When Craig Adcock lectures at the Riverfront Museum Nov. 14, he’ll not only present artist James Turrell to a Peoria-area audience probably unfamiliar with him. The program, presented by the Peoria Fine Arts Society, also will in some ways revisit Adcock’s decades-old relationship with Turrell and his ambitious work, packaged in one of Adcock’s books, “James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space,” a 272-page title published in 1991.
“I spent the summer of 1983 tracking down earthworks in the American West,” Adcock says. “I first met Jim then on my visit to Roden Crater. I think he probably was a little under known at that time. I wrote about the project that fall, and from there, one thing led to another.
“During the next five or so years, we were pretty close. I talked with him extensively when I was working on the book. I think the core approach in his work has remained the same, but [since then] he has elaborated many variations on his basic themes: skyspaces [and] space-division installations.”
Adcock is a professor at the University of Iowa specializing in 20th century American and European art. He’s also taught at Notre Dame, was a visiting scholar at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and wrote the 1983 book “Marcel Duchamp’s Notes from the large Glass: An N-Dimensional Analysis.”
In Peoria, “I’ll focus on Turrell’s skyspaces – and space-division pieces, which work pretty much the same way,” Adcock adds. “All of his works try to prescind ‘light’ from the general ambient array. I’ll talk a bit about whether or not he actually manages to pull this feat off.”
Born in 1943, Turrell grew up in the Los Angeles area, earning a B.A. in perceptual psychology from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., in 1965, and in 1973 receiving a Master of Fine Arts degree at nearby Claremont Graduate University.
As a child, Turrell became fascinated with light, he remembers, and eventually started using light and space and time to construct installations that are at once grand in beauty, challenging in design and effective in encouraging a contemplative reception.
Sometimes, Turrell helps make light seem as universal a phenomenon as sound, like music can be.
Although Turrell once described himself as an “unlapsed Quaker,” and writer Kevin West in Departure magazine called him “the art world’s Quaker in cowboy boots,” Adcock says that’s maybe only partly revealing.
“Turrell does make references to his background growing up as a Quaker,” Adcock says. “But his references never struck me as being too much about religiosity. More about just plainness and being straightforward.
“He’s articulate about perceptual matters,” he continues. “He studied perceptual psychology with Paul Vitz [the professor and author who came to specialize in the relationship between psychology and Christianity]. He’s a pretty versatile character.
“Turrell really is an outdoorsman. He kind of reminds me of Ansel Adams (not that I knew Adams); Turrell has that genuine affinity to nature that Adams seemed to exude.”
Six years ago, Turrell told the Los Angeles Times’ Jori Finkel, “You could say I’m a mound builder. I make things that take you up into the sky. But it’s not about the landforms. I’m working to bring celestial objects like the sun and moon into the spaces that we inhabit.”
One of Turrell’s most famous efforts is the Roden Crater that Adcock mentioned. Near Flagstaff, Ariz., it’s a large-scale landscape installation Turrell created in and around the cone of an extinct volcano. Engineered as a controlled area for immersing in and thinking about light, it’s the result of geologic disruption and Turrell moving more than 1 million cubic yards of earth since 1979.
The combination of the expansive space outside in the remote Painted Desert, the more confined environment in various tunnels and rooms inside, and openings literally between the heavens and the Earth can be quietly breathtaking.
“I always thought that people who live in the desert are a little crazy,” Turrell said in 2013. “It could be that the desert attracts that kind of person, or that after living there you become that. It doesn’t make much difference.”
How observers approach Turrell’s work can make a difference, though.
“My work has no object, no image and no focus,” Turrell has said. “With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you.”
However the artist intends his effects to be experienced, he’s reached people. Turrell may have been struggling in relative obscurity when Adcock interviewed him, but Turrell developed into an award-winning artist with a world-wide following, including the James Turrell Museum in Argentina plus representative pieces in collections in Italy and Jerusalem, Japan and London.
“Two of my great mentors were Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin, two women who participated in art but found their source out there [in the deserts of New Mexico],” Turrell said. “They kept the faith with their source. That keeping the faith was important to me.”
Potentially important to Central Illinoisans will be having Adcock share thoughts about and images from Turrell’s talents. As Australian art critic John McDonald wrote, Turrell’s works are “dull to describe but magical to experience.”
Upcoming Schedule for Fine Arts Society of Peoria
For 57 years, the Fine Arts Society of Peoria has sponsored hundreds of speakers discussing a wide range of topics from the Sistine Chapel and Peruvian art to the Dead Sea Scrolls and printmaking.
Following is the remainder of its 2019-2020 schedule:
December 12: “Form Shifters, One Purpose: Built for Worship,” featuring Dr. Rolf Achilles, an independent art historian and instructor of the History of American Interior Design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
February 13: “Making Dance American: Ballet & Modern Dance in The 20th Century,” with Julia L. Foulkes, from The New School in New York City, author of “A Place for Us: ‘West Side Story’ and New York.”
March 12: “African American Art in Bronzeville,” with artist and Chicago State University Professor of Art History Juarez Hawkins.
April 9: “Textile Treasures in The Art Institute of Chicago,” featuring Art Institute Curator of Textiles Melinda Watt.
May 14: “Winslow Homer and The Tropics,” featuring Dr. Dana Byrd, Professor of Art History from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and author of “Reconstructions: The Material Culture of the Plantation, 1861-1877.”
Socials start at 9:30 a.m., and the hour-long lectures begin at 10; tickets are $12 and $5 for students, available at the door. For details or information on other activities, go to fineartssociety.net.