Framed: Sky’s the limit at James Turrell’s Skyspace

“Dividing the Light” is considered a Skyspace — or as artist James Turrell describes, “a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky.” (Courtesy: Pomona College)

Art is often inaccessible. Whether because of mind-boggling prices or the indecipherable lingo of the upper-echelon art world, museums and artists turn off many people for being beyond their reach.

One of the most important artworks at Pomona College is “Dividing the Light,” an art installation by James Turrell, opened in 2007 and tucked in between Edmunds Hall and Lincoln Hall. This piece can at first present itself as either the most potent example of artworld incoherence, or as maybe not even art at all. 

Boiled down to its essence, “Dividing the Light” is just a courtyard with a fountain surrounded by benches, framed by an open ceiling. Realistically, it is nothing more than another courtyard with a fountain, which there’s a dire surplus of in Claremont. 

In many senses, “Dividing the Light” fits the bill for unapproachable contemporary art. The artist’s words only underscore this: in an interview with the Museum of Modern Art, Turrell said, “In my work, I often take light and give it a feeling of thingness, of solidity.” 

Despite Turrell’s artsy incoherence and the fact that the work is really just a covered fountain with lights, at the end of the day, it cannot be denied that “Dividing the Light” is really, really good art. 

What makes this piece so special is that it somehow transcends its uber-conceptual nature and becomes perhaps the most approachable artwork on Pomona’s campus.

The space is inviting and always cool and shady, even on Claremont’s most scorching days. The constant white noise from the fountain is soothing, constant and hypnotic. The peaceful green ferns surrounding the courtyard feel as though they’re protecting this space from whatever lies on the outside, and the square of sky above it all is perfectly framed, like a painting of the light and clouds and celestial stars above. Come to the “Dividing the Light” at the right moment, and you’ll experience one of its periodic lighting shows, where the lights hit the canopy slowly and mesmerizingly shift colors. 

Throughout the day, you’ll find people sitting and contemplating the space, an activity which the space subtly requires of you. Stillness and silence is a non-negotiable, a feeling that comes rarely to most people’s everyday lives. 

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It’s rare for a work of art to function in as many ways as “Dividing the Light” does. People experience it as a space for contemplation, for sitting and studying, for college receptions and parties, for late-night trysts and for moments on the weekends, perhaps in an altered state of mind. 

James Turrell is an alumnus of Pomona College. He studied psychology, math and art at Pomona and graduated in 1965. He later came back to Claremont and earned a M.A. in art from Claremont Graduate University in 1973

His art is part of the Light and Space movement, which began in the 1960s in Southern California and pushed the boundaries of art beyond traditional forms, using technology to play with lights and sounds in spaces. In 1984, Turrell won a MacArthur grant, a prize given out to the most innovative change-makers in the U.S. — it’s often called the “genius award.”

“Dividing the Light” is considered a Skyspace, one of many works by Turrell that is described in the artist’s own words as “a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky,” which either stands alone or is built into existing architecture. In fact, Turrell categorizes his works into various types, such as Projection Pieces, Ganzfelds and Wedgeworks. 

Skyspaces are far from Turrell’s most out-there series. For his Perceptual Cell series, he constructs giant spheres, bigger than a truck, with drawer-like compartments for visitors to lay down in. Then, once shut in, different lights come on so intensely that the perception of the space is absolutely distorted, and the biological structures of your eyes are turned around and contribute to the sensations of colors and shapes inside the sphere. Some of Turrell’s installations are so disorienting that visitors have fallen over and broken or sprained bones ― he’s been sued by injured museum-goers. 

Even more staggering is the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano on Turrell’s ranch in Arizona, which he has been turning into an interactive art installation since 1974. Turrell has constructed tunnels, underground rooms and art pieces throughout the volcano. The unfinished piece is the ultimate representation of the fascination with spaces and the way light moves through them that characterizes Turrell’s work, writ astoundingly large. 

The scale and scope of Turrell’s various pieces — installations, experiences, spaces — is hard to describe in normal art vocabulary — or vocabulary at all — period. Perhaps that’s why it can all seem so bizarre at first. In one quote, he said that his art has “no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought.”

“You are looking at you looking” is not a normal sentence by any means. But when art is as innovative as Turrell’s, maybe it makes sense. Maybe “wordless thought” is the right way to describe those feelings and sensations that you feel when sitting in “Dividing the Light.” 

Turrell’s work is the exception to most contemporary art. It’s relatable on a fundamental level, speaking to those who experience it in a way almost indescribable. That’s the marker of good art. 

Frances Sutton PO ’21 is TSL’s art columnist. She is an art history major who enjoys sewing and attempting to convince people that her hometown of San Francisco is the best city in the world. 

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