Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Tangled Up in Blue: James Turrell’s Virtual Vision

Mid-way through his 2003 New Yorker profile on James Turrell, Calvin Tomkins makes a telling mistake. Tomkins has been charting the artist’s development as a young painter influenced by the likes of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko when, as Tomkins describes it, Turrell happens upon short description of Donald Judd’s Minimalism in an essay by Michael Fried. As Tomkins describes this encounter, “Turrell suddenly shouted, That’s it! I’ve got it!… His Eureka moment was triggered by a disparaging comment of Fried’s about the work of Donald Judd and other Minimal artists—that their impersonal, machine-made sculptures had the look of images projected from slides.”1 Without citing the actual source of this epiphany, Tomkins recounts how Fried’s metaphor prompts a tectonic shift in the Turrell’s work from pigment to light, the medium that will form the basis of his work from this point forward. Which sounds all well and good, apart from the fact that Judd’s work, and indeed Minimalism in general, looks nothing like a projected slide; a discrepancy explained by the fact that the actual passage by Fried isn’t about Judd or Minimalism or even sculpture at all, but the distinctive staining technique used by the painter Morris Louis. “[Louis’s] stain technique,” Fried writes “identifies the painted image with the woven canvas ground almost as if the image were thrown onto the later from a slide projector.”2 In addition, Fried also isn’t criticizing the visual illusion of being like a projected slide—he’s praising it. For Fried the optical effect he is describing in Louis’s paintings constitutes a version of what he calls “abstract illusionism.”

Pesky details notwithstanding, Tomkins account of Fried’s influence on Turrell (a perverse irony if ever there was one) is, in its broad strokes, fundamentally correct. Thus, following his “Eureka moment,” Turrell begins to mask out carefully designed shapes directly onto slides that he then projects into the corner of a room using a powerful Xenon slide projector. The resulting intersection of light and architecture produces the ghostly apparition of a free-floating cube [Fig. 1]. This unstable mix of actual flatness (the masked out shape as it appears on the slide), recession (as the light hits the corner of the room) and virtual extension (the illusion of the floating cube) is also, of course, an unstable mix of not-quite painting, not-quite sculpture, not-quite cinema, not-quite photography, and not-quite architecture, and hence the primary reason, I suspect, that so many critics presume the primacy of Turrell’s engagement with Judd’s “specific objects,” Tomkins quite obviously included.

Fig. 1 James Turrell, Afrum Pale Blue, 1968
Fig. 1 James Turrell, Afrum Pale Blue, 1968

Tomkins’ error is significant, I think, and not simply because he so blithely assumes that the source of any quote by Michael Fried must surely be a part of his well-known polemic against Minimalism. Rather, it is not just Fried’s metaphor of the projected slide that Tomkins—and more to the point, Turrell—gets wrong, but the larger claim advanced in “Three American Painters”: namely, that a certain strain of American painters working in the wake of Pollock’s drip paintings develop a distinct form of abstract “illusionism.” As Fried goes on to describe Louis’s staining technique, for example, he notes how it, “can achieve the illusion of painterly effects and even of different textures within a context of unremitting opticality.” And likewise, “Newman’s best paintings address themselves to eyesight alone in that they comprise an illusion of spatiality itself rendered sheerly optical—that is, of space experienced in sheerly visual terms—much as the paintings of the old masters comprise the illusion of space rendered in a largely tactile pictorial vocabulary.”3 Of course it is not just painting that can produce “abstract illusionism.” The philosopher Stanley Cavell describes much the same illusionistic effect, for example, in work of the British abstract sculptor Anthony Caro:

It is almost as though the color [in the work of Caro] helps de-materialize its supporting object. One might wish to say they are weightless, but that would not mean that these massively heavy materials seem light, but, more surprisingly, neither light nor heavy, resistant to the concept of weight altogether—as they are resistant to the concept of size; they seem neither large nor small. Similarly they seem to be free of texture…. They are no longer things.4

