Sculptor and designer. Known for ethereal museum installations using light as a medium, he has also been engaged for more than thirty years with the transformation of Arizona's Roden Crater into an enormous celestial observatory. The completed project will use light from the sky to pursue on a vast scale his foremost project, elucidating the nature and effects of the visual experience itself. Born in Los Angeles, in 1965 James Archie Turrell received a bachelor's degree in mathematics and psychology from Pomona College in nearby Claremont. That fall he enrolled in graduate school to study art at the University of California at Irvine, where his teachers included John McCracken and British-born artist, writer, and Artforum staffer John Coplans (1920–2003), later also a photographer. In 1966 Turrell realized his first light piece with a high-intensity beam projected across the corner of a room to create the illusion of a shining, three-dimensional cube. Before the end of the academic year Turrell left Irvine, although in 1974 he earned a master's degree from Claremont Graduate School. Working on his own in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, where he maintained a studio until 1974, he experimented with effects that could be achieved on a flat wall with projection techniques. In its simplicity this work related to minimalism, and its dematerialization suggested conceptual art. But the seductive, almost magical effects of the projected light pieces provided an altogether different expressive tenor from that of the cerebral and austere New York-based movements. In 1968 Turrell met Robert Irwin, who soon involved him in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Art and Technology Program. This project paired the two artists with physiological psychologist Edward Wortz, giving them access to scientific input into their study of visual fields. Turrell participated for about eighteen months. He then developed a succession of mechanisms for creating illusions of space, by employing colored light, or for enhancing perception of real space, by cutting unexpected apertures, usually in ceilings, to permit views of the heavens from interior “skyspaces,” as he calls them.
Searching for a symmetrical, truncated, extinct volcano, in 1974 Turrell discovered the isolated Roden Crater, his subsequent obsession. Its bowl, today smoothed out but not much altered, physically completes what visitors to its center will perceive as the interior of a perfect sphere above. Viewers will be able to lie on their backs for a glimpse into space as never quite before seen. A hole in the base of the bowl allows light into the interior, which contains passageways and other rooms, some lighted by apertures aligned with the movements of the sun and moon. Although Turrell's effects have often been interpreted in mystical terms, he refutes such claims with the assertion that “My art is about your seeing.” The Quaker childhood that may have predisposed his fascination with outer as well as inner light resurfaced in the late 1990s, when he designed a Quaker meetinghouse in Houston. This experience generated a new interest in simplified domestic furnishings. In recent years, he has split his time between his home near Flagstaff and Ireland, where he has worked with a potter and a cabinetmaker, developing a line of Wedgwood-inflected black basalt tableware that enhances the design of his crisply elegant cherry wood furniture.