Three to Get Ready: James Turrell


  We don’t usually speak of James Turrell and Josiah Wedgwood in the same breath, but Turrell’s new line of ceramics, “Lapsed Quaker Ware,” prompts the association.  Turrell was initially inspired in 1993 by the sight of Wedgewood’s black basalt ware (or Quaker ware or funeral ware, as it is sometimes called) in the vaults of a country-house museum at Temple Newsome in Leeds, England, while he was working at the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust in Yorkshire.  The pieces reminded him of the stern ceramics he used while growing up in a Quaker community in California; Wedgwood has also been a Quaker.  In 1998 Turrell and the Irish ptter Nicholas Mosse, who like the artist, considers himself a lapsed Quaker, finally came up with their own edition of black basalt ware in crisp, austere Neo-Classical shapes, many of them appropriated from Wedgewood, others more earnestly Arts and Crafts in feeling.  (The duo’s white ware is currently in its experimental phase.)

            Seen first as part of the “artranspennine 98” exhibition during the summer of ’98 in Northern England, the ceramics were installed in the dining room at Ackworth, a Quaker school in Yorkshire.  Later they were seen in New York at A/D, a gallery that specializes in high-quality decorative arts editions from fine artists.  There the collection of more than 70 black ceramic dishes was neatly ranged in a sideboard and a hanging cabinet with faintly Egyptoid cornices and on a capacious table, all three pieces of furniture also designed by Turrell and realized by cabinetmaker William Burke.  This captivating Wunderkammer could be seen concurrently with an exhibition of “classic” Turrell light installations, both old and nes, at Barbara Gladstone Gallery.  Altogether, the myriad pieces of 18th-century-style china confounded all expectations of either the dematerialized light-and-space pieces or the gargantuan earthwork for which Turrell is known.

            Yet on longer consideration, the light-eating, pitch-black ceramics and their spare yet elegant cherry-wood furniture housings seem like a crucial footnote to the artist’s whole enterprise and serve to tie up several strands of Neo-Classical allusions, not to mention disparate “lapsed Quaker” threads, in the Turrellian oeuvre.

            Looking back over Turrell’s career we can find many 18th-century resonances, from titles such as Boullée Boola affixed to a 1988 project for a spherical structure with a ramp, to the artist’s fascination with volcano imagery, which we can also locate in the mid-18th-century painting of Joseph Wright of Derby and Pierre-Jaques Voltaire.  The next slide in any up-to-date art-historical survey is inevitably Turrell’s Roden Crater project near Flagstaff, Ariz.  Turrell has long been understood as an artist of the Sublime, but the “Lapsed Quaker Ware” takes that notion to a new, impacted extreme.  Each cup and bowl makes an intense impression when regarded singly, and the effect is almost overwhelming when they are contemplated as a group: all that labor, all that fetishized restraint!  The plates are like black suns, the tea bowls like time-traveling asteroids.

            How to put an earthwork in your dining room?  It’s a question that has obsessed ceramicists and table designers since antiquity, but in Turrell’s hands, it takes on a special piquancy.  The man who has labored to complete the Roden Crater project for 20-odd years has long harbored the idea of producing ceramics on an 18th-century lathe.  This he undertook with the help of Mosse, a master ceramicist who lives and works in Kilkenny, Ireland, where the “Lapsed Quaker Ware” was very gradually made by hand, one piece at a time.  One small cup, I’m told, might often take a day to get right.  Mosse, whose more commercial, spare, cream-colored and sponged pitchers I have frequently admired (and almost bought) at upscale emporia in London and New York, lives on and 18th-century estate with a waterfall and a cottage orné.  The setting must have been just right for a full Romantic Classical revival at Kilkenny, and this mood would have been further abetted at Ackworth, which is housed in a Palladian-style 1760s stone building.  (It is said to be the earliest coeducational school in England.)

            In a sense, the relatively small scale of the tableware corresponds ot a shift toward more intimist and even domestic projects on Turrell’s part.  The Gladstone show, for instance, included two new “Magnetron” pieces, TV-screen-sized holes in the wall, lit from inside by invisible monitors, and similar to the pieces installed in the dimly lit hallways of the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood.  (At Gladstone, these flickering light pieces could be watched in the relative comfort of two reproduction Le Corbusier “Grand Confort” armchairs.)

            Cynics might view much of Turrell’s recent art – the various “sky-spaces” for private estates in Malibu and elsewhere, not to mention the spinoff drawings, photographs and book editions, and now the ceramics – as a means of raising money for the massively expensive Roden Crater project, which is due to be partially opened in the fall of 2000 and completed in 2002.  But Turrell enthusiasts (and I count myself one since at least the time of his 1980 show at the Whitney) can understand that his fascination with the making of something as arcane as basalt ware corresponds to a quirky, quasi-scientific, almost gentleman-inventor streak in his work, which has as an analogy his obsession with aviation and early biplanes.