But if Turrell saw the light, so to speak, in his encounter with Fried’s writing, the spectral images that we see in his work function in a significantly different manner than the pictorial or sculptural illusionism described by Fried and Cavell. In his projected works, for example, we could loosely describe the relation between the actual corner of the room and the projected image over top of it as a version of “literal” and “depicted” shape—terms famously coined by Fried to describe the difference between the “literal” experience of shape as it occurs in the polygonal pictorial support of Frank Stella’s early shaped paintings and the “depicted” shape of the painted stripes that ostensibly mirror their literal counterpart—but it would be wrong to do so in Fried’s or Cavell’s terms.5 For not only is the three-dimensional shape of the architecture at odds with the two-dimensional shape masked out on the slide (unlike Frank Stella’s shaped polygonal paintings), we cannot say, following Fried and Cavell, that the light defeats or in any way transcends its own materiality—a necessary precondition for the particular kind of illusion they are concerned with (more on this below)—as it has no materiality to defeat. Moreover—and this is fundamental in the development of Turrell’s work—the mirage effect of the three-dimensional cube occurs not on the walls of the gallery, per se, but in the mind of the viewer. In refusing to align with the surfaces of the two perpendicular walls, in other words, the projected shape tricks the mind into perceiving a form extended in space. Further adding to this perceptual confusion is our inability to stabilize our vantage point. Much like the Necker cube [Fig. 2]—an optical illusion widely reproduced in psychology textbooks (as Turrell would have been well aware, having received his BA in perceptual psychology from Pomona college)—our perception of Turrell’s projection flips unstably between recession or extension in space. These projected works thus short circuit the relay between cognition and perception, producing not an illusionistic space in which the depicted image defeats the materiality of the object, but a virtual space whereby the cube hovers as much in the mind as on the gallery walls.

Fig. 2 Illustration of the Necker Cube
Fig. 2 Illustration of the Necker Cube

Describing Turrell’s work in these terms—as a manifestation of “the virtual”—is hardly an innovative move on my part. As far back as 1990, well before the humanities were besotted with all things virtual, Rosalind Krauss diagnosed Turrell’s work as an effort to produce what she called a “no longer mappable or knowable depth”6 through a giddy kind of affective “intensity—a free-floating and impersonal feeling dominated by a peculiar sense of euphoria.”7 Krauss’ account of Turrell occurs in the context of another epiphany of sorts: that a new paradigm of the modern art museum had taken hold, whereby the intensity of experience and overall atmospheric effect are ultimately more important than actual works of art themselves. And for this lamentable state of affairs Krauss places the burden of responsibility squarely on Dan Flavin’s shoulders. Thus, walking around a freshly installed exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, Krauss recounts being stopped by a curator, who, as she describes it “positions me at the spot within the exhibition that she describes as being, for her, somehow the most riveting. It is one of the newly stripped and smoothed and neutralized galleries, made whitely luminous by the serial progression of a recent work by [Dan] Flavin.” “But,” Krauss hastens to add, “we are not actually looking at the Flavin.” Rather they are looking at “the two ends of the gallery through the large doorways of which [we] see the disembodied glow produced by two other Flavins, each in an adjoining room.”8 It is the luminous side effects of Flavin’s Minimalism, in other words, that captivates the curator, not the work itself.

It is this disregard for the actual art object in favor of its atmospheric effects and idiosyncratic experience that Krauss decries not only in the postmodern reception of Flavin’s work, but above all—and as its logical extension—in the relatively recent interest in the work of Turrell. Describing Turrell as “an extremely minor figure for Minimalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but one who plays an extremely important role in the reprogrammation [sic] of Minimalism in the late 1980s,”9 Krauss views this rewiring of Minimalism as nothing short of a calamity as it shifts the accent in Flavin’s work from the purely literal presence of the florescent bulbs and its fixtures to the immaterial, pseudo-pictorial play of colors that are its effects. Turrell, she claims, takes the single-most vexatious, even embarrassing, aspect of Minimalism—the virtual effects of Flavin’s atmospheric lighting—and runs with it, perverting Minimalism’s desire to strip the artwork of illusion by grounding it in “literal” time and space. Rather than the non-illusionistic, literal space of Minimalism, Turrell presents us instead with what she calls “hyperspace,”10 or what we now more typically call virtual space. It is this submersion of the literal within the virtual that she condemns in the work of Turrell.

