James Turrell — Painter of Light


A lot of representational painters describe themselves as painters of light. Wasn’t that Thomas Kincade’s logline? But let’s be honest, even though we know what they mean, the idea is a misnomer. All representational painters paint the effect of light. Otherwise what could they be painting?

But James Turrell actually does paint, or perhaps more correctly, although I’m not sure, sculpts with light. Literally.

Turrell’s masterwork will be Roden Crater. I wanted to visit it in 1988. But it cost $1000 and I didn’t have it. Whatever it costs now, and it’s a lot, I still can’t afford it.

He has turned an extinct volcanic cone in the desert north of Flagstaff, Arizona, into a spiritual/astronomical laboratory/sculpture that may go down as the most important artwork of the Twentieth century (hopefully beating out Duchamp’s Fountain, which I love by the way, but come on).

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) currently exhibits a number of Turrell’s paintings. I’ll call them paintings because when you first walk into the room, they look like paintings. Sort of. A large rectangle of light greets you, just like a painting would. But the surface glows and shifts with very subtle gradations of color. You get closer, staring at the image, trying to understand how and what makes the painting do what it does. But at LACMA you can only get so close before a guard tells you to step back.

I’m not sure how I would have understood and appreciated the show if I had not had the opportunity fifteen years ago to visit a Turrell piece in an insurance company’s collection in Des Moines.

I was with an artist friend and the woman who oversaw the collection. We entered a large dark room with only the one Turrell painting in it — a rectangle of shimmering light twenty feet by ten feet. Only here I could get as close as I liked. The surface became more lively with each step closer. The light seemed more tangible, and more ethereal at the same time. Nothing I knew of painting or paint could do this.

One step closer, perhaps two feet from the “surface” I had been looking at, and the surface dissolved and I felt myself lurch forward mentally into deep space. A large perfectly-crafted smooth white bubble perhaps twenty feet deep existed behind the frame. Light evenly distributed from in behind the frame lit the bubble.

Turrell crafted, sculpted, a scintillating skin of false surface.

What was interesting, even after I knew how he did it, after I understood the “trick”, if I stepped back the “surface” would reconfigure and I could again step forward to the point where again I was released from the illusionary surface into deep space.

Turrell’s exhibition at LACMA has several variations of that theme. One you can actually walk into. The interior of the piece and the light around the exterior of the frame both shift in color and intensity so the effect of the skin of the surface and the frame mutate  constantly before you.

One small variation, the shape and size of a 50’s television screen and with no guards in sight, allows you to get up close and pass your hand through the surface and better experience what he is doing.

A huge scale model of Roden Crater fills the last room of the exhibition. I’m not sure when Turrell will finish it. Or how I’m going to get to see it. But I don’t think anything else will hold a candle to it.

Diebenkorn — the Berkeley years


Cityscape #1, 1963, 60″ x 50″, Oil on Canvas, Collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Last weekend I went to San Francisco to see the Diebenkorn exhibit of the Berkeley years. I like Richard Diebenkorn. He kept experimenting and reinventing himself. And each reincarnation produced really good work.

The exhibition presents two parts: the earlier abstract expressionist work of 1953-55 and then what at the time seemed his wild leap into figuration from 1955 to the mid sixties when he started Ocean Park.

The Berkeley abstracts seem flawless.  Or rather Diebenkorn’s intuitive aesthetic sense feels flawless. The earlier Albuquerque and Urbana series show the same aesthetic but with the Berkeley series he embraced the bravado of abstract expressionism and lots of paint.  They erupt from a fountain of pure aesthetic sense: painterly, dense, inventive and new.

Then in 1955 he dropped the series. He called it a “stylistic straightjacket”. He wanted to work and rework something “out there”.

The exhibition doesn’t have all the best figurative paintings. But most of them. The paintings hover between a response to paint and a representational image.

Velasquez did it of course. And late Rembrandt. Look closely at a Velasquez portrait of a court figure in ornate dress up close. His brush dances in abstract arabesques and flourishes of paint. Step back and at eight or ten feet they coalesce into a strict representational image.

