I remember vividly the first time I saw the work of James Turrell. It was during the 1980s, and I walked into Leo Castelli’s gallery at 142 Greene Street in SoHo to look at James Rosenquist’s enormous painting F-111 (1965), now in the collection of MoMA. It’s a massive work. While I was looking at this painting, I noticed a green light at the end of the huge space. I walked over to what I thought was a monochromatic painting pasted to the wall. It was mesmerizing, and I felt an overwhelming urge to touch its surface. Of course, my hand went right through it. It was one of Jim’s Space Divisions. He has an uncanny ability to shape space and light into form.
That’s when I became really interested in Jim’s work and started to read about it. Then it took a few years before I got in touch with him and we spoke about the idea of making an exhibition at Magasin III (James Turrell, October 23, 1994 – April 2, 1995). Through letters and faxes, we eventually settled on a selection for the show that included work from as early as 1966 (the Projection piece Afrum Proto) and as recently as 1992 (Dawning). In honor of the first work of Jim’s that I encountered, I knew I wanted to include a Space Division work in the show. That work, Dawning, ended up being acquired by Magasin III during the course of the exhibition and is the only permanently installed work.
Jim was here for about two weeks for the installation and opening in October 1994. At one point during the installation, as Dawning was nearing completion, I was standing with Jim and his assistant Michael Bond to survey the work. Jim said, ”Hmm, I see a hot spot,” and asked Michael to climb over the wall into the light space. You had to have white socks on to go back there, so Michael put on his socks, climbed in, approached the wall, and then said to Jim, ”You’re right.” There was a miniscule piece of hair in the paint on the wall. Jim had the keenest eye, and he had seen that the light broke over it. Because of this one hair, we had to sand, skim, and repaint the entire back wall.
Because you had to apply such a thin layer of paint, the painters had to learn how to paint in a totally new way. Our main painter—Per Olsson, or Pelle—memorialized himself by painting his name inside the dividing wall! You can see it in the installation photos. His name is still there, concealed inside the wall, twenty years later.
The lighting level and balance in the work is extremely sensitive. There are four spot-type lights in the viewing space, and then there are tube lights inside the light space. Everything is dimmed through specially-imported Swiss dimmers—the only model that didn’t make the lights flicker. One day, Jim and Michael decided to have a bit of fun at my expense. They readjusted all the lighting levels so that when I entered the room it looked like Dawning was kind of bent, like it had become concave. I thought that some carpenter had gone in and changed the whole shape of it, so I went ballistic and started yelling… and they started to laugh hysterically.
David Neuman, July 2014