Excerpt from interview with Rebecca McGrew, February 17, 2009
Rebecca McGrew Since you’ve had many other interviews about your work over the last couple of decades, I thought that today we could talk specifically about your time at Pomona. Basically there were two periods: when you were an undergrad from 1961 to 1965, and then when you were a faculty member in the art department from 1971 to 1973. What was it like as a student at Pomona in the mid-sixties?
James Turrell The art department drew me in after I was already at Pomona College. I began in 1961. John Mason was the sculpture professor. Bates Lowry was there from 1959 to 1963. Salvatore Grippi was the painting professor. We also had visiting artists that lectured. Malcolm McClain and Peter Voulkos came through, and of course Paul Soldner was up at Scripps. So the curriculum for teaching sculpture was largely clay related. John Mason was really a wonderful teacher. He didn’t have that much to say, but from the way he conducted himself, you really got a feeling of what it was to be an artist. He really was an artist. Of all those artisans who came out of California clay, he was the one who became the sculptor, even more than Voulkos. He created large clay sculptures, and then he made brick pieces, which were inspired by all of the kilns he had made to fire the large sculptural pieces. Of course, my interest was in light, and these guys had giant pug mills for clay, forges for bronze casting—it was manly art. If you think about it, now with Roden Crater, I have come full circle. The crater is one of the largest high-fire bowls!
RM When you started at Pomona, were you interested in art?
JT I wanted to work with clay.
RM But you majored in psychology and math. How did that happen? When you graduated, did you know that you were interested in going into art?
JT It’s hard to explain. In a way, my work comes more out of painting than sculpture because I use a hypothetical space put into three dimensions. The traditions of portraying light come out of painting more than sculpture. But the problem is that in painting they’re teaching the color wheel. If you mix blue and yellow to get green, it works in paint, but if you mix blue light and yellow light, you get white light. That means you have to learn the spectrum, which has a lot more to do with this other way of thinking. It’s thinking about seeing, and it has to do with perception. I was very interested in [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty, the Phenomenologists, and the English psychologists like James J. Gibson involved in the psychology of perception. I had a psychology professor, Graham Bell, who was very exciting. He was a very good psychology professor and quite a wonderful human being. He really helped me get through Pomona. I had some little scrapes when I landed my plane in the Quad.
RM I’m trying to imagine you landing a plane on Marston Quad. You came over Carnegie, and landed towards Big Bridges [Bridges Auditorium]?
JT Right in front of Bridges, and then I turned around and took off. I actually went back quite a ways, because I was worried about the take off; but that was no problem either. I did that with a Helio Courier, which I still have. I also still have the plane my father made at Pasadena Junior College, in Pasadena. A Number 1 Harlow.
RM Is that actually a Pomona yearbook on your desk?
JT Yes! From 1965. I’ll show you what I looked like then. I was the art editor. Richard White was the overall editor. I wrote about the Genesis mural (1960) by Rico LeBrun.
RM So you were pretty actively involved on campus.
JT Yes, I was junior class president, and was art editor in the senior year. Here is a picture of John Mason with his work. Look at the clothes. It was a different time. You can’t imagine how different it was. Here I am on my motorcycle. The Mods and the Rockers. [Laughs.] I had a Jaguar XK-120.
RM Why did you choose Pomona College?
JT I grew up in Pasadena. My family’s Quaker, so I’d gone back to see Swarthmore and Haverford. But when I went back there, it was cold and all the women were wearing black stockings, plaid skirts, and sweaters. Well, it was very different from the culture of California. And I liked sailing and flying a lot. The other possibility was Stanford; my father went to Stanford, and it was easier to get into than Pomona at that time. Anyway, my worldview wasn’t very large then, and Pomona looked pretty good. I liked it. In Southern California, it was the school that I thought was the best, and I still do. I think it’s largely about the peers that you go to school with; I think it’s the peers that make the school, even more so than the faculty.
RM You can’t predict that though when you’re applying.
JT That’s true, and that’s why there are places like Black Mountain or a moment at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] in art, or even this time at Claremont. Those moments kind of come together. They’re not very predictable.