First Light and Still Light: James Turrell

 James Turrell First light 1989-90 (left) and Projection piece drawings 1970-71 (right) with a view into Afrum (white) 1966. Installed in James Turrell: A Retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia. Photograph, courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra



“James Turrell: a retrospective,” curated by Lucina Ward, is being shown at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra until 8 June 2015 after three concurrent exhibitions at Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. The 15 aquatint etchings cited, printed by Peter Kneubühler and published by Peter Blum Edition, New York, are in NGA’s permanent collection.

A lucent procession, the fifteen aquatint etchings by James Turrell engage the sight with their articulate volumes of whiteness emanating through veils of demarcated shadows that, ever so persuasively, entrance more than our gaze.

First light and Still light, fraternal twin suites, court thought right away. The seven stark etchings edited from First light (1989-1990, a series of 20/ edition of 30) seem to conjure states of clarity – from theta waves to Christian Dior silk taffeta skirts on models pausing for effect on a runway – while the entire series of eight from the unimaginably nuanced Still light (1990-91, edition of 30) elicits the liminality of awakening from a dream.

Integral to Turrell’s conceptual interplay, the suites are placed on either side of a hall between two chapel-like areas: Bullwinkle, a glinting Megatron ‘altar of light’ and an alcove with documentation from the systematic experiments Turrell performed in his studio/ visualitorium at the Mendota Hotel building, Santa Monica. The aquatints’ origin is found in Projection piece drawings (1970-71) which barely reveal the extent that external light, both artificial and natural, was directed as a temporal instrument. Turrell termed the liaison, “this universe outside this space. [i] He sought, and literally beheld, illumination, within and without; it was to become his abiding aesthetic: “the being-light of light.”[ii]

James Turrell First light, Afrum and Catso 1989-90. Aquatint; 107.8 x 75.5cm (sheet), edition of 30, Peter Blum Edition. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; purchased 2013

Not surprisingly, the aquatints have “no object, no image, and no focus"[iii] because, for Turrell, the object is perception itself. Perceiving them with such simplicity is easier if we accept ink on paper, like all matter, is made of photons: light. Factor this with awareness that particles of translucent rosin dust compose the intricately varied tonalities, modulated by the printer’s hand, and we experience what François Laruelle calls their “photic materiality.[iv] Turrell has managed to take these tactile pieces to a near-semblance of dematerialization by making every central geometric form white: the achromatic color of maximum lightness. White’s intensity fluctuates its presence through transparent planes along with its absence by degrees of saturation in the surrounding darkness. To stand before the individual aquatints is quieting: once quantum entanglement happens through these contrasting white/ light frequencies they have already refined your consciousness.

Splendid curatorial congruencies include: Afrum which backs onto the room where Afrum (white), a cross corner light projection, casts its cubic analogy; and the interruption of First light by a doorway, aglow with residual light from Raemar pink white, resonating oppositely with ethereal Tollyn, the singular uniplane. We somehow expect each aquatint to mirror its twin but there are just two parallels, Alta and Enzu. We also expect the titles to convey sanctity; some do, but they also feature the cryptic or the profane, for example, Catso – from the Italian ‘cazzo’/ phallus – a jutting, radiant solid immersed in velvety black depths. Each series regally concludes with the right-angled pyramid, Enzu, a Semitic word meaning, ‘lord of wisdom.’[v]

As a visionary geometer, Turrell uses analytical skill and tools to create “a link that is forged between the most concrete (form and measure) and the most abstract realms of thought.”[vi] By re-enactment of this link’s genesis in these aquatints, he exposes us to the fundamental structures of the Universe when a form redefines itself in a mutability of ‘point and line to plane.’ Each of his angled archetypal volumes – including the pyramid/ tetrahedron (what Buckminster Fuller considered “the basic unit”[vii]) – levitates or is grounded by either 2 or 3 point perspective in a space… another space lies tantalizingly beyond.

In Australian indigenous and ancient African rock art, geometric shapes usually “correspond with entoptic phenomena”[viii] seen during the course of night-long dance/ trance rituals; a means to go through the Visible into Invisible worlds. In the numinous now, at the National Gallery of Art, the shimmering veils of First light and Still light by James Turrell similarly induce transcendent intervals between dimensions, not unlike the moment on a runway surface when an airplane ascends. WM

[i] Jan Butterfield, The Art of Light and Space (New York: Abbeville, 1993) 70-71.

[ii] François Laruelle A Light Odyssey: La découverte de la lumière comme problème théorique et esthétique (Poitiers: le Confort Moderne, 1991) 1.

[iii] Alexander R. Galloway Laruelle and Art (Continent 201) 230.

[iv] Alexander R. Galloway Laruelle and Art (Continent 201) 232.

[v] Ahmid Shamahd The Reaffirmation of the Revelation, Google eBooks XLIV

[vi] Robert Lawlor Sacred Geometry, Philosophy and Practice (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012) 14.

[vii] Michael S. Schneider A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe (New York: Harper Collins, 1995) 62.

[viii] (neurologically generated images) Ed O’Loughlin, Art find lifts veil on an African dreaming (The Sydney Morning Herald 17 March 2001) 20.


  James Turrell Still light, Tollyn and Carn 1990-91. Aquatint; 108.0 x 75.6cm (sheet), edition of 30, Peter Blum Edition. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; purchased 2014

James Turrell First light, Alta and Enzu 1989-90. Aquatint; 107.8 x 75.5cm (sheet), edition of 30, Peter Blum Edition. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; purchased 2013

James Turrell Still light, Alta and Enzu 1990-91. Aquatint; 108.0 x 75.6cm (sheet), edition of 30, Peter Blum Edition. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; purchased 2014



Amarie Bergman


Amarie Bergman formulates and makes reductive art, showing her work at non-objective art galleries located in Melbourne, Sydney and Paris. She writes occasionally for Whitehot Magazine and lives in Melbourne.



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