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Roden Crater and First Light Aquatints, 1984-1990

James Turrell installed 1
James Turrell Exhibition, 2019

Mary Ryan Gallery is pleased to present Roden Crater and First Light Aquatints, 1984-1990, a selection of James Turrell’s early etchings and aquatints from three individual series. This exhibition explores Turrell’s printmaking practice and demonstrates how it strongly informs his installation and land-art projects. Light, space and human perception serve as central themes within Turrell’s various artistic pursuits. Undoubtedly his Magnum Opus, the Roden Crater is Turrell’s ongoing land-art project located in Flagstaff, Arizona. Since acquiring the eponymous defunct volcano in 1977, Turrell has worked tirelessly for over 40 years to realize his lifelong vision of an unprecedented environment for the contemplation of light, time and landscape. This geologically isolated and untampered space is currently being transformed into a site containing tunnels and interior chambers opening onto the pristine skies, serving as celestial observatories where natural light becomes the most vital yet unpredictable medium.

James Turrell installed 2
James Turrell Exhibition, 2019

Nearly a decade after the initiation of the Roden Crater, Turrell executed the acclaimed Deep Sky aquatint series for Peter Blum Editions in 1984. Similar to etching, aquatint is an intaglio printmaking technique which formulates images through the immersion of a metal plate into acid. While etching creates lines through indentation made onto the plate surface, aquatint creates tonal effects through attachment of acid-resistant material, such as powdered rosin, onto the plate surface by heat. As a result, aquatint is the most ideal printmaking medium for depicting emanating light. Deep Sky is an impressive suite of 7 aquatints which translates the celestial experience of light within the multi-chambered interiors of the crater into two-dimensional forms. The individual prints oscillate between depictions of natural landscapes and abstractions of pure light and shadow. While the first print in the portfolio is easily readable as the silhouette of a volcano, the subsequent ones present themselves to be more ambiguous and geometric, rendering different perspectives of light and space.

James Turrell installed 3
James Turrell Exhibition, 2019

Beyond Deep Sky, Turrell created Mapping Spaces (1987) and First Light (1989-90), both series expanding upon his monumental innovations in representing light and space through printmaking. Mapping Spaces depicts imagined interior spaces for Roden Crater using a variety of media such as photo-etching, aquatint and drypoint. The two prints on view in this exhibition contrast mysterious abstractions of light rendered in black and white with maplike charting of the Roden Crater’s chambers depicted in color. This pairing of two divergent representations of the same space prompts the viewer to engage with the paradoxical coexistence of mystery and clarity within Roden Crater. Two years after Mapping Spaces, Turrell then released First Light, an ambitious series of twenty masterpiece abstractions in aquatint. Unlike his previous endeavors in printmaking, First Light is not connected to the Roden Crater, as it stands more conceptually independent. This portfolio contains five subsets, and each one pictures the repetition of a single geometric light, ranging from parallelograms to columns. These magnificent large-scale sheets translate the luminous glow of direct light and the spatial experience of Turrell’s installation works onto a two-dimensional surface. He states that First Light is a true “tour de force of printing” because “when lit properly, the light radiates from the paper”. Aquatint’s subtle tonal effect allows Turrell to incorporate varying shades of grey in order to emphasize the white forms’ luminosity and create an illusion of light radiating off the paper.

James Turrell (b. 1943 Pasadena, CA) is an American artist primarily known for his installations and works on paper that explore the perception and materiality of light, color, and space. Turrell’s work has been the subject of major exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany; MAK, Vienna; MASS MoCA, North Adams; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. He has received awards such as a National Endowments for the Arts Grant in 1968; MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1984 and National Medal of Arts, Washington, D.C. in 2014. Turrell’s work is included in major public collections, among them the the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Tate Modern, London and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.