color of the sky is intensified as they watch the sky transform from a pale blue to a deep indigo and finally to an inky black.
Alternatively, Turrell’s wall aperture pieces, such as the Space Division Constructions he began in 1976, use light to create a disorienting spatial experience: the space beyond a rectangular aperture in the end-wall of an enclosed gallery appears infinite. Turrell creates the effect by placing a series of diffuse sources on the back surface of a knife-edge aperture, detailed so the sources remain hidden. Once the viewer’s eyes adapt to the dark environment, an illusion of infinite depth becomes visible.
Many artists have influenced lighting designers, but Turrell introduced the practice to a new way of seeing. His immersive Skyspaces and wall aperture installations created a framework for optical experiences that forever changed the way we view and experience the medium of light.
Glenn Shrum, IALD, MIES, is the founder and a principal of Flux Studio, in Baltimore, and the director and an assistant professor of Lighting Design at Parsons School of Design, in New York.