If Krauss frets over the potential reprogramming of Minimalism in Turrell’s work, Hal Foster, writing some twenty-plus-years later, view matters as having gone from bad to disastrous. No longer a negligible outgrowth of Flavin and Judd—the lamentable underbelly of what, for Krauss, “was always potential within Minimalism”—Turrell’s work, for Foster, epitomizes the increasingly dominant reception of Minimalism within so much exuberantly spectacular contemporary art. Taking Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 installation, Weather Project [Fig. 3], in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern as the paradigm for this embrace of spectacle, Foster argues that such contemporary works openly embrace, rather than resist, the virtual, as we literally bask in their cold glow. Such, he claims, is the legacy of Turrell run amok. But, in a somewhat surprise twist given the importance he has previously ascribed to Minimalism (most famously in his 1986 essay “The Crux of Minimalism”), Foster views this reception of Minimalism not as a reprograming or genetic mutation or perversion of Judd and Flavin, but a direct result of what he calls, in no uncertain terms, the “catastrophe” of Minimalism.11

Fig. 3 Olafur Eliasson, Weather Project, 2003
Fig. 3 Olafur Eliasson, Weather Project, 2003

For Foster, as for Krauss, it is Flavin in particular who has the most to answer for. It is in his work above all that Foster sees a reworking of the tension between the literal and the depicted into a play between “the object” and “phenomenon.” Thus, despite the obdurate presence of Flavin’s florescent tubes, “the literal does not counter the illusionistic, so much it is subsumed by it” prompting “not only a move into space, but a refashioning of space as illusion.”12 Which is to say, in other words—for, to be clear, Foster does not mean “illusionistic” in Fried’s sense—Flavin refashions literal space into virtual space. The tension that exists between object and phenomenon in Flavin’s work, however, disappears entirely in the work of the so-called California “Light and Space” artists—Turrell, Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler, Maria Nordman, and so on—all of whom are concerned with “phenomenon,” at the expense of the literal. Comparing Flavin’s “Untitled: To Karin and Walther” [Fig. 4] to Doug Wheeler’s “RM 669” [Fig. 5], for example, we see how, in the case of Wheeler—and this would certainly apply to Turrell as well—the technology that produces the light is completely concealed in favor of its phenomenal effects in space and its phenomenological affects within the viewer.

Fig. 4 Dan Flavin, Untitled: To Karin and Walther, 1966-71
Fig. 4 Dan Flavin, Untitled: To Karin and Walther, 1966-71
Fig. 5 Doug Wheeler, RM 669, 1969
Fig. 5 Doug Wheeler, RM 669, 1969

As Turrell states time and again, the phenomenon is the work. “There is no object in my work.” He states emphatically, “There never was. There is no image within it. I have: no object, no image, no point of focus.”13 Indeed, as Turrell likes to insist, we do not look at his art, his art looks at us—it “invades” us as he is fond of saying. He thus compares the experience of his work to the gaze of a lover: “I take seeing down to the light level where the iris opens. The eyes feel, like touch, when you look into the eyes of a lover and experience that intensity of touch with the eyes. The intimacy of being invaded with that kind of look can be frightening.”14 But, as Foster notes, if Turrell’s work is like the lover’s gaze, this “experience of great immediacy [is] achieved through a process of intensive mediation.”15 Like Walter Benjamin’s famous description of technologically produced phantasmagorical effects that he called, alternatively, “the blue flower in the land of technology,” and “dream kitsch,” Turrell’s work, for all of its purported intimacy and claims to spirituality, is saturated with, and inseparable from, the technology that supports it.

For Krauss, however, it is not so much that Turrell’s work looks at us, as looks for us; as if, she writes, “it is the field itself which is focusing, that it is the very object facing one that is doing the perceiving for one.”16 Much like his early optical illusions, in other words, Turrell’s later work inserts itself into the gap between perception and cognition, taking over and disrupting—“invading,” as he says—the mechanics of seeing. “Very aggressive and very hallucinatory,” as Nat Trotman, one of the curators of the recent Turrell exhibition at the Guggenheim, describes Turrell’s work.17

For many, of course, the psycho-physiological effects of Turrell’s spaces are entirely beside the point, as, for these viewers, Turrell’s use of light is not so much concerned with the material processes of action and reaction within the body, as Turrell insists, but with the immaterial realm of the spirit, as he also insists. Indeed, Turrell plays both sides of the fence here, such that we not only find reference upon reference to the spiritual nature of light in his work—we go forth to “greet the light,” as he is fond of saying in reference to his Quaker upbringing—but also, and directly alongside of these spiritualist claims, detailed descriptions of how the physical properties of light alters beta frequencies in brain, impacts the retinal mechanics of the eye, saturates the optical nerve, and so on. “I don’t know whether I can change the color of the sky,” states Turrell matter-of-factly, “but I can change you.”18 Statements such as this—and there are many—raise the question: what kind of mysticism is this exactly?

