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TitleColor Perception and the Art of James Turrell
TagsMetaphysics Color Perception Object (Philosophy) Light
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Table of Contents
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	p. 313
		Front Matter [pp.  248 - 320]
		Editorial: The New Artist and "Leonardo" [p.  247]
			in::FORMATION: The Aesthetic Use of Machinic Beings [pp.  249 - 261]
			"Glass Houses": A View of American Assimilation from a Mexican-American Perspective [pp.  263 - 264]
			Beyond Tradition and Modernity: Digital Shadow Theater [pp.  264 - 265]
			"Torn Touch": Interactive Installation [pp.  265 - 266]
		Color Plates
			An Exploration of How Objectivity Is Practiced in Art [pp.  267 - 274]
			Video Space: A Site for Choreography [pp.  275 - 280]
			A Renaissance of Color: Particle Separation and Preparation of Azurite for Use in Oil Painting [pp.  281 - 288]
			Rhythm in Multimodal Texts [pp.  289 - 297]
			The Specter of the Golem: The Quest for Safer Encaustic Painting Practice in the Age of OSHA [pp.  299 - 304]
			Color Perception and the Art of James Turrell [pp.  305 - 313]
			Introduction: Leonardo Fights Back! [p.  316]
			Open Letter to Our Readers: Letter from "Leonardo's" Executive Editor [pp.  317 - 319]
			How the etoy Campaign Was Won: An Agent's Report [pp.  321 - 324]
			Commentaries [pp.  325 - 326]
		Leonardo Web Resources [pp.  327 - 328]
			Materials Received [p.  339]
			Leonardo Digital Reviews [p.  340]
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		Leonardo/ISAST News [p.  341]
		Back Matter [pp.  342 - 344]
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Color Perception

and the Art ofJames Turrell

Patrick Beveridge

A study of sensory thresholds in a collabora-
tive project organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of
Art in early 1969 influenced the artwork of James Turrell over
the 2 decades following the study. The project came about due
to the introduction of Turrell and fellow artist Robert Irwin to
Edward Wortz, an experimental psychologist who headed the
life-science division of Garrett Aerospace. Wortz shared many
of the artists' concerns and was prepared to collaborate with
them on a light-and-sound piece. Their intention in this pro-
posed work was to give members of the public the chance to

experience a ganzfeld, or "total" visual field, in an anechoic
chamber [1]. They also wanted to create subtle changes in the

properties of these anomalous perceptual fields while the
viewer was in the space. Although this work never materialized,
the ideas behind this work foreshadowed a number of direc-
tions that Turrell took in his own work in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the last stages of viewing his Mendota Stoppages (1969-1974),
viewers experienced at first hand a sequence of visual events
that the artists and scientist had discussed. During the same

period just after their collaboration, Turrell also created

ganzfelds in his studio. These early temporary studies were de-

veloped into large-scale installations a few years later. The last

stages of Mendota Stoppages were to influence a work called Ple-
iades (1983), which was the first in a series of Dark Pieces. The

ganzfeld studies on the other hand were seminal to installa-
tions such as City of Arhirit (1976) and the Space Division Pieces
titled Laar (1976) and Iltar (1976). Viewers experiencing the
Dark Pieces and Ganzfeld Pieces found themselves at times unable
to discern whether they were experiencing an eye-based phe-
nomenon, such as a retinally induced color field, or a vision-
based phenomenon, such as a homogeneous field of colored

light at a distance from their eyes. In psychological terms, it
became difficult for them to know if the stimuli impinging on
their retina were proximal or distal. These works made viewers
attentive to states of receptivity and the masking effects of col-
ors seemingly close to the eye.

From a less theoretical perspective, the Ganzfeld Pieces
could be seen to simulate the environment of a level snow

plain under certain special weather conditions. The light in
this environment presents serious hazards to drivers and pi-
lots working in Arctic regions. In their search for various sky
marks, pilots differentiate subjective color phenomena based
on whether or not they appear to be properties of the sensing
regions of their visual fields. These pilots would not normally
attribute the color and luminosity of the distant parts of the
sky to internal processes because these properties actually

appear to be "in" the external

space. In similar circumstances,
we might also be oblivious to our

assumption that certain aspects
of what we see are in the external

space. However, when in experi-
encing Turrell's installations we
note that the color of a medium
becomes less saturated after a few
minutes, we perceive the imper-
manence of the color quality as
our response to a property of the
inanimate, physical realm and
not a property of the realm itself.


