James Turrell Honored at LACMA Art + Film Gala: "I Certainly Believe in Light"

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James Turrell

The iconic artist takes the stage alongside fellow honoree Alejandro González Iñárritu at LACMA's fifth annual event, presented by Gucci.

James Turrell seems to be approaching pop icon status. 

After getting a major retrospective at LACMA in 2013-2014, the visionary artist has been name checked this year on American Horror Story: Hotel, and his light-suffused artworks were mimicked by Drake in his new video for "Hotline Bling." (“I f— with Turrell. He was a big influence on the visuals for my last tour,” the singer told Rolling Stone recently.)

On Nov. 7, the accolades continued as LACMA made him its honored artist (alongside honored film artist Alejandro González Iñárritu) at the fifth annual Art + Film Gala presented by Gucci, held on the museum's campus in a pavilion built specially for the night. Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the night’s co-chairs, told the crowd that seeing Turrell’s “Perceptual Cell” in the LACMA show — a piece in which a viewer enters a machine for a 12-minute psychedelic light show — "was one of the most existential experiences I’ve ever had as an observer."

Turrell's fellow honoree Iñárritu praised Turrell as a "poet of light." Added Iñárritu: "We, as filmmakers, use light to reveal our stories. But for Mr. Turrell, light is the revelation itself, and that is sublime." And event co-chair Eva Chow said that Turrell’s work is on the top of her wish list to add to her collection.

It's likely many of the A-list stars and industry power players in attendance have Turrell atop their acquisition lists, too. Joining DiCaprio, Chow and LACMA director Michael Govan at the event were Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, Jared Leto, Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele, Salma Hayek, Francois-Henri Pinault, Disney's Bob Iger and Alan Horn, Paramount's Brad Grey, Fox's Jim Gianopulos, Bob Shaye, Netflix's Ted Sarandos, Brian Grazer, CAA's Richard Lovett, Bob Daly, Terry Semel, Mike and Irena Medavoy, Steve Bing, Megan Ellison and Steve Tisch. (Gucci-clad Brooklyn star Saoirse Ronan tells The Hollywood Reporter that she visited LACMA's Turrell exhibit twice and came to the event because he was being feted.)

Fashion elite also had a strong showing at the event with Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci arriving with Kim Kardashian and Naomi Campbell, shoe god Christian Louboutin, Monique Lhuillier, Jenni Kayne and Moschino creative director Jeremy Scott. So many stylists and well-dressed guests were milling about that "it almost felt like the West Coast version of the Met Gala," one rep told THR

The event is designed to celebrate the convergence of art and film in Los Angeles while raising funds for LACMA's film initiatives, future exhibitions, acquisitions and programming. Saturday night's event did just that, pooling more than $4 million for the museum, helped by Turrell's and Inarritu's presence. (For his part, Inarritu delivered a moving speech about immigration reform, the power of cinema and specifically the power of LACMA in helping to merge the cultural dynamics of L.A.)

The 72-year-old artist, whose works are in the personal collections of such people as National Public Radio CEO Jarl Mohn and British record producer Ivor Guest, was born in Pasadena but didn’t stay in the area. “I was waiting for L.A. to always become something important. I gave up…I left in 1974," he said on stage.

Returning more to the city in the last couple years has been a revelation to him. “Seeing all that’s happened here has been really amazing. To see the transformation of the town that I grew up in and it happened without me. So I get a chance though to come participate in it after it had really begun to happen,” said Turrell, who recalls working in special effects in the film industry very early on in his career.

While Turrell’s most coveted works by collectors are his Sky Spaces — stand-alone structures with celestial views in which electric light affects the viewer’s perception of the heavens — his unfinished piece, "Roden Crater," defies the idea of art that can be purchased. T Bone Burnett, who introduced Turrell, called the massive installation, built inside an extinct volcanic cone near Flagstaff, Ariz., a “naked-eye observatory.”

Turrell has been working on it since the late 1970s and said, in a short fim shown at the gala, that the intent of the work is to “bring astronomical events and objects down to your personal lived-in space.” He added, “I don’t know if I believe in art. I certainly believe in light.” 


Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele, Art + Film Gala co-chair and LACMA Trustee Eva Chow, wearing Gucci, LACMA Director Michael Govan, wearing Gucci, and Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri attend LACMA's Art + Film Gala on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for LACMA)


LACMA trustees Brian Grazer and Willow Bay attend LACMA's 2015 Art + Film Gala on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for LACMA)


Musician Joe Walsh performs onstage during LACMA's Art + Film Gala on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. Walsh stepped in last-minute for Sam Smith, who canceled due to illness. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images for LACMA)
Kim Kardashian West, Naomi Campbell and designer Jeremy Scott attend LACMA's Art + Film Gala on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Donato Sardella/Getty Images for LACMA)


Gwyneth Paltrow, wearing Gucci, attends LACMA's Art + Film Gala on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for LACMA)


Art + Film Gala co-chair Leonardo DiCaprio and honoree Alejandro González Iñárritu attend LACMA's 2015 Art + Film Gala on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for LACMA)


Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, wearing Gucci, Salma Hayek, wearing Gucci, Jason Statham and CEO of Kering Francois-Henri Pinault attend LACMA's Art + Film Gala on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Venturelli/Getty Images For LACMA)


Kelly Rohrbach, Irena Medavoy and Elaine Irwin attend LACMA’s Art + Film Gala presented by Gucci on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for LACMA)


Marija Karan and Joel Lubin attend LACMA’s Art + Film Gala presented by Gucci on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Donato Sardella/Getty Images for LACMA)


Megan Ellison and LACMA Trustee Bobby Kotick attend LACMA’s Art + Film Gala presented by Gucci on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for LACMA)


Producers Norman Lear and Mike Medavoy pose with Netflix’s Ted Sarandos at LACMA’s Art + Film Gala presented by Gucci on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for LACMA)


Musician Asia Chow, in Gucci, and Jared Leto, in Gucci, attend LACMA’s Art + Film Gala presented by Gucci on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for LACMA)


Brit Marling and Chloe Sevigny, both in Gucci, attend LACMA’s Art + Film Gala presented by Gucci on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for LACMA)


Julie Burleigh, LACMA curator Stephanie Barron and artist Cathy Opie attend LACMA’s Art + Film Gala presented by Gucci on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for LACMA)

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