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Five Things to Know About the Wonderfully Weird James Turrell

Annie Tittiger | April 19, 2016 | Story Galleries and Performance National

There’s a James Turrell exhibit coming to Palo Alto, and this one promises to be a doozy. Aside from a permanent installment at the de Young, the Bay Area hasn’t seen a Turrell piece in 13 years. Until this month, when the Pace Gallery in Palo Alto will have one of his wide glass pieces—which have never been exhibited in the United States—on display. This is art-world crème de la crème, of course, but here are a few more things to know about the artist.

He owns a crater.
Turrell owns 155 square miles outside Flagstaff, Arizona, and on that land is an extinct volcano—Roden Crater. He bought the site 44 years ago, when his daughter was born, and ever since he’s been excavating the crater into a network of tunnels and rooms that play with light from the sun, moon, and stars. His daughter graduated from medical school and has a kid of her own, but the project is still not finished. So it could be a while before the public gets to visit.

He has a dedicated museum. Funded by a Napa Valley art collector. In Argentina.
Donald Hess, of the Hess Winery empire in Napa, is an avid collector of Turrell’s work—so much so that he funded the James Turrell Museum, which opened in 2009. Granted, it’s on the grounds of the Colomé Winery and Estate, a two-hour flight and a four-hour drive from Buenos Aires—about as far off the grid as you can get.

He is incredibly precise.
His exhibits often require museums and galleries to seal windows and create new walls. Every corner in his show must be precise to a 64th of an inch.

He has created work that has prompted lawsuits.
Visitors to Turrell’s 1980 show at the Whitney Museum in New York lost depth perception and fell over—one even ran smack into a wall. Turrell, however, did not shoulder any of the blame for their injuries, claiming that they were responsible for their own bodily awareness.

He has been credited by Drake as a source of inspiration.
The rapper cited Turrell as an influence on the visuals for his 2014 tour. Seems accurate: It’s hard to watch Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video and not draw some comparisons.

The James Turrell exhibit will be on display at the Pace Gallery from April 28 to August 1.

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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