The author discusses James
Turrell's artworks in relation to
contemporary disputes about the
nature of color. The idea of
Turrell's pieces as "pure chromatic
sensations" is implausible to per-
ceptual psychologists who have
adopted the ecological approach
of J.J. Gibson. Such psychologists
view visual sensations as mere
symptoms of the stimulation of
the photoreceptors in our retinae.
Their idea goes against the tradi-
tional theory of color. The ten-
dency of philosophers throughout
history has been to take colors to
be the exemplary instances of
simple, unanalyzable qualities.
However, the difficulties of prov-
ing that these qualities can be
traced back to a set of material
properties suggest that there is
no coherent view on their ontologi-
cal status. The author considers
current efforts to address this
problem, along with the relevance
of these attempts to criticism of
Turrell's artworks.

In spite of this, some scientists believe that certain charac-
teristics of the visual conditions experienced in Turrell's in-
stallations justify a general stance on the nature of color that
is described by philosophers as a direct, or naive realist view
[2]. This view states that the qualities of a medium surround-

ing us, such as its color and luminosity, actually exist in the
medium exactly as they appear to. The theory bears the name
"naive" for the reason that it is often said to be the view of the

layperson. The fact that there are few references to the

theory of naive realism in the writings on Turrell's art is per-
plexing. The artist and his critics are no doubt aware that the
most simplistic assumptions about the color phenomena in
his installations do not necessarily conflict with modern scien-
tific theories of perception. However, over the past 2 decades

Fig. 1.James Turrell, Ronin, flourescent light installation, 1968.
(? James Turrell. Photo: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1976.)

Patrick Beveridge (artist, researcher), 13 Goulton Road, London E5 8HA, United King-
dom. E-mail: <[email protected]>.

LEONARDO, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 305-313, 2000 305 O 2000 ISAST

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Page 3

philosophers have begun to stake out
extreme views on the methods and be-
liefs of visual scientists. If, by chance,
they were to discuss Turrell's art, some
would argue that the colors seen in his
installations derive from properties of
the physical world and do not depend
on the perception of the viewers at all
[3]. Others would reject this extreme
form of realism and assert the antith-
esis-that color is not a property of the
world and that it is merely a brain-based

experience [4]. In either case, these
theories were intended to replace a
model that has been handed down since
the seventeenth century and that left us
with an inadequate account of the onto-

logical status of color. However, these
theories may still be influenced, at a

deeper level, by the radical idea that ini-

tially gave rise to this received notion of
color. During the seventeenth century,
colors were understood for the first time
to be sensations in the optic nerves that
are produced by a certain characteristic
of light. This was a highly novel concept
for the reason that, before the seven-
teenth century, colors were seen to be

properties of the world, i.e. of sub-
stances or of media.

Other philosophers are skeptical
about whether the extreme views re-
ferred to above bring us closer to resolv-

ing the problem of the ontological status
of color. Evan Thompson argues that (1)
although these extreme views differ in

many ways from the traditional model,
they do not dispense with its underlying
premise, and (2) it is here that the prob-
lem really lies [5]. There is acceptance

in the traditional view that the ontology
of color is one-sided-i.e. that colors
must be either "out there" or "in the
head." Whereas the seventeenth-century
thinkers who elaborated this model were
uncertain about how to proceed further
to the actual point of specifying the na-
ture of color, the contemporary propo-
nents of neurophysiological anti-realism
and of computational realism must be
more convinced that the ontology of
color is one sided. Thompson believes
that this underlying conviction derives
from representative models of percep-
tion that were first conceived in the sev-
enteenth century. Later in his study, he
draws on evidence accumulated in com-

parative and evolutionary studies of
color perception that undermines this
belief. This evidence supports the view
that the qualitative content of sensory
experience depends both on perceivers
and on things in the physical world.

Turrell had begun to study certain light
qualities in empty interiors 2 years be-
fore he accepted the invitation to work
with Wortz and Irwin. His early works
were of interest to leading artists and
critics in Los Angeles because they rep-
resented perhaps the furthest point to
which reductivism could be extended
[6]. These pieces consisted of images of

simple geometric shapes, such as rect-

angles, projected in bright, white light
across and onto the walls of an empty
room. The crisp borders of these con-

figurations, and the difficulty of seeing

Fig. 2. James Turrell, Wedgework III, fluorescent light installation at the Whitney Museum
of American Art, 1969. (? James Turrell. Photo ? Warren Silverman.)

the texture of the surface lit by the
beam, made it possible to imagine that
cross-sections of the wall had actually
been removed and that the light was

coming from somewhere outside or be-

yond the room. Turrell completed 24 of
these projection pieces in 1967.

Turrell repeated the disconcerting ef-
fect of these bright panels in later pieces
using fluorescent fixtures and architec-
tural space dividers. In the first of the
second series, titled Ronin (1968) (Fig.
1), a partition wall was placed at the far
end of the room. This wall covered the
entire surface of the existing wall of the
room except for a vertical strip at one of
the corners. A fluorescent fixture was at-
tached to the back of this partition so
that light seeped out at its edge. The ef-
fect of this set-up differed slightly from
his earlier works. A more diffuse beam
formed an apparent film, or "veil,"
across the shallow space between the

edge of the partition and the surface of
a side wall.

