On the occasion of the Impressionists’ second group exhibition in 1876, critic Edmond Duranty wrote that the painters’ unique artistic discovery was the exploration of the sun’s phenomena and the ability to convey light mediated by color. The critic described being able to feel heat vibrating off their canvases, “an intoxication of light” that expressed the atmosphere’s luminosity shared by the Earth and the sky. To him, what we see is one single light-ray reflection.
I cannot help but wonder how Impressionist painters would react to James Turrell’s “Greet the Light” (2013), a skyspace on permanent view in Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting, where light is the subject. In a 1985 interview, Turrell articulated how his work diverged from Claude Monet’s. “My work,” he said, “records a vision rather than serving as a record of a vision.” Turrell’s installation is a Monet painting stripped of imagery, materiality, and objecthood, leaving intangible light accentuated with intense color.
When Turrell was a young boy waiting to enter a Quaker meeting with his grandmother, he asked her what he should be doing; she replied, just wait — we are going inside to greet the light. Turrell created a realm his grandmother metaphorically alluded to with “Greet the Light,” which he donated to the meetinghouse as a place where guests can find meditative repose. Upon entrance, visitors are welcome to lie down in the meeting room and await the sunrise or sunset. Part of the roof quietly slides away, revealing a rectangular shape that opens directly to the sky. In the ceiling, Turrell created what he calls a “sensing space,” a space that opens to and draws light from another source. What happens next challenges how we think we know what we think we see.
For about 50 minutes, we can revel in the sensing space’s one-of-a-kind experience. LED lights in colors found in the sky — rich pinks, violets, and blue-greens — line the lower ledge of the ceiling. Color seeps into the space, making light present. At times, the rectangular opening appears to be floating; at others, it seems solid. As subtleties transition into dramatic changes, our perception of the world becomes an illusion, literally.
Turrell said he was interested in allowing you to “see yourself see.” In some ways, “Greet the Light” emphasizes the mechanics of seeing, the process of looking, whereby we realize that what we perceive is not actually happening. The sun does not set. The Earth rotates. We move. By focusing on light — on the seemingly invisible — it is as if Turrell selected a slice of the atmosphere just for us to help us understand that the transitory occurrences we observe are illusory and are created by our perceptions.
With an exhibition last summer at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, a Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition that just ended, and upcoming exhibitions in Australia and Israel, we are fortunate to have Turrell’s “Greet the Light” in Chestnut Hill. The experience may change the way you see — or, rather, cause you to consider that what you see, your imagination and sense of vision created.