Multi-year retrospective of James Turrell at MASS MoCA, USA

Joseph Thompson, the founding director of the museum, talks about his engagement with the light artist and completing his representation at the museum with a forthcoming installation.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : May 12, 2021

James Turrell is probably the most sought-after artist (and designer) who has used light as a medium. Recognised for his artistic and architectural contributions, he is most known for his immersive installations. Turrell’s practice revolves around the idea of feeling and perceiving space that he uniquely charges through lighting interventions. An avid pilot, he considers “the sky as his studio”. He began his experiments with the medium of light in 1960s in his early career in California (USA). One of the most significant works of Turrell, Roden Crater, uses a dead volcano!

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) presents a multi-decade retrospective of the artist. The museum has collected works across Turrell’s seven decades of practice, and yet it remained incomplete. “By building a Skyspace, our retrospective would become complete…” says Joseph C Thompson, the founding Director of the museum.

Dissolve (Curved Wide Glass) | James Turrell retrospective at MASS MoCA | STIRworld
Dissolve (Curved Wide Glass) Image: Florian Holzherr, Courtesy of James Turrell

For Turrell, light is “more than simply a source of illumination: it is a discrete, physical object”. He says, “My work has no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought”.

Within Without interior | James Turrell retrospective at MASS MoCA | STIRworld
Within Without interior Image: John Gollings, Courtesy of James Turrell

In an exclusive interview with STIR, Thompson talks about the forthcoming installation of Skyspace by James Turrell and a promise made to him in 1987!

Rahul Kumar (RK): There is a reference of “a vision Turrell had when he visited the MASS MoCA campus in 1987”. Please tell us about this incidence and how this forthcoming installation is aimed at realising this aspiration of the artist?

Joseph C Thompson (JCT): On a site tour, 12 years prior to our opening, and well before the museum was funded, James spotted an abandoned cylindrical concrete water tank. He said to me, somewhat jokingly, "Well, if you ever pull off this idea, I'll turn that tank into a Skyspace”. That led to a long friendship, which ended in the Building 6 Into the Light exhibition. The irony, of course, was that Into the Light did not include the Skyspace (which we could not afford within our Phase III, Building 6 expansion budget). We continued to raise the funds, letting supporters know that except for a Skyspace, the MASS MoCA exhibition of Turrell contained one work from every decade, and one example of work from every major category. By building a Skyspace, our retrospective would become complete (seven decades, and all 11 of his major categories of work). We ultimately raised the funds, and James delivered on that promise of 1987.

Rendering of the structure for Skyspace | James Turrell retrospective at MASS MoCA | STIRworld
Rendering of the structure for Skyspace Image: Darryl Cowie, Courtesy of James Turrell

RK: It is intriguing that the museum exhibits one work from each decade of the illustrious career of Turrell. How were the works chosen for this long-term ongoing exhibition?

JCT: In theory, James and I were the co-curators. In practice, James chose the works, and I took good notes.

Once Around, Violet (Shallow Space), Collection of Tallulah Anderson | James Turrell retrospective at MASS MoCA | STIRworld
Once Around, Violet (Shallow Space), Collection of Tallulah Anderson Image: Florian Holzherr, Courtesy of James Turrell

RK: James Turrell is most known for his light-based installation works. I am interested to know more about his ceramic practice! Especially the Lapsed Quaker Ware that the museum also intends to display.

JCT: James’ ceramic works, which he calls Lapsed Quaker Ware, are a passion project that grew out of his Quaker upbringing. His designs are inspired by the black basaltware that Josiah Wedgwood made for the Quakers in the 18th century. (Wedgwood made decorative basaltware for the general English market as well as simpler versions for the Quakers, especially in America). James’ family roots in Ireland also play a part in the story, his collaborator, potter Nick Mosse, being based in Kilkenny, not far from the area to which James’ ancestors fled. That same region was part-time home to the Quaker William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania colony where thousands of Irish Quakers sought refuge. James and Nick Mosse were both lapsed Quakers who have now returned to the faith, and when they met, they were inspired to revive the Wedgwood tradition. (Nick owns a lathe used by Wedgwood himself.) In addition to showing James’ Lapsed Quake Ware, MASS MoCA is organising an exhibition of contemporary ceramic sculpture that opens in fall of 2021 that will complement James’ presentation beautifully, examining both the histories and possibilities embedded in clay past and present.

Water Tank - the future site for Skyspace | James Turrell retrospective at MASS MoCA | STIRworld
Water Tank - the future site for Skyspace Image: Will McLaughlin, Courtesy of James Turrell

RK: Skyspaces, the newest addition to the museum collection functions as naked-eye observation of the night sky. How would you contextualise this idea when high-definition imaging technology has made this possible and easily accessible?

JCT: This is the opposite of digital technology, which cuts experience into discrete bits of data. Instead, this work, like nearly all of James work, focuses on the analogue relationship of light waves and their interaction through the human neuro-optical system. This is a work of infinite gradation, not the ‘off-on’ relationships of pixels. Minute changes in light conditions, both those from the sky, and from those programmed by Turrell, affect the rods and cones of your eye, triggering responses in your brain, mind and... I would argue, spirit. Time and patience are important, and the works are as much about becoming conscious of the act of seeing, as of the quality of light itself.  Light is the subject and the object. Not light, as it illuminates other things, but pure light itself, as if occupies space.

Piz Uter (Interior) | James Turrell retrospective at MASS MoCA | STIRworld
Piz Uter (Interior) Image: Florian Holzherr, Courtesy of James Turrell

RK: Please tell us more about the vision of MASS MoCA and curatorial focus over the coming years.  

JCT: MASS MoCA is in an exciting moment of growth and transformation.  We are looking ahead to a new chapter with the hiring of a new director. (I have stepped down after 33 years and am shepherding through the Skyspace project to completion and the transition to new leadership.) At the same time, we are asking questions of ourselves and of the museum, and thinking about the future of cultural institutions at large as we work toward an ever more welcoming environment. That said MASS MoCA has a strong vision of its mission which is dedicated to supporting artists, experimentation, and art-making across disciplines while working with our community and contributing to the economic revitalisation of the region and the post-industrial city that is our home. 

Freshgrass Festival | James Turrell retrospective at MASS MoCA | STIRworld
Freshgrass Festival Image: Caleb Blansett, Courtesy of MASS MoCA

What happens in our galleries, on our stages, and in the spaces dedicated to interpretation and engagement are all key to our two-pronged mission, and in recent years we have articulated more clearly that what makes MASS MoCA unique is our ability to excite both artists and audiences with innovative cross-disciplinary collaborations at the intersection of visual and performing arts and education. When we do that, and in an educational and welcoming way that attracts lots of people to our region, we are doing our job well. And no doubt we can always do better.

Joseph C Thompson | James Turrell retrospective at MASS MoCA | STIRworld
Joseph C Thompson Image: Megan Haley, Courtesy of MASS MoCA

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