Turrell's later works were also influ-
enced by these experiments with the po-
sitions of light sources and of partition
walls in his studio. One series of installa-
tions known as the Wedgeworks Series
(1969) came about by reducing the par-
tition in width and using it to cover a
side wall usually to the left of viewers as

they entered the room. Due to this loca-
tion of the partition, and the placement
of the fluorescent fixtures at an oblique
angle to it, the resulting light formed an
immaterial plane running diagonally
across the space (Fig. 2).

Although the Wedgeworks Series were
based on the principle of shaving a back-
lit partition, this series of works also
stemmed from the accidental light quali-
ties Turrell observed in his studies for a

site-specific performance piece. In
Mendota Stoppages (1969-1974) the artist
made use of available light sources out-
side an unused hotel in Ocean Park,
California. From 1966-1968 he had

spent time sealing the rooms on the

ground floor of this building from out-
side light and making their interior walls

perfectly smooth (Fig. 3). In late 1969 he
cut a number of apertures in an outer
room of the hotel and studied the posi-
tions of the images projected through
the apertures into the interior. The aper-
tures were opened and closed according
to a set plan during evening perfor-
mances that took place in the summers
of 1969 and 1970. One of the most dra-
matic moments of the performances oc-
curred in the fifth stage, when a sliding
door between the two rooms was reposi-

306 Beveridge, Color Perception and the Art of James Turrell

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Fig. 3. Mendota Hotel, interior of the second studio space looking toward the door into the first studio space, circa 1970. (? James Turrell)

tioned. This adjustment allowed a diago-
nal line of light to fall across the floor
and travel up the wall to the far corner.
This bright line appeared to surround a
veil of light that was generated by a blue
fluorescent fixture in a shop window on
the other side of the street.

In the final stages, audience members
became less attentive to the piece's envi-
ronmental characteristics and were re-

quired to concentrate instead on the dif-
ficulties of perceiving very low levels of

light. At the beginning of the ninth

stage, very faint images were projected
into the inner room as the shutters in the
next room were closed and a number of
small apertures in the sliding door were

opened. By the end of the ninth stage,
these images had faded, and the amount
of light in the inner room was nearly at a
subthreshold level. Viewers found that
the almost-imperceptible light became
difficult to distinguish from the phos-
phenes generated in their visual systems
by random nerve firing. The audience
members' descriptions of their experi-
ences during the final stage revealed that

they had believed that the light had re-
mained at a very low level and that up
until the end they were receiving a mix-
ture of internal and external stimuli.

However, Turrell created one last reduc-
tion. Closing all apertures, he reduced
the room to total darkness. The audience
was unaware of this final change because
idioretinal light is also phenomenally lo-
cated in front of our eyes and thus could

easily be mistaken for perceptions of

quantal fluctuations in a room that is not

completely light-free.
These last stages of Mendota Stoppages

were directly influenced by the discus-
sions that he had had with Irwin and
Wortz in the first part of 1969. The notes
outlined in their proposals show that

they were interested in studying a whole

range of sensory phenomena [7]. The
idea of combining a "total" visual field
with a "total" aural field, for example,
stemmed in part from their interest in

synesthesia [8]. Although their project
was never realized, they did make some
translucent plastic hemispheres in the
Garret laboratories. The very diffuse

light seen in these empty shells was of

particular interest to Turrell. A few years
later he designed installations that made
viewers aware of their psychological im-

pressions of an undifferentiated visual
field, such as a clear blue sky. However,
more importantly, he found ways of con-
veying the most perplexing aspect of

this visual phenomenon: when we expe-
rience an undifferentiated visual field-
for example, in an aircraft-the airspace
ahead of us appears to be filled with an
immaterial "mist." This impression does
not diminish upon entering the region.
Instead, the optical texture appears to
fill the airspace close to our eyes.