Following hot on the heels of his early projection works and a series of light works installed in his Santa Monica studio, Turrell accepted an invitation in 1969 from the artist Robert Irwin to collaborate on an initiative called “Art and Technology” organized by Maurice Tuchman, a young curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As Tuchman described it in a 1971 interview, the aim of Art and Technology was to team artists with researchers at corporations that were “chiefly aerospace oriented”—which is a polite way of saying (lest we forget this is the height of the Vietnam War) defense contractors.19 And indeed, without wanting to make too much hay of this, it’s worth noting that in the same year MoMA faced widespread condemnation for soliciting donations from corporations profiting from the war in Vietnam.20 Turrell and Robert Irwin appeared to have little or no compunction working with scientists directly involved with military research at the Lockheed and Garrett corporations, corporations that were responsible for making the C-5 Galaxy bomber and parts for the B-1 bomber, respectively.

Fig. 6 James Turrell, Robert Irwin, and Edward C. Wortz, 1969
Fig. 6 James Turrell, Robert Irwin, and Edward C. Wortz, 1969

Having expressed early interest in working with Lockheed, Turrell and Irwin eventually began to collaborate with Edward C. Wortz [Fig. 6], a psychologist in the life sciences department of the Garrett Corporation whose research concentrated primarily on maximizing combat efficiency for air force fighter pilots.21 Five sets of notes, typed by Turrell between January and February 1969, now housed in the archives of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, describe the never-realized proposal put forward to LACMA by Turrell, Irwin, and Wortz. Three spaces were envisioned: a waiting area that Turrell’s notes describe as a site for “preconditioning”; an anechoic chamber (also known as a sensory deprivation chamber); and an upper ganzfeld chamber. The visitor, or subject, would spend around ten minutes being “programed” in the “preconditioning area” through the use of subliminal messages. The subject would then enter a completely dark, completely sound-dampened 12’ x 12’ anechoic chamber with a chair in the center. Sitting in a reclining position, the only sounds the subject would hear were those of his or her own body. After fifteen minutes the chair would flatten and rise hydraulically into the upper ganzfeld chamber, a field of “total vision,” in which the subject is stripped of all spatial orientation and depth cues. As Turrell sums up the entire process: “[We] hit them at the level of expectancy so they become engaged and then manipulate them to our level—a seductive act.”22

Fig. 7 James Turrell, Gasworks (A Ganzfeld Sphere), The Henry Moore Sculpture Studio, 1993
Fig. 7 James Turrell, Gasworks (A Ganzfeld Sphere), The Henry Moore Sculpture Studio, 1993

Although the work for LACMA was never realized, Turrell has since gone on to produce a relatively large number of works involving anechoic and ganzfeld chambers, and the ganzfeld effect has become one of the signature elements of his work. Indeed, the level of coercion in the LACMA proposal is relatively mild compared to Turrell’s more recent works. Take, for example, Turrell’s description of one of his recent ganzfeld chambers at the Henry Moore institute in Halifax, England [Fig. 7]: “It could induce an epileptic fit. You could really render someone useless if you choose to. The Henry Moore Institute had to have a neurologist from London…. It is serious business from that point of view. But there have been art pieces, by Christo and Serra, that actually killed people. I don’t in any way intend that…. It is invasive, closing your eyes will not stop this…”23 Along similar lines, museumgoers who subjected themselves to a ganzfeld work titled “Light Reignfall” at Turrell’s 2014 LACMA retrospective were required to sign a legal waiver releasing the museum from all responsibility [Fig. 8]. In so doing, one acknowledges, per section four, that “The Work has been known to cause epileptic seizures, and that my experiencing the Work may result in serious injury including, without limitation partial or total disability, paralysis, death, and/or severe social and economic losses.”

