New Interpretations of Colour

See! Colour!

James Turrell’s latest site-specific work, opening this spring in Sweden, creates interplay between the body, environment and light.


Light is, by its very physical properties, impossible to capture and define: it is possible to confine the reaction of light with chemicals, but the experience of existing within and fully understanding the colour spectrum is inexplicable. The artist James Turrell (b. 1943), stated in a 1987 article, Mapping Spaces: “It’s not about light or a record of it, but it is light. Light is not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation.” Light and colour have inspired and intrigued artists, philosophers, and theologians for centuries. Colours have become symbolic of emotions and thoughts, taking on animate qualities and connotations that surpass their scientific properties just as light itself has come to symbolise “inner light”, elucidation, and when featured in religious iconography, the light of God.

Turrell’s work positions itself as the starting point from which to explore these theoretical and philosophical queries in an exhibition entitled See! Colour!, which opens this May at Kulturhuset in Järna, Sweden. Curated by Rembert Biemond, the exhibition will use Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (b. 1749) writings and experiments in colour as the theoretical backbone to explore Turrell’s work, along with that of Rudolf Steiner (b. 1861) and Hilma af Klint (b. 1862). Each of these artists explores in some way the relationship between the physical environment, light, and colour, and how the essential physical properties of each can be altered through their interaction.

James Turrell, by appearance, looks like a stereotypical mid-Western rancher; but, as the saying goes, “appearances can be deceiving” for his appearance belies the artistic genius that rests below the surface. Holding a BA in perceptual technology and MA in art, he is interested and educated in both the sciences and art, a duality of knowledge that has led him to the cutting edge in terms of light technology as applicable in his artistic practice. He is perhaps best known for his immense, awe-inspiring skyspace at Roden Crater, Arizona. Begun in 1974, the work is situated within an old extinct volcano that he has physically altered through the addition of tunnels and observation chambers, to allow the audience new ways of viewing, and ultimately experiencing, the sky, geology, and space. Though some might categorise him as a land artist, thereby placing him within a lineage of artists such as Richard Long and Richard Hamilton, Turrell’s work is a step beyond that limiting term. His preoccupation with light, space and colour places him in a category of his own. Although his work is aligned with the environment and space, it also probes the essence of what we deem light and colour to do and mean.

Land art is often categorised as antithetical to the base idea of conceptual art, argued to be, in the words of the art critic Anthony Godfrey, “uncritical, sentimental, or nostalgic philosophy.” See! Colour!, to some extent, embraces this definition as the works to be exhibited delve into the sentiments and ideas associated with the individual’s development and interaction with the environment, and explore ways in which the individual can transcend those necessary physical limits. Turrell’s work reduces the viewer by emphasising space and its apparent physical boundaries, and then extends the boundaries through his use of light. Specifically for the exhibition, he will construct a ganzfeld, a room in which the audience will be surrounded by constantly changing colours of light, a light which will saturate the room so that the audience’s bodily presence and occupation of space will be negated or reduced to such an extent as to create a sense of infinity. The use of changing colours will act as a emotional directive for the audience as colours, like sounds, are associative (e.g. the colour white alluding to purity or innocence). Biemond argues: “Natural phenomena, like the blue sky and the red sunset, are in my understanding, imperative to the basis of understanding colour” – a statement that Turrell would perhaps agree with, as his skyspaces and ganzfeld utilise the physical environment and the way in which light interplays upon forms and objects, to create new interpretations of colour.

The American artist, Robert Irwin (b. 1928) was highly influential upon Turrell, as he emphasised a similar course of interest in his work, specifically that aesthetic perception was not necessarily tied to an object as such. Irwin created installation works; one series from the 1970s, which is of primary interest with regards to Turrell’s work, is that which comprises a room with a window with sharply measured corners, providing a frame through which outside light courses to create a specific environment within the interior space. He quite literally demolished the “art object” as such, for how does one go about owning the frame (the window), without owning the room itself? The way that the outside light filtered into the room, depending on the time of day, meant that the work was constantly changing both in terms of meaning and physical reality. Turrell’s skyspaces exist in the same way; they are irreproducible, as it is virtually impossible to re-create Roden Crater let alone the direct perceptual experience that results from the audience’s participation. The skyspace, as such, is site-determined; the four classifications of outdoor sculpture being, according to Irwin, site-dominant, site-adjusted, site-specific and site-determined (as cited in a 1986 discussion).

In addition to a permanent, site-determined skyspace in Järna, Turrell has also created a darkspace; a room opposite that of the ganzfeld, which accentuates the changing colours of light, as it is instead an almost completely dark room. The viewer is subsumed into the space and invited to exist within it. The literal, terrifying experience of being without reference points from which to orientate oneself is perhaps the initial reaction, but Turrell aspires for the audience to remain within the room, and as they become accustomed to being immersed in darkness, allow the experience to create immaterial reference points. He lacks concern for the transient internal reaction induced by the installation, because it is only ephemeral in theory, and the audience will remember and retain their response.

