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James Turrell was born May 6, 1943, in Los Angeles. He graduated from Pasadena High School in 1961 and studied experimental psychology at Pomona College in Claremont, California, receiving a B.A. there in 1965. Having become interested in art, he enrolled in the graduate program at the University of California at Irvine. He created his first light piece, Afrum-Proto, the next year, in which light projected into the corner of a room seemed to form a three-dimensional, illuminated floating cube that resolved itself into flat planes of light only upon close inspection. Leaving school, Turrell took a studio in the former Mendota Hotel in Ocean Park, California, and began to make more projection pieces in corners and on flat walls.
Turrell was given his first solo show at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1967. The following year, he began making constructions in which light shining out from behind one or more sides of a partition wall dissolved edges and changed the viewer’s perception of space in a room. He participated in the Los Angeles County Museum’s Art and Technology Program, investigating perceptual phenomena with the artist Robert Irwin and psychologist Edward Wortz. In 1969, Turrell made sky drawings with Sam Francis, using colored skywriting smoke and cloud-seeding materials. The Mendota Stoppages, from this time, were orchestrated sequences of light projected inside Turrell’s darkened studio; the light, from natural and artificial sources outside, was admitted by opening and closing various apertures the artist had placed in the studio walls.
Turrell received his M.A. in art from Claremont Graduate School in 1973. The next year, he began work on his first large Skyspace, an aperture cut into the roof of a building that causes the visible plane of the sky to appear flat at the level of the opening. Also in 1974, Turrell located Roden Crater, in northern Arizona, where he has since worked to refine the site into a monumental observatory for perceiving extraordinary qualities of natural light and celestial events. A solo show of Turrell’s work was held in 1976 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. That same year, Turrell created his first Space Division piece, in which an opening onto a space filled with ambient light is seen first as a flat surface and then as a window onto a fog-filled room of uncertain dimensions. Retrospectives of Turrell’s work were held in 1980 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and in 1985 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In the 1980s, Turrell created dark pieces in which light is reduced to barely perceptible levels. The artist lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Inishkeame, Ireland.