Turrell and Bell
James Turrell’s retrospective exhibition opens next week at LACMA. There will be simultaneous installations at the Guggenheim and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and I just read a superb article published by the LA Times, written by Jori Finkel, about Turrell. All of the recent press about James Turrell’s three upcoming museum exhibitions, complemented by his concurrent solo show at the Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery, has me thinking about Light and Space artists. The term “Light and Space” is usually used to refer works made by a certain group of West Coast artists. I’m in agreement with Dawna Schuld, who wrote in 2011 that “while it is a useful and historically established label, “Light and Space” is also misleading in describing this art, because it overlooks the essential integrative ingredient, which is perception.”
Perceptual phenomena—especially visual phenomena—are the central focus of many Los Angeles artists’ work, rather than the material processes they use to achieve their goals. For example, I sometimes see writers link Larry Bell’s work in glass to the hot-rod car culture of Southern California. However, the obsession with perfect, gleaming surfaces relates only superficially to Larry’s interests. He never drove a hot-rod or participated in car culture, and was involved in the folk music movement of the late 50s, hardly a “slick” scene. But Larry was there at the leading edge of artists’ investigations into visual perception.
Some of the most interesting origins of the movement are experiments that Turrell and Robert Irwin participated in with the late Edward Wortz, who was then working at Garrett AiResearch in aerospace perceptual psychology. As cited in Lawrence Weschler’s book Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, there was also a conference of architects and experts that was held in Venice in 1970, titled “The National Symposium on Habitability”. Larry Bell created two different rooms in his Market Street studio, which explored the concept of habitability. The first of these spaces was described by Wortz as “so oppressive that it was never used. People would just go in, turn around, and leave.” He constructed the second room with walls which were “angled in such a way as to render the space extremely reverberant, so that people kept having to scoot their chairs closer and closer in order to hear one another.” Bell also designed and installed the “Blue Room” (pictured on the right), which has been re-created for MOCA and for his survey show in Nîmes.
Stephanie Hanor did a great job describing the relationship between process and perception, writing in her 2011 essay that, “While the Los Angeles artists acknowledged the impact of location, their primary interests were the nature of perception and of the relationship between observer and observed, the subject and the object; their use of new industrial materials and processes was in service of investigating this dynamic.”
Larry’s work, like that of other artists who are often placed in the Light and Space movement, focuses on awareness of human perception. Whether he was creating the illusion of volume in paintings, constructing experimental environments, or using metallic particles to interfere with the passage of light through glass, Larry’s work defies our expectations. By asking viewers to reconsider what they’re looking at, his art creates a perceptual experience that allows us to see the work, and the world, in new ways.
 Schuld, Dawna. “Practically Nothing: Light, Space, and the Pragmatics of Phenomenology.” In Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 109.
 Weschler, Lawrence, quoting Edward Wortz. Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), 132-133.
 Hanor, Stephanie. “The Material of Immateriality.” In Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 128.