Turrell started work on the first

ganzfeld study a few months after the
collaborative project had ended. He lit
the smaller studio space at the Mendota
Hotel in such a way that from a position
outside of it, in the larger studio, the
viewer would see a luminous film ex-

tending across its entrance. This piece
turned out to be a mock-up for a larger
installation that was first exhibited in
the Stedelijk Museum in 1976. In the
museum work, entitled City of Arhirit,
"mists" of filtered sunlight hovered in-
side four wedge-shaped chambers that

opened off of a hallway (Fig. 4). Natural

light reflected off differently colored
surfaces outside the building before en-

tering the chambers, with the result that
each of the four spaces had a different
hue. The light in the first chamber, for

example, was pale green because it was
reflected off a lawn; in the second cham-
ber the light was pale red because it was

Beveridge, Color Perception and the Art ofJames Turrell 307


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Page 5

Fig. 4. James Turrell, City ofArhirit, filtered ambient sunlight, as installed at the Stedelijk
Museum, Amsterdam, 1976. (? James Turrell. Photo: Stedelijk Museum.)

reflected off a brick wall. The impres-
sions of these individual colors faded af-
ter a few minutes in each room. How-
ever, on entering the next chamber, the
viewer would find that the afterimage he
or she experienced from the light from
the previous space would intensify the
color of the new space for about 10 sec-
onds. As viewers walked through City of
Arhirit, the awareness that they were im-
mersed in these "mists" of color became

threatening when they realized that the

perspective cues in the room were no

longer visible.
In a later reconstruction of one of

these rooms, the illusion of a solid sur-
face also seemed dangerously deceptive
(Color Plate A No. 1). In fact, to prevent
people from leaning back onto non-exis-
tent film surfaces, Turrell had to resort

to using physical barriers in his subse-

quent pieces. However, these barriers
acted as more than precautionary mea-
sures. In these subsequent works, called

Space Division Pieces (1976), Turrell had

large rectangles removed from the cen-
ters of barriers to form apertures from
one space to another (Fig. 5). The space
within the entrance was then filled with

light emitted from dimmed spotlights
directed away from each other onto the
two side walls (Fig. 6). This light was
scattered in all directions, and some of it
ended up in the partitioned space.
Thus, the inner space contained only
light coming from the outer room. Nev-
ertheless, the uneven distribution of

light between the entrance/viewing
space and the partitioned space resulted
in viewers seeing, from the entrance, an

opaque film spread across the aperture.
They also then discovered that the quali-
ties of this seemingly substantive plane
did not dissolve on approach. If they
moved up close to the aperture, they
found that the film did not yield, but

opened up into a "mist" or "fog" of color
that seemed to recede back into the par-
titioned space.

Turrell developed the lighting effects
he used in these Space Division Pieces in a
concurrent series of pieces called

Skyspaces (1975-1988). These pieces were

originally inspired by a cut in the roof of
the Mendota Hotel, and many are now

permanently installed. They generally
consist of a rectangular incision in the

ceiling of an interior that gave access to
the sky (Color Plate A No. 2). Turrell lit
the interior space below the incision with
fluorescent fixtures concealed in crevices
located either high up near the ceiling or
lower down on top of high-backed
benches pushed up against the walls.

Looking upward, viewers are almost un-
aware that there is an incision in the ceil-

ing. First, the color of the glassy film
within the aperture seems different from
the color of the sky outside the building.
Second, when the enveloping film of a
clear blue sky is observed outdoors, it ap-
pears to be very distant indeed. In these
interior spaces, however, a small cross-sec-
tion of this film appears to be just a few
meters above the observers' heads. The

segment is drawn up in the same horizon-
tal plane as the border of the aperture.
Thus, it appears to fill the aperture and
enclose the space rather than open it up.

The optical phenomena in Turrell's in-
stallations raise questions that are central
to theoretical issues about the nature of
color. It is unclear whether the visual tex-
tures seen in his pieces, such as the col-
ored "mists" in City of Arhirit or the films
seen from the entrances to the Space Divi-
sion Pieces, are perceptions of very diffuse

light in these spaces [9]. Alternatively,
these textures might stem from physi-
ological illusions. In circumstances of

sensory deprivation, it is well known that
visual sensations obtrude on our aware-
ness. Nevertheless, the textures that
make up an impression of a "mist" or
"film" in Turrell's pieces are colored, and

they make us contemplate questions
about the nature of visual sensations.

If we consult philosophers, we dis-
cover that they are divided over whether

they should divest the physical world of

308 Beve'rdge, Color Perception and the Art ofJames Turrell

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Page 6

the qualitative aspects of visual experi-
ence. Some believe that the appropriate
level of explanation for color is a neuro-

physiological one. They claim that expe-
riences of color correspond to neural
states and that acceptance of this

premise can resolve issues that have
been neglected since the time of the En-

lightenment [10]. However, there are
other theorists, such as the philosopher
FrankJackson, who still uphold the tra-
ditional view, regardless of its shortcom-

ings [11]. They would claim that the
film colors in the Space Division Pieces, for

example, are pure color impressions
that possess extensity without depth.
They might also point out that these

pieces make us attentive to other charac-
teristics of sense impressions, such as
their brute, indubitable nature. How-
ever, other contemporary philosophers
refute the idea that we see chromatic
sensations devoid of some visual con-
text. Thompson, for example, argues,

We ... do not see colours without see-
ing something as coloured and conse-
quently the fundamental element of
colour perception is the seeing of a
coloured thing, not the colour sensa-

tion. This point is no less true for the
supposedly "pure" aperture colour per-
cepts, for even here we still perceive
colours as situated in some visual con-
text and as partaking of other visual
qualities, such as being luminous
(glowing) and as filling spatially ex-
tended areas [12].

