This Old Crater

A volcanic cinder cone near Flagstaff will soon become one of the world's most significant pieces of environmental art

Neighbors living on the scattered homesteads out by the crater say it isn't unusual to encounter lost pilgrims at their door, asking how to get to the crater. (The project also seems to have drawn the attention of militia types, who think the construction is all part of some secret government plot. Says one neighbor: "A friend of mine had a militia guy show up who . . . wanted to inspect the crater because he thinks it's some kind of government conspiracy to poison our water with some kind of virus or bacteria because we already know too much about things.")

For Turrell, Roden Crater has been an unwavering--and costly--act of faith.
By his own account, the tally of losses includes his two marriages, several other relationships, and--more than once--hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt that nearly sank him and the project.

"It was particularly hard on my last mate," he says. "She really thought I was mortgaging the children's future for this. That was a little bit too much for her, and she left."

The enormousness of the undertaking has turned his personal vision into a corporate venture involving no less than three private nonprofit foundations, numerous benefactors and government agencies, and a small army of northern Arizonans more accustomed to kicking cow pies in cattle yards than stroking their chins in art galleries.

The Dia Art Foundation in New York bought Roden Crater in the late 1970s and began paying Turrell to build his vision for it. The foundation's support collapsed in the early 1980s, forcing Turrell to become a rancher to protect the crater and control the land around it. Ranching enlarged his vision of the crater and the land. But he found that vision difficult to pitch to an urban art world that rarely feels at home on the range. To secure money to begin construction, Turrell had to strike a complicated deal with Skystone, Dia and the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, which is bankrolling most of the current construction cost. He had to sell and donate significant portions of the ranch around the crater to the Skystone Foundation, and take an uncharacteristic step away from the project that has consumed his life.

Turrell's plan seemed so simple at first: Buy a volcano and find the cash to turn it into a scenic view of the sky. But his saga has turned his vision into a poignant lesson about the difficulties of making monumental art on western land.

At 56, Turrell is one of the great illusionists of contemporary art. A student of psychology before he veered into the studio, he has an artist's curiosity about perception and a scientist's preoccupation with knowing.

Friends and associates characterize him as a modern Renaissance man, a charming eccentric who has managed to earn money the old-fashioned way, by attracting private benefactors. He thrives on the chaos of making the esoteric useful. His voice is metaphysically soft, bordering on courtly, masking an intensity and stubbornness that have helped to make him one of the most intriguing artists of the day.

Married and divorced twice, he has children by three women and lives at his ranch outside Flagstaff with his current girlfriend, a young Korean woman who is also an artist.

Over the past 30 years, his installations of light have been featured in dozens of exhibitions. And he has received numerous grants and awards, including a five-year MacArthur Foundation grant commonly referred to as the "genius" award.

Many think that label fits.
"In my sort of narrow art world," says Lynn Herbert, a curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston who organized an exhibition of Turrell's work at the museum last year, "you don't come across minds like Jim's that often. Minds that can take science and psychology and perception and astronomy and bring it down to this very pure vision of light."

It's no coincidence that his vision of light has emerged in an age flooded with artificial glows. Most of his museum and gallery installations depend on modern light sources ranging from projectors and glowing televisions, on the high end, to dimmers, fixtures and fluorescent bulbs from Home Depot.

In the history of art, it isn't difficult to find great painters depicting breathtaking scenes and qualities of light, or stained-glass windows in great cathedrals blazing the colors of religious enlightenment. Yet Turrell's works haven't been about light. They have been light--a medium that, compared with other studio materials, seems to be made out of nothing and performs most of its tricks, as critic Robert Hughes once noted about Turrell's work, behind the eyes, rather than in front of them.

Turrell's magic, says Herbert, has been his ability to transform looking at light into a sensual, even tactile, experience.

His first solo exhibition, at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1967, consisted of crisp geometric projections of white light that reshaped the appearance of rooms.

Jim Demetrion was director at the Pasadena Art Museum at the time, and now heads the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. He says Turrell's light projections "really gave an illusion that made you wonder whether you were looking into a corner or just looking at something flat.

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