Experiencing Abstract Light

Throughout the 20th century, artists have explored more aspects of visual creativity, stretching the boundaries of what gets considered abstract art. By thinking “outside the box” about their subjects, abstract artists give viewers new ways of looking at the world around them. One artist who works far beyond usual boundaries is James Turrell. Turrell has used an entire building as his “canvas,” and is even in the process of transforming a natural cinder cone crater.

"Aten Reign" by James Turrell

“Aten Reign” by James Turrell

Shaping Light

James Turrell began experimenting with light and shaping the perception of light in the mid-1960s. He had studied perceptual psychology in college, and began working with light projections.

In 2013, Turrell put together a massive installation at the Guggenheim in New York City, which restricted use of the ramps in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building, so that visitors remained on the lower level. His installation, titled “Aten Reign,” took advantage of the rotunda’s oculus with its natural light, with LED lights added, giving visitors an experience of shifting colors in the light. His work required the viewer to take time with it: it could not be merely glimpsed and then by-passed for other works.

Turrell’s Perspective

Turrell has said of his work: “I make spaces that apprehend light for our perception, and in some ways gather it, or seem to hold it…my work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, although it is a product of my seeing.” Because his work involves the arrangement of light within spaces, it is best viewed in person. It should be experienced, not just seen in reproduction.

Experiencing the Abstract

Turrell has abstracted light as his medium and canvas all in one. More so than many other artists, his work requires the viewer to physically experience the creative piece. In an age when visual reproductions are the usual means by which people learn of an artist, abstract art of many different sorts remains best seen and experienced in person. The size and scope of a work is often part of the impact that the artist wants the audience to experience. Turrell has worked on vast scales. Other artists work on slightly smaller scale, and yet are also better seen in person.

"Fire Jecte" by Diana Hobson

“Fire Jecte” by Diana Hobson

Diana Hobson likes to work on larger canvases with her paintings. Her “Fire Jecte” is 5’ by 6’, for instance. In this painting, the searing squiggle of yellow stands out from the rest of the colors on the canvas. It is a striking image in the small scale of a reproduction. It would be even more so when seen at full size. The point is to see the dynamic elements in themselves, without the distraction of objective reference. More of Diana Hobson’s work can be seen at her studio in Venice on Abbot Kinney.


“Aten Reign” by James Turrell. 2013. Installation at the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY. Image used here under Fair Use Practices for instruction and information.

“Fire Jecte” by Diana Hobson, 1973. Copyright Diana Hobson. Used by permission.


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