James Turrell, “Into The Light”

“I use light as a material, but my medium is actually perception. I want you to sense yourself sensing — to see yourself seeing.” — James Turrell

by Stephanie Grey

C.A.V.U., 2021. © James Turrell. Photo by: Arthur Evans

Pilots commonly use a shorthand term to describe ideal flying conditions: “C.A.V.U.,” or “ceiling and visibility unlimited.” The sky is clear and blue, with no “ceiling” of clouds. C.A.V.U. is also the title that light and space artist James Turrell chose for his latest “Skyspace” artwork, now on display at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. Part of James Turrell: Into The Light, a retrospective of the artist’s career, C.A.V.U. is an outdoor installation, a sleek silo that rises against the brick backdrop of the museum exterior. It is a former concrete water tank, 40 feet in diameter and 40 feet high, that has been transformed into a playspace of light and awe. Visitors enter the space, sit on curved benches, and gaze into an illuminated atmosphere of purple, pink, and blue. Man-made colors engulf the silo from within, bathing visitors in meditative and glowing light. There is a second part of the experience, only available at certain times of the day. At dawn each morning, a circular disk at the top of the silo rotates to create an opening into the sky. Sunlight pours in and natural light claims the space. This ritual repeats at dusk. Framed by the circular opening, the sky appears limitless … or with ceiling and visibility unlimited.

Turrell, who was born in 1943 in Los Angeles, California, is an artist, architect, scientist, astronomer, psychologist, Quaker, and pilot. All of these interests and experiences inform his work, which primarily focuses on light. Stone, wood, marble, concrete, and other materials are secondary to the thousands of LED lights used to power each of his pieces.

James Turrell: Into the Light (on view through 2025) features nine works that span his 50-year career. Together, they demonstrate why he initially electrified the art world when he began showing his work in the 1960s and why he continues to be relevant today. Visitors will appreciate his technical mastery of light and structure as much as they appreciate the artistic beauty of his works.

The main area of the retrospective is located inside the museum, with two additional rooms upstairs and C.A.V.U. a short walk away. The dominant work in the main area is his masterpiece, Roden Crater, a massive undertaking that has been under construction for decades. The crater is a volcanic cinder cone, the 400,000-year-old, three-mile-wide core of an extinct volcano in the Arizona desert. Turrell purchased the crater in the early 1970s and has been transforming it ever since into spaces where visitors can experience celestial phenomena without the aid of a telescope, using just their own eyes. Of course, Roden Crater cannot be transported into a gallery, so the Mass MoCA exhibit offers glimpses of it: models, images, drawings, and materials that unveil Turrell’s artistic process and demonstrate the magnitude of the project. The models demonstrate some of the intended future experiences of Roden Crater, bearing such tantalizing and enigmatic titles as Crater’s Eye, Sun | Moon Chamber, and Alpha (East) Tunnel.

Roden Crater serves as the heart of the Mass MoCA exhibit. From there dark walkways and inclines lead to works of pure luminary wonder. Many of these other works highlight the importance of Quaker values to Turrell, particularly connection, simplicity, and looking inward. Fused with these ideals are such influences as the painters Caravaggio, Velázquez, and Goya, who all explored light, both in its natural and sentimental forms. For Turrell, light is awe-inspiring, emotional, and divine. Once Around Violet (Shallow Space), created in 1971, is a contemplative space, with soft yet vibrant light that summons stillness. Pink Mist (Space Division), from 1994, is a triangle of fading pink light. Standing in front of the cloudy void invokes a sense of otherworldliness, beckoning the question, “What lies beyond?” Perfectly Clear (Ganzfeld), an eight-minute experience created in 1991, probes the very meaning of consciousness. Prefaced with a warning for those with light sensitivities, it varies between disorientation and the calmest calm, making the viewer aware of our vital signs. As Turrell says, “I use light as a material, but my medium is actually perception. I want you to sense yourself sensing — to see yourself seeing.”

Turrell’s words reveal a key aspect of what makes his work so deeply profound and meaningful: It simultaneously reminds its audiences of the basic elements of the universe (light and dark) while celebrating our connection to the universe. Words cannot fully describe Turrell’s work, because much of what comes from experiencing it is unspoken. It’s felt. The physical sensation of light awakens our bodies, ignites our senses. It makes us aware of ourselves but also helps us see and appreciate light from a fresh perspective. Whether we see the light as playful, peaceful, somber, or demanding of reverence, we experience it palpably, clearly — with ceiling and visibility unlimited.


Still Processing is a collection of work from the participants of the two-week 2021 Design Writing & Research Summer Intensive at the School of Visual Arts. For more information about our Summer Intensive as well as our two-semester Master’s program, please visit our website or email us at designresearch@sva.edu



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