Fig. 8 Los Angeles County Museum of Art legal waiver for James Turrell’s Light Reignfall
Fig. 8 Los Angeles County Museum of Art legal waiver for James Turrell’s Light Reignfall

First discovered in the 1930s by the German psychologist Wolfgang Metzger, the ganzfeld—or “total field”—originally interested scientists in the belief that vision could be experimentally isolated at its most reduced level or “primitive state.” With no object, figure-ground relation, or spatial orientation for vision to latch on to, the hope was that this zero-degree of vision could provide insights into the physical and physiological mechanics of vision. What researchers found, however, was that far from producing a kind of blank slate from which to determine the elemental building blocks of visual perception, the ganzfeld produced continuously anomalous results within test subjects. Thus, after 10 to 20 minutes subjects typically report having difficulty knowing whether or not their eyes were closed (hence Turrell’s statement that “closing your eye’s will not stop this.”) Vision “blanks out,” such that subjects describe, according to one report, “a complete absence of seeing.” As the report also notes: “Various after effects…were found” including “fatigue and a great lightness of body. Motor coordination was reportedly poor, and observers had difficulty maintaining balance. Time perception was disturbed. Subjects often complained of dizziness and sometimes appeared to be intoxicated. One observer experienced temporary states of depersonalization.”24 Vision at its most stripped down, researchers quickly realized, is never pure. Adding barely audible amounts of sound in an effort to “ground” sensation—a technique also used by Turrell—only made matters worse, producing as one researcher described it: “extensive hallucinations.”25

All of these problems led to near universal disinterest in the ganzfeld within university psychology departments until it was “rediscovered” in the 1950s and ’60s for its potential military applications. The ganzfeld, it turns out, is a naturally occurring phenomenon experienced by military personnel, especially pilots, under specific atmospheric conditions: the cockpit of a jet fighter, artic snowstorms, in dense fog, and so on. As a result, pilots or soldiers can become disoriented, experience mild hallucinations, fail to track targets or properly position themselves in space. Psychologists such as Wortz sought to combat these impediments to military combat efficiency.


So what am I driving at by dwelling on the “invasive” aspects of Turrell’s work? My point is not simply to call into question the purportedly spiritual basis of his work. Nor is it to discredit Turrell personally for his collaborative work with defense contractors or using military-based research during the Vietnam era (unsavory though that may be). Nor am I simply concerned to highlight the coercive nature of Turrell’s work and leave it at that. Rather, my objections to Turrell’s work are twofold, which I want to address quickly by way of a conclusion. The first pertains to the ways in which it not only aides and abets the virtual in its ever-increasing colonization of space, as Foster and Krauss charge, but far more insidiously—far more “invasively”—in its colonization of the subject. My second and related concern has to do with the semantic consequences of Turrell’s work: what does it mean to have these experiences? Or more to the point, what doesn’t it mean; indeed, why can’t it mean, and why should we be concerned about that absence of meaning.

It is no coincidence, I think, that interest in the ganzfeld has been revived of late in relation to the recent the flurry of all things virtual, particularly as it pertains to the current trends in affect theory. Brian Massumi, self-styled doyen of all things virtual, for example, dedicates a chapter to the ganzfeld in his book, Parables for the Virtual, and discusses the work of Irwin and Turrell at length in his more recent Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts. According to Massumi, the disruptive effects that we experience in the face of the ganzfeld demonstrates that vision is always a kind of “double vision.” By which he means that in our everyday view of things, we look at objects through the optic of a utilitarian, rationalizing perception. In the ganzfeld, however, we see vision within vision itself—we see vision made virtual as it is deprived of objects and Euclidian space, such that we can suddenly see and, more to the point, feel the ebb and flow of its “intensities” otherwise looked through or repressed. In the ganzfeld, we see vision’s diabolical twin; or as Massumi describes it “the action of vision, the kind of event it is, the virtual dimension it always has.”26 The ganzfeld, makes us aware—disturbingly, even painfully so—of the ways in which affects and intensities inhabit our vision.

