Eschewing Perceptual Absolutes: James Turrell at MoMA PS1

by Anya Kowalchuk

James Turrell’s prolific oeuvre has long transcended the reach of the art world, due to its formidable use of light and space. Turrell’s work is realized in approximately 22 different self-described categories, though his most iconic are Skylights, Ganzfelds and Shallow Space constructions. His installation Meeting (1986), in MoMA PS1’s permanent collection, falls into the former category, providing a strictly delineated and unobstructed view of the sky above.

Turrell initially obtained a BA in sensory psychology, before translating his fascination with perception to artistic practice. Turrell’s work engages with major minimalist ideas concerning dematerialization and the relocation of art, from the object to experience. His installations deal with nascent questions popular in post-modern discourse, regarding the objective trust historically imbued in empirical knowledge. This is especially explored in his Ganzfeld series, which aim to create an ambiguous space, obliterating depth-perception with all-encompassing coloured light, evenly distributed throughout.

Raised by Quaker parents, Turrell designed the Live Oak Meeting House for the Society of Friends. The skylight installation designed for this space was the first realization of Meeting, currently housed in PS1. In the context of the Society of Friends, Turrell’s use of celestial light makes obvious religious overtures. This implication is not extinguished in the context of PS1, but is expanded beyond theological meaning. His installation of Meeting at MoMA PS1 is a classroom-sized space, with a bench lining the perimeter and a large square cut out in the ceiling. The space is bare and evokes a meditative state, as visitors sit and gaze and the open and seemingly endless sky. The juxtaposition between Manhattan’s domineering skyline, seen from the entrance of the museum, and the minimalism inside Turrell’s installation compounds a sense of serenity, further emphasizing the extraordinary manner in which atmospheric space is being experienced. Due to the complete minimalism of the outlined skylight, and vastness of the sky, all indicators of depth are eliminated and moments of observing the installation results in a total loss of spatial sensory awareness. Colour figures into this piece less significantly than some of Turrell’s other, more iconic works, though, at sunset Meeting is transformed by light. A modification to the piece in 2016 added a programmed lighting system synced with sunrise and sunset. The effect of these internal lights creates an ethereal glow while simultaneously evoking a flattening of the space, as the isolated colour of the sky in contrast to the room heightens the visual absence of depth, harkening back to the flat picture-plane.

The work was initially commissioned by PS1’s founder Alanna Heiss, in 1976. The piece was not executed until 1980 and became open to the public in 1986. The installation is on now, as part of MoMA PS1’s permanent collection.

Using Format