Deibenkorn creates that same sensation. Minus the strict representation of course but both the paint and the image hover together, both at viewing distance, playing off one another. This, I assume, is what he was after. He often played with letting the paint dominate. The most successful let the two wrestle, one shifting in and out of prominence with the other. Occasionally the image dominates. It pulls away and becomes primarily itself in a painterly way. I think these are my favorites, although I’m not sure he would feel the same about them.

Perhaps coming from complete abstraction allows for a looser arrangement between paint and image. I find coming from a stricter representational side I feel resistance to how far I can push the abstraction. I remain fixed somehow in the one camp and as the non-representation looms in, I back away. I fix things up. I tidy the chaos. Representation becomes its own “stylistic straightjacket” dictating terms and conditions.

In an interesting coincidence my wife Anne read me a quote by Fairfield Porter at breakfast this morning that addresses this. ““The realist thinks he knows ahead of time what reality is, and the abstract artist what art is, but it is in its formality that realist art excels, and the best abstract art communicates an overwhelming sense of reality.”

André, the peasant

Between the two Provence workshops this year, my wife Anne, came over to France and we spent a week painting.

I had seen something during the first workshop that I wanted to come back to paint in early morning light. So I painted that and as I was finishing I noticed someone had stopped down the road next to Anne.

As I approached I saw Anne talking with an older man. He introduced himself as André. He was retired, he said, but had cared for the vineyards that surrounded us all his life. And the olives and apricots beyond.

He now lived in town, in Carpentras, but came each day to do a tour of his land. His son now cares for the grapes. André said: “Je suis paysan, pas agriculteur.” I am a peasant, not a farmer. I care for the land, not farm it.

Then he asked if I could paint the view for him. A view he said that was his favorite, that reminded him of his years of being here, that he could hang in his home since he now lived in town. As it happened I loved this view also. This very spot, I told him, I had photographed and used the photo as my promotional shot for the Provence workshops for years.

“How much,” he asked, “for a painting?”

I told him the price I would normally sell for an 8’ x 10” in the U.S., clearly in my mind more than he had for it, but I said since I loved this view also and since it was for him, 1 quoted a price about a fifth of my regular price. To that he agreed.

I went down the next morning and began around 8:30.

Because it was for André, a man who had lived and worked so intimately with this place I found myself unable to simplify as I normally would. It became like a family portrait. I felt I had to honor the custodian. Le Barroux, the village on the hill, I couldn’t just flatten into a simple blue shape. I found myself painting it. The hill behind the fields I painting in a red tree that I felt sure he must know. I painted the heavy rocks he had put on the roof of his abri, the toolshed, to protect the tiles from the harsh wind, the Mistral. I painted in the rusted metal cart beside the abri, which had been there for the five years I had been coming there. And I painted the foreground vines pulling me right down into (and probably out of) the bottom right of the painting. I had to paint André’s vines so he could see them properly.

I finished in a little less than two hours. It felt good working for a wage.

André arrived on his daily tour as I was packing up. I showed him. I could tell he loved it but he asked if I could change one thing.

With commissions this is always a sticky moment.

He wanted me to make the rusted metal wagon next to the abri smaller. André told us the story: when he first took over the fields from his father, he needed one of the metal wagons which they used for the prunings from the vines, so they could burn them safely in the field.

He advertised for one. Someone responded. They lived hours away but André decided he would take his truck and tow it home. Upon arriving he discovered the wagon had metal wheels and he couldn’t tow it so the seller suggested they cut the thing in two with a torch and he could load it on André’s truck so he could take it home. Which they did.

However when he arrived home both his father and uncle laughed at him because now cut in two it couldn’t function (for a reason I didn’t really understand since it looks like it was all in one piece) and so he dumped it next to the abri where it has stood since. Almost fifty years.

But it reminded him of one of his more foolish moments so I obliged him and cut it in half myself, but in paint.

I mounted the painting a few days later and delivered it to André’s son. Fortunately André was there himself. He took his painting, paid me, then took me to the small room where they sell their wine. He gave me a red, a rose and a white.

The rose I drank the next day at lunch with my landlord and his wife. The red and white are resting until May in the cave for when I return.