In the absence of depth, the ganzfeld produces an experience of pure surface, and it is the difference between these two kinds of vision—one of depth (everyday vision) and one of surface (virtual vision)—that speaks to our innate double vision for Massumi. Furthermore, these two forms of vision in turn correspond to two distinct systems operative within the body as a whole. The first system is one that we consciously recognize, and is linked to meaning, signification, expectation, common sense, and narrative continuity. The second system, by contrast, is a network of “intensities” and affects that operates in advance of consciousness, distinct and independent of meaning and intentionality. The first system, then, generates meaning; the second system generates affect. Rather than cooperating, however, these two systems typically interfere with one another in various ways. Accordingly, it is the second system—the system associated with affect—that Massumi ultimately privileges. Indeed, as Ruth Leys has noted, Massumi, along with the majority of contemporary affect theorists, is committed to what she describes as the “disjunction or gap between a subject’s affective processes and his or her cognition or knowledge of the objects that caused them.” The result, Leys continues, “is that the body not only ‘senses’ and performs a kind of ‘thinking’ below the threshold of conscious recognition and meaning but…because of the speed with which the autonomic, affective processes are said to occur, it does all this before the mind has time to intervene.”27 Or, as Massumi would have it, affect, “happens too quickly for it to have happened.”28 It is for this reason that the affective system works independently of meaning and intention. We may think that a given image or color or shape or sentence means something quite distinct—just as an artist or filmmaker or writer may think that they intend a particular meaning—but our autonomic-affective response to these words, forms, gestures, colors, sounds, and so on are triggered prior to signification, such that we potentially feel something quite different than what we think we think.

Fig. 9 James Turrell, Twilight Epiphany, 2012, Rice University, Houston, Texas
Fig. 9 James Turrell, Twilight Epiphany, 2012, Rice University, Houston, Texas

An apposite and convenient analog to this dual system/double vision of meaning and affect is found in Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany, a recently installed skyspace on the campus of Rice University, where I teach. Like the dual visual registers of meaning and affect, we have in this work by Turrell two quite distinct experiences: one in the day, the other in the evening. During the day [Fig. 9], the architecture of the work is foregrounded, such that it makes a certain sense to talk about its form, what that form might mean, and the various choices intended by artist. What, for instance, are we to make of this odd mix of Aztec pyramid and UFO? Why granite benches and not, say, wood? Why these particulars dimensions? Why the difference in flooring materials between the main chamber and the entry and exit corridors, why this particular location, etc. In the light of day these kinds of questions make sense, as do the kinds of meaning and competing interpretations we can in turn draw from these questions. And as such, it therefore makes sense to draw certain interpretive conclusions about Turrell’s work, just as it makes sense to agree or disagree or argue with others about what this all might mean and whether it is good or bad, innovative or kitsch. Now all of this is not to say that the work is primarily concerned with its material presence: its not. For of course the central focus of the skyspace—the focus against which all else is mere stagecraft—is the view onto the sky through the orthogonal aperture. During the day, as at night, the orthogonal patch of sky is stripped of depth, appearing to us as a flat two-dimensional image, like a colored membrane flush with the frame of the aperture. Through the skyspace, sky becomes pure surface, as depth is made virtual, looking like a flat-screen television broadcasting live. We know that what we are seeing is the actual blue sky in the far distance, but it appears to us as more of two-dimensional representation flush with the edges of the skyspace than the distant atmosphere.

Fig. 10 James Turrell, Twilight Epiphany, 2012, Rice University, Houston, Texas
Fig. 10 James Turrell, Twilight Epiphany, 2012, Rice University, Houston, Texas

During the evening [Fig. 10], something else happens as questions regarding materials, or dimensions, or site, or form recede into the background as the preprogramed light show takes over, flooding artwork and viewer alike in its slowly changing colored glow. In the evening, our attention shifts from the granite benches, the pyramidal form, and the materials on the floor—all of which now appear wholly irrelevant to our experience—to the visual razzle-dazzle that subsumes us. As day cedes to night, artwork cedes to experience and meaning cedes to affect. And just as Massumi privileges the nonsignifying surface of affect over depth and signification, so too are we told by the work’s title (not to mention the work’s dedicated website, which has a clock counting down the hours and minutes until the next “light sequence”) to come back at twilight, when the real fireworks begin—when the work really comes alive. When the real experience begins.


