The works of James Turrell were not made for TikTok. Nor are the 78-year-old light artist’s works made for Instagram, or any social media platform offering up the attention span equivalent of hors d’oeuvres. Instead, the exhibits are designed to be savored over minutes and hours, the full impression of them only apparent to you only after a slow, gradual change in your own perception.
Quite likely, you’ve seen the direct impact of Turrell without even knowing it. Despite his decades-long visionary status in the fine art world, the artist’s sway over the cultural mainstream generally recedes into the background, sometimes literally, as in the case of Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” In the 2015 music video, moody shades of bright pink, blue-purples and Drakeposting yellow intermittently bathe the rapper and his backup dancers, not entirely unlike the Breathing Light room at the artist’s LACMA retrospective, which ran from 2013 to 2014.
“I fuck with Turrell,” Drake later told Rolling Stone, directly citing the Light and Space Movement pioneer as inspiration while preparing to enter one of the artist’s Perceptual Cells at the same exhibit, where I also first encountered Turrell as a high school art student. Though the immersive metal sphere shrouded the viewer—in this case, Drake—in a 12-minute mixture of colorful lights and atonal sound, many of Turrell’s other works restrict their manipulation of perception solely to light, time and space.
While you can’t currently view his work at LACMA, hundreds of the Pasadena native’s pieces dating back to the ‘70s can be found in museums, private collections and public spaces all over the world. In Los Angeles, Turrell’s closest perpetually-on-display work open to the public is located about 30 miles east of Downtown at Claremont’s Pomona College, the artist’s undergraduate alma mater. Named Dividing the Light, the 2007 installation is part of Turrell’s Skyspace series. Though over 80 different Skyspaces currently exist, they all share one fundamental design element: an artificially illuminated skylight juxtaposed against the open sky.
Light, time and space: With such fuzzy, all-encompassing mediums, the artist’s typical large-scale works can invoke a sense of queasy disorientation or simply an eye-roll at what other people consider contemporary art; not everyone fucks with Turrell. Each experiential piece manages to bombard and isolate with visual stimuli or lack thereof. Some, after more grievous mishaps in perception, have even led to a few people falling over and getting injured and subsequent lawsuits.
After a younger version of myself walked into LACMA’s Breathing Light in 2013, I can understand why. One of Turrell’s colorful Ganzfeld series, the blue-pink room destroyed all sense of depth perception, which left me feeling as vulnerable and bewildered as a newborn infant. I put my hand in front of myself, hoping to rid myself of the odd, slightly uncomfortable feeling of disorientation. Other firsthand accounts of Turrell pieces tend to mirror my own. Many resemble gauzy descriptions of psychedelic ego death, or devolve into nearly unintelligible highbrow art theory.
From my quick online image search, Dividing the Light in Claremont appeared fairly banal. The site-specific work consists of a pavilion, lightly bathed in colored LED light, with a square-shaped cutout in the roof. Inside it, you’ll find small palm trees, built-in marble benches and a central infinity fountain that largely blends in with the surrounding Pomona College architecture. During the day, the ceiling’s color changes on the hour, accompanied by a three-minute chime of light. According to the liberal arts college’s website, the exhibit becomes more stimulating just before dawn and dusk, when programmed lighting sequences begin 100 minutes prior to sunrise and the 25 minutes leading up to sunset.
I contemplated the hour-plus drive to Turrell’s Dividing the Light in Claremont last winter in search of a repeat performance. In the years since my first encounter with Breathing Light at LACMA, I’ve also managed to see Turrell’s works while traveling on the Japanese art island of Naoshima, home to four of the artist’s pieces. During my trip, I was able to enter the pitch-black Minamidera and view Turrell’s Backside of the Moon, one of my favorite art experiences of all time. Bathed in complete darkness, my eyes slowly adjusted over 15 minutes, eventually allowing in enough light to perceive the hidden luminescence inside the house’s walls. An otherworldly blue-orange wall appeared, and prickly discomfort shifted to transcendental delight.
By comparison, the lack of immersion or surrender made Dividing the Light seem like it would be relatively mundane. Still, the idea of waking up for the last hour of the 100-minute sunrise program possessed an almost masochistic allure. Having once paddled around a pool in a glass-bottomed boat to view an underwater art gallery, I knew getting up before dawn to drive east for Dividing the Light would be just as much a part of the overall experience as the art itself.
One dark weekend morning in November, I forced myself awake, driving to my partner’s Mid-City apartment, after baited him into coming with me with the promise of post-exhibit Taiwanese breakfast on the way back. From there, it was a straight shot eastwards on the 10, big rigs barreling past us and the other small cars on the road at 70 miles per hour. We arrived at Pomona College approximately an hour before sunrise in near-darkness. Only the faintest bit of light in the sky hovered overhead as we stumbled across the completely deserted college campus.
After a brisk quarter-mile walk, the dim LED glow of Dividing the Light grew visible. We sat down on a bench, sandwiched together for warmth in the 45-degree winter weather. At our feet, water quietly trickled over the edges of the infinity pool. Nothing else interrupted the peculiar mix of sleepiness and anticipation that overtook me as we waited for the sunrise sequence to begin. With bleary eyes, I stared up at the actual skyspace. Illuminated by the canopy’s pale yellow-white frame, the sharply cut square of twilight still looked moody and dark, though I could catch the first glimmers of dawn.
Over the next hour, a half-dozen hues overtook the ceiling every few minutes as morning set in, the predawn sky inching toward a milky light blue. Vibrant cherry red gave way to traffic light green, which uneasily tilted towards teal before descending into a brilliant shade of royal blue. About a half hour before sunrise, the sequence began to speed up, different two-tone gradients spilling across the ceiling every minute: orange-purple fading to yellow-purple before shifting to neon green-blue. With 20 minutes to go, the ceiling shimmered in blue-green shades of pastel, edges framed in soft purples.
At sunrise, no obvious color change engulfed the ceiling, though the light sequence reverted to more gradual shifts in hue. Now fully, painfully awake, I walked around the perimeter of the pavilion, gazing upwards. The sky now appeared nearly white against the ceiling’s light pinks and oranges. Dawn had come and gone. We made to leave, walking back across the newly bright and unfamiliar grounds of Pomona College, thoughts turning to the near-future certainty of hot soy milk and crullers from Huge Tree Pastry on the way back home.
Turrell’s skyspace in Claremont—at least before sunrise—might not as readily inspire the soaring, disorientation-induced revelations associated with his other pieces, but the unassuming piece of public art still radiates a pleasant, somewhat meditative aura. While I can’t speak to any other time of day but sunrise, Dividing the Light is more than worthwhile for the dogged Turrell enthusiast, most nearby San Gabriel Valley residents and people who look forward to the tentative 2024 opening of Turrell’s magnus opus, Arizona’s Roden Crater. No matter the time of day, the work gently insists on your sustained attention, inducing in viewers at least momentary calm and maybe even wonder. Amid a sea of distractions, it’s an island of intentional, yet relaxed focus, leagues away from the internet’s daily cheap dopamine thrills.
James Turrell’s Dividing the Light is located on the campus of Pomona College at 600 N College Way, Claremont. The installation is open to the public anytime; the school asks visitors to not bring food and drink inside and to respect the space and quiet enjoyment of others. Unique light programs begin 100 minutes before sunrise and 25 minutes before sunset.