The most widely accepted interpretation
of Turrell's art is that we see light filling
the empty spaces of an interior [13].
The idea above, that we see color only as
a quality of things, is also relevant to the
literature on his work.

The ideas expressed in the extract
above are supported by the theory of

perception developed in James J.
Gibson's second book, The Senses Consid-
ered as Perceptual Systems, and on the writ-

ings of the phenomenologist Maurice

Merleau-Ponty [14]. Gibson states that

sensory awareness refers to diffuse feel-

ings of physiological change in our

body, and, in this sense, it is distinct
from perceptual awareness, which is un-
derstood to be the extraction of a pat-
tern in the forms of energy to which our
sense organs respond. This definition of

perceptual awareness stems from careful
considerations about the behavior of

light in the earth's atmosphere. When
the sun's rays penetrate the earth's at-

mosphere, they are scattered first by gas-
eous particles and then by the rough
surfaces of the earth. This scattering
sends light into spaces sheltered from
the sun's rays-for example, into the air-

space below an overcast sky. The light in
these spaces is understood to have an
omnidirectional flux. This flux acts in
such a way that at every point in the air
there is an intersection of rays coming
from all directions.

Gibson considered the ecological
value of this flux. He proposed that liv-

ing organisms use light that converges
from all directions to guide their move-
ments. He noted that the structure of
the reverberation of light in sheltered

spaces is not affected by changes in the

intensity of the light source. This struc-
ture is composed of the angles of inter-

cept at every point in space. These

angles of intercept are based on the en-
vironment; for, at every point, the differ-
ent intensities of light coming from dif-
ferent directions are determined by the
diverse light-reflective properties of the
surfaces in the environment.

Fig. 5. James Turrell, Laar, 1976. Ambient tungsten light, as installed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980. ( James Turrell.
Photo ? Warren Silverman. Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California.)

Beveridge, Color Perception and the Art ofJames Turrell 309

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Page 7

However, there are also circumstances
in nature in which we encounter un-
structured ambient light. When the air
is filled with a dense fog, light does not
reverberate between surfaces, but only
between the droplets or particles in the
air. Gibson describes these conditions as

At any point of observation there
would be radiation, but without differ-
ences in different directions, without
transitions or gradations of intensity,
there would be no structure and no ar-
ray [15].

The surfaces in Turrell's installations
are carefully prepared so that they do
not give rise to gradations of intensity in
the light that they reflect. In these instal-
lations, we experience homogeneous
fields of light. In the pieces that use
natural light, we might also sense

changes in their luminosity, hue and
saturation. According to Gibson, change
in the physical properties of light that

generates activity in the nerve cells of
our retinae is felt, not seen. Gibson
stresses that we do not perceive the
stimulation of the receptors in our reti-
nae. In his final book, Gibson argues
that light in our environment, unlike
the environment itself, is imperceptible:

Halos, highlights on water, scintilla-
tions of various kinds are manifesta-
tions of light, not light as such. The
only way we see illumination is by way
of that which is illuminated, the sur-
face on which the beam falls, the
cloud, or the particles that are lighted.
We do not see the light that is in the air
or that fills the air [16].

This paper is also about the origins of
the belief that runs counter to Gibson's
view above that "we do not see light that
is in the air or that fills the air." It is gen-
erally understood that Turrell intends to

convey the idea that we do see light in
the air. Craig Adcock describes Turrell's
achievement as making it possible for us
"to see light as light rather than illumi-
nation on objects" [17]. He also points
out that Turrell's "quest for the pure
light" is related to modernism's reduc-
tive aim [18].

Adcock's interpretation of Turrell's
work is aligned with the view expressed
by many philosophers throughout his-

tory that the basis of perception is "pure
experience"-a sort of direct and infal-
lible awareness of things variously de-
scribed as impressions, ideas, percepts
or sensations. More recently, these enti-
ties have come under the general term
"sense data" [19]. Sense data are consid-
ered by some, at present, to be non-

physical, mental entities that bear the

properties that the perceived external

object (if there is one) appears to have
[20]. The current definition rests on as-

sumptions that were first made during
the time of the Enlightenment: that
there is a series of correspondences be-
tween perceptions and the physical ob-

jects that we are seeing..
Sense-data theories have been at-

tacked in recent philosophical analyses
of the key ideas underlying them [21].
The main claim of these analyses is that
the scientific discoveries that led to the
rise of natural philosophy did not prove

