Going Toward the Light: Looking at James Turrell with Suzan Woodruff

James Turrell doesn’t paint, sculpt, or shoot photographs. He plays with light.

James Turrell doesn’t paint, sculpt, or shoot photographs. He plays with light. The Pasadena-born artist, who made his name in the 1960s and ’70s by transforming an abandoned Santa Monica hotel into a blank screen for his natural light projections (Mendota Stoppages), currently has a massive retrospective at LACMA. A floating green trapezoid projected into the corner of a dark room. A large, barren chamber its indefinable walls thrumming with subtle shifts in hue. A hot pink rectangle. The work is transporting, mind-bending, and genuinely awesome but also mysterious. It’s good to have a guide.

We enlisted local painter Suzan Woodruff, who counts Turrell among her major inspirations. “You can breathe in the light,” she says of his work. As a child growing up in the West, she played on the arid, extraterrestrial landscape that would later become Turrell’s magnum opus, Roden Crater. He has spent the better part of two decades transforming an extinct volcanic crater into a naked-eye observatory, carving out a warren of underground tunnels and rooms. Like Turrell, Woodruff has an eye for bold colors. Working out of her Mar Vista studio, she creates expansive, abstract, enigmatic canvases where color and shape dominate.

Turrell’s work demands to be experienced differently from other shows. The magnificently bearded MacArthur “genius grant” winner’s light projections take time to absorb. LACMA visitors must buy tickets for a specific time because only small groups are allowed into certain rooms at a given time.

As you venture through Turrell’s luminescent universe, you’ll find yourself putting on booties in one room, growing tranquil (maybe even sleepy) in another. Walking through the show with Woodruff, we came up with four words to encompass the experience: Space. Color. Nature. Perception. We had Woodruff fill in the rest.

You told me you played on Roden Crater as a kid.
I used to go to the crater with my mother and sister before he purchased it. It was just a crater out in the middle of northern Arizona. We called it Sunset Crater. You could just wander around. It’s a big scoop in the ground, so you’re walking into a massive environmental monument of its own. There were a lot of open spaces, a lot of places for grazing. You could walk around. There was no one else around. That’s what it was like in lots of parts of Arizona and the West. That feeling of isolation and environment and space and light is something I get when I see a Turrell piece.

Where’s the dividing line between a natural phenomenon and art?
I can’t speak for Turrell, but from what I’ve read there’s going to be tunnels and long lenses, so if you walk in you can see the light changing. He’s using the space to create an art environment. The whole idea of the crater is amazing to me. It’s so monumental, so epic. It will be like the pyramids when it’s finished.

When did you first discover Turrell’s work?
The first one I remember is in New York. I went into one of his pieces where you have to take off your shoes. You walk into an entire room of blue light. I don’t know how many years ago that was.

Every time I’ve seen it, I’ve loved it.

Turrell is known for his use of color.
I think he often works in a way that’s an optical illusion. There might be a completely dark room with a negative space carved into a wall and a light inside of it. So when you walk into the room, like one I saw recently, there’s just this orange glowing object. It looks as if it’s a real object but try to stick your hand in and it’s just a light inside a dark room. Bringing out the light brings out different moods and ideas. There are so many color theories that everyone’s got a different opinion about what a color means to them.

Why is James Turrell one of your favorite artists?
I’ve loved every Turrell I’ve seen. You walk in and you’re completely involved in the installation. You become part of that space. I feel attuned to it because I’m from the West. I grew up in these big open spaces where you could be by yourself. Nothing but space and sky and light. I feel those elements whenever I go to a Turrell. My opinion is you shouldn’t need to know anything about the art to enjoy it. Any art. The light, the space, the intimacy, the meditation of being a solitary viewer–you become part of it. It’s not just something you’re looking at on the wall. It surrounds you.

Woodruff’s work will be featured in a group show, Rouge, that opens in July at Katherine Cone Gallery. James Turrell: A Retrospective runs through April 6, 2014 at LACMA.