So what, in the end, separates Fried’s and Cavell’s understanding of illusionism from the virtual? Could we not just as easily say, for instance, that the sky in the skyspace produces the illusion of flatness, or see the colored square within a square on Turrell’s ceiling as a kind of Josef Albers-like abstract painting in light? One way to cash out the difference between illusionism and virtuality is to underscore that for Fried, if an artwork is either subsumed by its literal materiality (as per Minimalism), or the opposite, if it is overwhelmed by its opticality (as per Turrell), then, as he famously puts it, the artwork fails to “compel our conviction.” Which is to say, when the experience of an artwork resides solely on the level of its brute materiality—when the paint on a painting’s canvas surface appears no different in kind than the paint on the door of a house, for instance—then we see that artwork as a simple object in the world, much as we would a table or tree. But when the artwork “defeats” or overcomes its own materiality—when we see the paint on an artist’s canvas as more than, and ultimately different from, the viscous colored liquid that it was in the can or the tube—then we experience a sublated materiality that, in some essential respect, is no longer perceived to be a simple object. We see, in other words, a distinctive form of “illusionism” that produces, as Fried describes it, a “distinction between an art of conviction and merely a kind of object.”29

But beyond Michael Fried’s say so, who is to say whether an artwork succeeds or fails or compels conviction? Well, us. All of us, as viewers, decide, and argue about and frequently change our mind as to whether or not a work succeeds or fails. And it is for this reason, pace received wisdom, that Fried distrusts excessive opticality as much—arguably more—than excessive literalness. Take his criticism, for example, of a series of narrow, diamond-shaped paintings by of Kenneth Noland, an artist he has otherwise admires: “the extreme attenuation together with ‘the sheerly visual illusion generated by the interaction of [their] colored bands’ makes the enclosing shapes seem to vibrate and shimmer, with the result that ‘the physical limits of [their] support are overrun, indeed all but dissolved, by the paintings’ illusionistic presence.’”30 As Fried notes in his “Introduction to My Art Criticism,” he is “troubled, not satisfied” by the way the optical effects of these paintings subsume their literal quality. Artworks that appeal too much to the eye fail not only in their obvious attempt to seduce us through an overly facile appeal to sensation, they also fail to resolve the conflict between opticality and its material support. As Fried stresses, “neither literalness as such (the Minimalist option) nor untrammelled visual illusionism (as in Noland’s narrow diamonds) is seen by me as resolving that conflict [between the material and the optical].”31 Fundamental to Fried’s concern about excessive opticality is the manner by which it seizes us, hijacking our optical physiology such that we have no choice but to respond. Criticizing “the kind of optical flicker or beat” produced by colored dots in Larry Poon’s painting, Fried dislikes how, “under the gallery’s bright lights the dots tend to flicker and jump and blink and flare until we begin to fear for our retinas if not our minds.” Such optical effects, Fried writes, are “literally irresistible…. There is … an element of coercion that runs counter to art, or at any rate to even the barest notion of individual sensibility.” The “mode of address” in Poon’s work—and this would hold true to a far greater extent for Turrell—“is precisely to us as subjects, not spectators.”32

Put differently—and here I’m glossing Walter Benn Michaels glossing Michael Fried—to experience the affective impact of an artwork as a subject tells us something about us (how our vision functions in ganzfeld, for example, or how our mind constructs a cube under certain conditions). To experience the work of art as a viewer, by contrast, where our focus is on the work rather than the way our eyes behave in certain situations, is to be open to the possibility of the work’s success or failure. To experience the work of art as a subject forecloses that possibility: the work will never fail—will always succeed on its own terms as it will necessarily and always produce a range of physiological and cognitive responses. A ganzfeld—or, more to the point, a work by Turrell—is no more interpreted than a toothache; it simply dictates a response. And this response is not something we understand or don’t understand. It is a reaction in the body that produces a set of fairly predictable physiological and cognitive effects in each and every subject. Turrell, in other words, neither compels nor does not compel our conviction. For in “compelling our conviction”—or not—an artwork allows us the freedom not to respond to it; a freedom we all but are deprived of in Turrell’s work.