Fig. 6. James Turrell, Laar, 1976. Ambient tungsten light, as installed at the Whitney Mu-
seum of American Art, 1980. (? James Turrell. Collection of the Museum of Contempo-
rary Art, Los Angeles, California. Photo: John Cliett. Courtesy Barbara Gladstone.)

the correspondences, but instead inad-

vertently created uncertainty about
whether the phenomenal properties of

objects derive from properties of the

physical world that exist independently
of us. Turrell's projects also leave us with
this dilemma. Our senses testify that the
visual qualities of his empty spaces are
what they appear to be. However, at the
same time we also feel that these quali-
ties are inseparable from us as perceiv-
ers. To clarify this, I will explain how
these conflicting elements first arose.


The color theorists of the Enlighten-
ment conceived of color as the power or

disposition of objects to produce sen-

sory experiences of color in perceiving
creatures. This power of objects was not
considered to be an "inseparable" prop-
erty of objects. This attempt to catego-
rize properties of objects on the basis of
whether or not they are "in" the objects
themselves is characteristic of a tradition
in seventeenth-century philosophy and
science of distinguishing between "pri-
mary" and "secondary" qualities. Despite
disagreements over which properties fell
into which category, the primary quali-
ties of objects were understood on the
whole not to produce sensory experi-
ences. According to Isaac Newton and

philosopher John Locke, primary quali-
ties were the properties of an object that
were inseparable from it. For example,
Newton proposed that mass is a primary
quality, but weight is not because a mas-
sive object becomes weightless in the ab-
sence of a gravitational field. A closely
related idea is that the primary qualities
of an object are its intrinsic or non-rela-
tional properties-those that it could in

principle possess even in the absence of

any other body (the example that Rob-
ert Boyle used to illustrate this concept
was the case of a single material atom

existing alone in the void).
The view of color as a "secondary,"

"relational" or "separable" property is
traced back in many accounts to
Newton's experiments with glass prisms.
In the paper in which he describes these

experiments, Newton proposes a one-to-
one correspondence between degrees of

refrangibility of light and disposition to
exhibit colors [22]. However, he did not
claim that the rays of light were colored
in themselves [23].

Although the proposed one-to-one

correspondence was central to Newton's

310 Beveridge, Color Perception and the Art of James Turrell

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Page 8


Board 2



Fig. 7. Newton's experimentum crucis. Rotation of the prism on the left while keeping the prism on the right stationary makes the complete
spectrum cast on the second board move up and down, so that different colors fall on the aperture and pass through. Violet is refracted
the most (to R), red the least (to R), green and other colors intermediately [38]. (Reprinted by permission of Cambridge University Press.)

theory, it was not strictly proven in the

experiments. Having observed that
when a single color resulting from the

passage of light through a prism was

passed through a second prism no fur-
ther splitting of light took place, he
drew his famous conclusion that light is
a heterogeneous mixture of rays with
different indexes of refrangibility (Fig.
7). He was less aware at the time that, in

speculating about the nature of light, he
had taken for granted that the colors

split by the prism were an accurate phe-
nomenal indicator of the refractive

properties of these rays. Yet, there is evi-
dence that Newton did become aware of
this problem at a later date. He eventu-

ally questioned whether the main tenet
of his theory-that differently refran-

gible rays of light have dispositions to

produce sensations of colors-ex-

plained the colors of objects. Realizing
that his theory might not explain the
colors of objects, he went so far as to

propose a second correspondence be-
tween the color an object is perceived to
have and the light that is reflected from
that object [24].

However, recent attempts to demon-
strate this second correspondence have

proved his first correspondence to be
flawed. These recent experiments show
that changes in illumination do not

bring about a one-to-one change in the
colors of objects. The relative indepen-
dence of perceived color from its illumi-
nation leads to the inevitable conclusion
that it is not locally reflected light that
has the disposition to exhibit colors, but
the actual surfaces themselves.

