Three Gems

Three Gems, 2005
James Turrell (b. 1943)

For Three Gems, Turrell created a “skyspace,” a circular, domed viewing chamber with an opening in the ceiling that frames the sky above. Although he has created skyspaces since 1975, this project was the first to adopt the form of a stupa, a cylindrical mound or structure that traditionally served as a Buddhist shrine. 

Three Gems is situated within a grass covered hill in the Osher Sculpture Garden. Viewers walk through a short underground tunnel and then enter into a cylindrical, open-air space carved out of the hill. The retaining walls and walkway of this cylindrical space are red plaster and concrete, and the central domed stupa form is finished with white plaster. Entering the stupa through a door on the far side, viewers sit on a bench that runs around the circumference of the skyspace and view the sky through a circular opening in the roof. Viewers’ perceptions of the sky color are subtly altered by an L.E.D. lighting system concealed inside the chamber and by changing light and weather conditions outside. These transient light effects draw attention to the artist’s perception that “we are dwellers at the bottom of the ocean of air. We created the color and shape of the sky. It does not exist outside the self.”1]

In the late 1960s, James Turrell became one of the pioneers of what became known as the California Light and Space art movement. Drawing inspiration from the optical innovations of the French Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat and the transcendental light created by the American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, Turrell has worked to synthesize the scientific and spiritual components of light. His early room-scale light projections and installations rendered the seemingly immaterial medium of light tangible and challenged viewers’ conventional assumptions regarding the nature of light, space, and perception. 

Turrell’s ultimate goal is not to alter nature, but rather to alter the viewer’s frame of reference—removing all extraneous visual information to create a focused and clarified vision of the transformative power of light. Viewers typically progress through sequential states of disorientation, acclimation, and, ideally, enlightenment. His works shift the viewer’s focus from supposedly objective scientific realities to subjective spiritual experiences in which “light is not so much something that reveals, as the revelation itself.”[2]

[1] Valerie Vadala Homer, “The Skyspaces of James Turrell,” in James Turrell: Infinite Light (Scottsdale, AZ: Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 2001), n.p.

[2] Richard Bright, James Turrell: Eclipse (London: Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art: Osfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999), p. 17


Listen to Emma Acker, assistant curator of American art, provide her perspective on James Turrell’s Three Gems.