There is an element of the transcendental in both af Klint and Turrell’s work, an almost religious overtone, connected with nature. Turrell specifically emphasises the importance of recognising the environment that we are in; Biedmond argues that “with Turrell’s skyspaces it is very obvious, ‘look up!’, is what the skyspaces tell you. The sky – the heavens if you want, are right here – or, to phrase it another way – open up – more light! Those again were Goethe’s last words.” Goethe, who published Zür Farbenlehre, his treatise on colour theory, 200 years ago, is brought into the exhibition to provide a historical context of sorts from which to view the three different artists’ work. Goethe was interested in the way in which colour was perceived by the individual, rather than the scientific optical phenomena of colour. He believed colour to be contained within light and it was his experiments with prisms that led him to publish Zür Farbenlehre. Rudolf Steiner has perhaps the most obvious connection with Goethe from an academic standpoint, as Steiner researched, referenced, and lectured about Goethe during his career, ultimately writing two books about him and his philosophies. Steiner is perhaps most famous for founding the Waldorf school system, but he also, amongst other things, founded anthroposophy (a philosophy that grew out of his interest in mysticism, science, and the spiritual needs of human beings). It is the blackboard drawings that Steiner created during a lecture term of the years 1920-1924 that will be exhibited as part of See! Colour!, specifically those to do with colour and how it can be perceived and determined. Steiner was a prolific lecturer and 24 drawings from the Steiner estate have been included to demonstrate the intellectual and artistic range of his thought process. The pedagogical drawings, which were executed on a black background save for one, demonstrate his skill as a lecturer, philosopher, and artist, utilising both text and image, and were incredibly influential upon af Klint.

Hilma af Klint, a Swedish-born abstract painter, has only recently been internationally recognised for her work, though she had a long career, passing away at the age of 81 in 1944. She was interested, like Steiner, in the accessibility of the spiritual world through inner development, and eventually became a follower of Steiner’s Anthroposophic movement. Though she painted primarily abstract paintings, her work precludes Suprematism, with a visual vocabulary reminiscent of the work of Kasimir Malevich and Mark Rothko. Her large, monochrome colour fields seem to emanate emotional qualities, just as her structured, geometric paintings exist as a precursor to Bridget Riley and Op-Art.

Her work is diverse in terms of styles and influences; af Klint famously explored the possibilities of automatic drawing, years before the Surrealists began their experiments into automatism. Her interest in the occult and the paranormal led her to become a member of “the Five”, a group of five female artists who shared the same philosophical and intellectual ideas and spiritual beliefs. Though af Klint is often criticised for being slightly too eccentric (e.g. she believed she was the conduit for “Higher Masters” in another dimension), which could perhaps explain the delay in her coming to prominence in the art historical world, her work has an aesthetic, modern feel that preceded her contemporaries at the time. The interplay between figurative elements and geometric shapes are highly structured and finely executed on the canvas, in a way that undermines the initial feeling of spontaneity that her works convey. Visually her work is quite different from that of Turrell’s, but they are similar in their investigations into colour, light, and the way the environment impacts upon the individual. Turrell said, when describing his skyspaces: “The gathered starlight will inhabit that space, and you will be able to feel the physical presence of that light”, and it is this interaction between the body, the physical environment and space, which See! Colour! will impart to the viewer.

Robert Smithson once remarked in a 1969 discussion on Land Art that: “Photographs steal away the spirit of the work.” It is an interesting point, and one that Walter Benjamin first touched upon in his seminal text, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). Numerous texts have since been written and many discussions held, to elaborate and pontificate on the essence of the art work and whether it is still valid as it exists in its reproduction document or photograph. This is an argument that necessarily arises with Turrell’s work as it is typically specific to the site and the viewer’s experience within the installation. These secondary works by their very core cannot capture the actual experience of being witness to the artwork or installation, but Biemond would argue that he is “programmatic and positive about so-called secondary works.” He believes they are not devalued in any way via reproduction, just as the Chinese Terracotta Warriors are not devalued when exhibited at the British Museum. They can still be appreciated for their artistic base value outside of their original site, just perhaps not on the same level. This exhibition allows the audience to view Turrell, af Klint, and Steiner’s work next to a new primary installation (Turrell’s new skyspace) as well as secondary works, thereby allowing them to view the way in which Turrell has appropriated new technology into his work in comparison to earlier work. Each of these artists utilise the physical environment and the individual’s aesthetic perception of it, to create a new way of understanding colour and light, and as such, See! Colour! is aptly named.

See! Colour! ran from 15 May – 2 October 2011 at Kulturhuset in Järna, Sweden.

Niamh Coghlan