            Those in touch with this side of Turrell (not to mention the more ancient régime aspects of the Dia Art Foundation and its early patronage of the artist) will readily admit that Turrell is, in the most profound sense of the term, making follies – landscape viewing stations for the millennium, and also possibly for a new Age of Enlightenment.  (Turrell has made at least two skyspaces in Ireland, one for Mosse at Kilkenny, another at the “Irish Sky Garden” south of Cork, which was partially built and which Turrell later disavowed.)  In Britain he recently designed a temporary corrugated metal structure, “The Elliptic Ecliptic,” near Penzance, Cornwall, from which to view the total solar eclipse on Aug. 11, 1999.  In the Millennium Dome opening this month in London, Turrell’s large cone-shaped “contemplation area,” Night Rain, complete with horizontal scrims and purplish neon rings on timed dimmers, will be the centerpiece of the “Faith Zone” exhibition, a son et lumière experience which traces the growth of all the major world religions in Britain.

The “Lapsed Quaker Ware” series teaches us that looking at ceramics can be as hallucinatory an experience as floating in one of Turrell’s “Ganzfeld” rooms, those perceptual fields in which there is nothing for the eye to latch onto, where color and brightness are homogeneous.  Each of the plates, tankards and bowls has a whirring kind of stillness: the plates seem to roil quietly in their empty centers and then take off in the striated “rays” and combed “waves” of their borders.  As see at A/D, the concentric borders of the black slipware rhymed with the concentric topographical rings in an aerial photograph of the Roden Crater; the visual connections between micro and macro were implicit.  More tangentially, the countless little vessels tucked snugly into their shelves and drawers reaffirmed the nostalgic vision of a marvelous old black cylindrical stove that is a fixture in the gallery.  Altogether I was reminded of a parable of art for the industrial age.  Turrell’s encyclopedic range of 18th-century shapes, including a tea bowl and chocolate shaker, also suggests a quixotic parallel to the whole museum-as-muse idea, most notably as embodied in Barbara Bloom’s The Reign of Narcissism (1988-89).

            Then, too, there are metaphysical overtones to this down-to-earth domestic service.  Each ceramic vessel generates an especially strong sensation of shape and silhouette; each is a wrought form, forged out of earth and heat.  Each is, in a sense, volcanic.  This very crispness of shape can also be found in different form in Turrell’s ‘60s projection pieces (one of which, Raethro, 1967, was on view at Gladstone), but those projections generate fictions of shape hovering in a darkened space.  The “Lapsed Quaker Ware” are emphatically three-dimensional, graspable forms.

            Yet when seen on a shelf, they also tend to void out, into pure silhouettes (a popular genre ca. 1800).  In this respect they are distant relatives of Turrell’s early “Mendota Stoppages” installations of 1969-1974, which involved various adjustments of window shades in the artist’s Ocean Park, Calif., studio.  The black ceramics, like the “Mendota Stoppages,” are supreme instances of blocked light.

            On many levels, then, the ceramics resonate fully with the artist’s ethos and biography, most notably with the fact that Turrell was raised a Quaker.  While much has been made of the austerely spiritual aspect of Turrell’s light installations, some of the plainness and simplicity, and much of the Inner Light, of the Quaker orientation can be felt in these fanatically pared-down ceramics as well.  One can imagine these sober, ceramic-filled cabinets in the Live Oak Friends Meeting House that Turrell has designed in collaboration with the architect Leslie K. Elkins, which broke ground in December ’99 in Houston.

            The potential uses of the “Lapsed Quaker Ware” remain opem-ended and various.  Contrary to their plain and simple overtones, I could imagine the dishes being used in elaborate Lucullan feasts (think beats and pot de crème).  How about candlelit dinners for prospective patrons of the Roden Crater during overnight stays at the site’s South Lodge [see Sidebar], which will have furniture designed by Turrell?

            Indeed, Turrell’s whole pyramids-to-platters design lexicon may well prove, in the 21st century, to be as globally persuasive as Wedgewood’s.  Certainly the “Lapsed Quaker Ware” adds up to an Anglo-Irish conceit of the most refined and eccentric sort.  Like Robert Irwin, who recently designed a garden for that consummate folly, the Getty Center, Turrell has undertaken a dangerous liaison with the domestic and even with the faintluy twee, in order to make his cosmic synergies that much more visceral and real.