If you thought HS2 was taking a while, spare a thought for James Turrell. The celebrated light and space artist, beloved by Drake, Beyoncé and Kanye West, has been working on his masterpiece, Roden Crater, for more than 40 years. But at last there’s an end in sight.
Turrell bought the 400,000-year-old extinct volcano, in the magnificent Painted Desert of Northern Arizona, in 1977, when he was still in his thirties, planning to turn the interior of the cone into a vast naked-eye observatory. At 76, he says it is five years from completion. “We’d like to open in 2026,” he tells me.
The crater has cost him “two marriages and a relationship”, he has said in the past, and there have been periods when it has lain untouched – the worst, he says, between 2008 and 2011, when, despite his artworld success, financial problems forced him to sell the plant that made concrete for the project. Did he ever despair? “No, it’s an unproductive emotion,” he says.
The reported $10 million (£7.7 million) that Kanye donated after Turrell allowed him to shoot his Imax movie Jesus Is King there last year certainly helped, and while Drake famously borrowed from Turrell’s work for the video of his 2015 hit Hotline Bling, the singer also, Turrell tells me, donated the profits from the Super Bowl ad that referenced it.
While many of the interior spaces have been finished, though, there is still work to be done. The crater will also need some on-site accommodation as many of its wonders will only become visible at night, and Arizona’s dark skies (protected by a lighting ordinance) are essential. Turrell wants visitors to experience “very ancient light”, allowing their eyes to adapt to the darkness for an hour so that it becomes perceivable. “We want to look into very deep sky… away from our own galaxy, into areas where the light coming from them will be more than eight billion years old,” he says. He compares this light to an old wine, whereas the light that travels from the sun, taking just eight minutes 20 seconds to reach Earth, is “a beaujolais”.
It’s not surprising that Turrell talks about light as a connoisseur; he has been creating art with it since the mid-Sixties, ranging from works that explore colour and perception, to the “skyspaces” that he has built around the globe, which focus the gaze on an uninterrupted, open-aperture view of the sky (New York’s Museum of Modern Art had to shut theirs for a time last year because the scaffolding of a luxury apartment development was intruding).
His Ganzfeld works immerse the viewer in uniform, coloured planes of light that can cause hallucinations. I want to know if Turrell, who was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, was influenced by his generation’s fascination with psychedelia and mind-altering drugs. “Oh sure,” he says.
Turrell’s work is an expression of his desire for a connection with “the beyond”, and he believes its spiritual dimension clearly fits into a Western tradition. “Look at how light comes into cathedrals,” he says. “I would have to say that many of the spaces created by architects and artisans and artists have more to do with spirituality than any of the words spoken by the priesthood.”
The history of art is “littered with artists whose subject is light”, he notes. Vermeer, he says, has “a very intellectual light”, but Turrell loves Turner, and Caspar David Friedrich, and Constable’s paintings of clouds, “this sense of looking up”. In London, he says, he has noticed how “almost no one looks up. We forget to.” A new exhibition of his recent Constellation works has just opened at the Pace Gallery in Mayfair, in a wing of the Royal Academy. Three luminous portholes pull the viewer into a shifting, evolving experience of light and colour, controlled by a computer program. The full sequence takes about two-and-a-half hours to view but, Turrell says, “I don’t expect people to do that.”
He was brought up a Quaker and I wonder if there is any disconnect between that and his work appearing in pop videos. “Well I’m a Wilburite Quaker,” he says, “which is a very conservative type of Quaker, and they don’t even believe in art. They think art is a vanity.
My family believes that… and if you go to art auctions and get involved with dealers, and all that sort of stuff, maybe it is a vanity.” He’s interested in what his hip hop admirers do, though, he says, and adds: “You might think you are a big deal in art. Let me tell you the first time that you get some attention by Drake or Beyoncé, you realise the reality.”
Kanye, he adds, while “he does not shrink from being controversial to say the least” is “very smart and well educated, he knows more about architecture than many of my American architect friends”. They can chat happily about the pure spaces created by Belgian designer Axel Vervoordt, who designed Kanye’s home in California.
Turrell is often mentioned as an early influence by the artist Olafur Eliasson, who once told me he was “totally knocked over” by the aforementioned skyspace at Moma. Turrell says he finds Eliasson’s work very interesting, and also admires other contemporary artists such as Robert Irwin and Anish Kapoor. Some of his own inspirations come from within, though, such as the light we see in our dreams. “It often has greater richness of colour than we see with our eyes open… That’s the kind of light I like to work with.”
James Turrell is at the Pace Gallery, London W1 until March 27