This essay is dedicated to the memory of my sister, Kerra St. John. It was originally presented as a talk at the symposium “Ecologies of Art, Architecture, and Theory,” sponsored by the Center for Critical and Cultural Theory, Rice University on May 3-4, 2013. My thanks to Cary Wolfe for the invitation to speak, and to the other participants and audience members for their feedback. I am particular grateful to Charles Palermo and the anonymous reader of this essay, both of whom improved it greatly.
1. Calvin Tomkins, “Flying into the Light,” The New Yorker (January 13, 2003), 66.
2. Michael Fried, “Three American Painters: Noland, Olitski, Stella” [1965] in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 230.
3. Fried, “Three American Painters,” 231 and 232. Italics in original.
4. Stanley Cavell, “A Matter of Meaning it” in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 217.
5. Michael Fried, “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons,” in in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, 77-99.
6. Rosalind Krauss, “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum,” October 54 (Autumn, 1990), 12.
7. Krauss, 14.
8. Krauss, 4.
9. Krauss, 12.
10. Krauss, 12.
11. Hal Foster, “Painting Unbound” in The Art-Architecture Complex (London: Verso, 2011), 184.
12. Foster, “Painting Unbound,” 202.
13. James Turrell, quoted in Jan Butterfield, The Art of Light + Space (New York: Abbeville Publishing, 1993), 68.
14. James Turrell, quoted in Vicki Lindner, “An Interview with James Turrell” Omni 17.9 (Winter 1995), 108.
15. Foster, “Painting Unbound,” 212.
16. Krauss, 12.
17. Quoted in Wil S. Hylton, “How James Turrell Knocked the Art World Off its Feet,” New York Times Magazine (June 13, 2013). Accessed Dec. 16, 2013.
18. James Turrell, quoted in James Turrell: Inside Outside, Cv/Visual Art Research Archive 57 (London: Cv Publications, 2005), 14.
19. Maurice Tuchman in David Antin, “Art and the Corperations,” Artnews 70 (September 1971), 54; quoted in Andrew J. Perchuk, From Otis to Ferus: Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, and Peter Voulkos in Los Angeles, 1954-1975 (PhD. Dissertation, Yale University, 2006), 138. I’m greatly indebted in what follows to Perchuk’s exhaustive research.
20. Grace Glueck, writing in the New York Times, thus describes donations of materials to MoMA by various corporations for the exhibition “Spaces”: “One gift, 20 florescent bulbs provided for Mr. Flavin by General Electric, has drawn fire from the Art Workers Coalition, the anti-Establishment group, which has directed a number of salvos against museums during the last year. ‘We question the use of art (and artists) by a corporation that is one of the largest Government contractors of war material,’ the group wrote to Mr. Flavin.” “Museum Beckoning Space Explorers,” New York Times, November 2, 1970, 34.
21. As Perchuk describes Wortz’s work in and leading up to these years: “Wortz began his career in the late fifties and early sixties by studying whether certain tranquilizers could provide protection from massive electroshock. In 1965, only three years before his collaboration with Irwin and Turrell, he published a paper from his research at Garrett: ‘Effects of Control-Display Displacement Functions on Pursuit and Compensatory Tracking.’ The purpose of this study was to determine the optimal form and type of displays in a cockpit to maximize targeting efficiencies. In other words, in the early years of Vietnam, Wortz was searching for ways to improve kill ratios by determining exactly the type and amount of visual stimulus to which pilots should be exposed when tracking enemy targets.” Perchuk, 143.
22. James Turrell, proposal note dated 1/25/69, reproduced in Maurice Tuchman and Jane Livingston, A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967-1971 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971), 132; quoted in Perchuk, 146.
23. James Turrell, Interview with N.P. James, June 19, 1996, in James Turrell: Inside Outside, 19.
24. Lloyd L. Avant, “Vision in the Ganzfeld,” Psychological Bulletin 64. 4 (1965), 256; quoted in Brian Massumi, “Chaos in the ‘Total Field’ of Vision” in Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002), 145.
25. Avant, 247; quoted in Massumi, 145.
26. Brian Massumi, Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011), 44.
27. Ruth Leys, “The Turn To Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37.3 (Spring 2011), 450.
28. Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, 30.
29. Fried, “An Introduction to My Art Criticism” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, 26.
30. Fried, “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, 83.
31. Fried, “An Introduction to My Art Criticism,” 26.
32. Fried, “New York Letter: Kelly, Poons,” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, 310-11. I am much indebted to the brilliant reading of this passage by Walter Benn Michaels in The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 85.