The lack of clarity over whether color
is a dispositional property of light or of

the surfaces of objects is also present in
Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Un-

derstanding. In Book II of this work,
Locke distinguishes between ideas and

qualities. The former term refers to the
immediate objects of perception or

thought, while the latter refers to the

power to produce these objects in our
mind [25]. Secondary qualities are then
defined as a particular type of power
that produces sensations of colors,
sounds, tastes, etc. [26]. However, Locke
went on to write that these qualities "are

nothing in the Objects themselves, but
the powers to produce sensations in us

by their primary qualities, i.e. by the
Bulk, Figure, Texture and Motion of
their insensible parts" [27]. This last

proposition-that secondary qualities
are powers that have primary qualities as
a basis or ground-obviously raises the

question of why the distinction was set

up in the first place.
The argument that perceptions of col-

ors, sounds and tastes can be explained
in terms of the physical properties of

objects is currently referred to as the
Causal Thesis [28]. The idea in this the-
sis is that a causal chain of events brings
about the perception of sensory phe-
nomena. In the case of color, these
events are as follows: The primary con-
stitution of a given object causes it to re-
flect light of long wavelength, and light
of this composition has the disposition
to cause sensations of red. This thesis is
unsound because it is impossible to

prove that colors can be traced back to

sub-microscopic textures of surfaces. We

interpret color along these lines only if
we ignore the other component of
Locke's doctrine, which states that

things do not appear to be colored be-
cause they are colored; rather they are
colored because they appear to be so.
Color, unlike the primary qualities of

objects, is specified only in relation to
the sensory experiences of the perceiver.

It is due to the presence of this subjec-
tive element in Locke's color theory that
modern scientific researchers consider
his theory to be a form of subjectivism/
anti-realism. However, Thompson argues
that Locke's theory merely sets the con-

ceptual stage for the modern debate be-
tween subjectivism and objectivism [29].



The modern debate would never have
arisen without the belief that the pro-
cesses culminating in perceptual experi-
ence occur in different scientific do-
mains. This belief has always been
understood to have a firm empirical ba-
sis. Yet, the acceptance of this belief in

contemporary scientific research also
entails an adherence to a particular
model of perception embedded in the
causal chain [30]. This model is called a

representative theory of perception. It is
based on the idea that representation is
at least partly achieved by resemblance
between the properties of ideas and the

properties of external objects.
The main criticism of representative

models is that they provide no specifica-
tion for the ontological status of color,
for, although the physics of light and
surfaces might trigger physiological ac-
tivity in the retina, the question of
whether colors are representations of
things in the external world or proper-

Beveridge, Color Perception and the Art ofJames Turrell 311

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Page 9

ties of the things themselves is left open.
This criticism does not apply just to the

early scientific theories. In the second
half of the twentieth century, the com-

putational theories that emerged almost

simultaneously in the works of Edwin
Land and of David Marr have provided
us with mechanisms whereby we could

distinguish illuminance from reflec-
tance [31]. Despite general acclaim,
their theories contributed little to the

philosophical problem because they also
considered perception to be a process of

representing some aspect of the physical
world in an internal medium.

Furthermore, the strong realist ten-

dency in these models-viewing color as
a physical property of surfaces-is be-

ginning to be opposed by scientists who
are trying to place certain aspects of
color science in a wider comparative
context [32]. The ecological studies of
these scientists focus on luminous envi-
ronments in which the medium itself is
colored. Regarding perception of the

sky as blue-that is, seeing color where
there is no surface present-proponents
of Marr's and Land's approach state that
this is merely a case of misperception.
Mohan Matthen has argued, for ex-

ample, that the color seen in such cir-
cumstances is an "artifact" of the mecha-
nism for detecting surface color. This
claim is supported by a further assump-
tion that it is evolutionarily advanta-

geous for living organisms to represent
"surface spectral reflectances" in an in-
ternal medium [33].

However, from psychobiological and

evolutionary perspectives, this last as-

sumption has no firm basis. Thompson
summarizes the conclusions drawn from
a number of studies:

Both across and within animal species
there are fundamental differences in
colour vision, and these differences do
not appear to converge on any single
type of environmental property ...
The environmental properties de-
tected in colour vision include not just
surface spectral reflectances, but also
ambient lighting conditions and gradi-
ents in a source of illumination in both
aerial and aquatic media [34].

Evidence of there being different

"types" or "dimensionalities" of color vi-
sion across animal species [35] supports
a thesis that does not verge to realism or
to anti-realism. The main tenet of this
thesis is that color is part of the reciproc-
ity that has evolved between living sys-
tems and their environments. The per-
ception of color derives from the
delicate balance of energies passing

back and forth across the tiers of an eco-

system. This balance arises due to the
states of interdependence of organisms
and their environments.

The idea that the roles of particular
species in an ecosystem are determined

by their interactions with other living
things at both physical and chemical lev-
els, as well as at a perceptual level, is rel-
evant to the philosophical problem of
the ontological status of color. The
modes of presentation of objects are

closely related to Gibson's concept of
affordances-the opportunities for in-
teraction that objects have in relation to
animals. Thompson points out that
these characteristics do not exist inde-

pendently, they exist only in their mutu-

ality with living things [36]. In this
sense, properties such as color are rela-
tional, rather than intrinsic. The argu-
ment seems to rest on firmer method-

ological grounds. The criticism leveled
at the neurophysiological and computa-
tional studies is that they are focused

primarily on phenomena that are seen

only in laboratory settings. I believe that
the emphasis in locating qualitative con-
tent of sensory experience in the ways
the bodies of animals have come to in-
teract with things in an extradermal
world, on a number of different levels,
provides us with a more compelling or

plausible account of the nature of color.

Finally, Dorothea Jameson and Leo
Hurvich believe that phenomena such
as ambient lighting conditions and gra-
dients hold important information
about weather conditions and time of

day [37]. Their findings are also per-
haps relevant to criticisms of Turrell's
art suggesting that his pieces are not
about perceptual phenomena that stand
in for objective scientific properties,
such as wavelengths of light. It is more

likely that our perceptions of
nonsurface color arise due to an inter-
nal need that we share with all other
creatures for a sense of orientation in
both space and time.

I wish to express my thanks to John Gage and John
Haworth for reading and commenting on this ar-
ticle while it was in development.

References and Notes

1. Their proposal is recorded in M. Tuchman, ed.,
A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los
Angeles County Museum of Art 1967-1971, exh. cat.
(New York: Viking Press, and Los Angeles, CA: Los
Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971) pp. 130-131.

2. The ganzfeld studies made byJJ. Gibson and his
colleagues in the 1950s are discussed in "A History
of the Ideas Behind Ecological Optics: Introduc-
tory Remarks at the Workshop on Ecological Op-

tics," in JJ. Gibson, Reasons for Realism: Selected Es-

says of J.J. Gibson, E. Reed and R. Jones, eds.
(Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1982) pp. 90-101. For an
account of the philosophical implications of these
ideas, see JJ. Gibson, "New Reasons for Realism,"
Synthese 17 (1967) pp. 162-172.

3. Contemporary arguments for realism about
color appear in D. Hilbert, Color and Color Percep-
tion: A Study in Anthropocentric Realism (Palo Alto,
CA: Stanford Univ. Center for the Study of Lan-

guage and Information, 1987); and in M.
Matthen, "Biological Functions and Perceptual
Content," Journal of Philosophy 85 (1988) pp. 5-27.

4. See C. Hardin, Colorfor Philosophers. Unweaving
the Rainbow (Cambridge, MA: Hackett, 1988);
and C. Landesman, Color and Consciousness: An

Essay in Metaphysics (Philadelphia, PA: Temple
Univ. Press, 1989).

5. The most significant characteristic of the "re-
ceived view of color" is its "inherent Janus-
facedness." R.J. Mausfeld, R.M. Neideree and
K.D. Heyer, "On Possible Perceptual Worlds and
How They Shape Their Environments," Behav-
ioral and Brain Sciences 15 (1992) p. 47. Thomp-
son uses this description by R.J. Mausfeld to

clarify his own argument. See E. Thompson,
Colour Vision-A Study in Cognitive Science and the

Philosophy of Perception (London: Routledge,
1995) p. 140.

6. Turrell's early projection pieces dispensed with
the use of the gallery wall as a "support" for the
artwork. These pieces, along with other develop-
ments that led to the emergence of a novel form
of light art, are discussed in the second chapter of
C. Adcock, James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space
(Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1990) pp.

7. See Tuchman [1] p. 134.

8. See Tuchman [1] p. 134.

9. In an interview by Julia Brown, Turrell ex-

pressed his belief that we have veridical percep-
tions in these installations: "What you see alludes
to what it really is-a space where the light is

markedly different." This passage suggests a real-
ist view on these epistemological questions. See
"Interview with James Turrell," in J. Brown, ed.,
Occluded Front, James Turrell, exh. cat. (Los Ange-
les, CA: Museum of Contemporary Art and Lapis
Press, 1985) p. 22.

10. See Landesman [4] and Hardin [4] pp. 96-

11. F. Jackson, Perception (Cambridge, U.K.: Cam-

bridge Univ. Press, 1977).

12. See Thompson [5] p. 45.

13. See Brown [9] pp. 22-23; Adcock [6] pp. 2,

14. JJ. Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual
Systems (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1966);
and M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception,
C. Smith, trans. (London: Routledge, 1962).

15. J.J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual

Perception (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1979)
p. 52.

16. See Gibson [14] pp. 54-55.

17. C. Adcock, ed., James Turrell, exh. cat. (Talla-
hassee, FL: State Univ. Gallery and Museum,
1989) p. 7.

18. See Adcock [6] pp. 208-209.

19. A list of works that question the introduction
of a general concept and its current use is com-
piled in A.R. Larcy, A Dictionary of Philosophy
(London: Routledge, 1996) p. 316.

20. The arguments for a correspondence be-
tween colors and local stimuli are discussed in

312 Beveridge, Color Perception and the Art of James Turrell

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