Skygazing With James Turrell
We had read about artist James Turrell, the "sculptor of light," last spring when his arresting Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story surfaced from under the pancakes.
In it, he was introduced to mainstream households as "The Mesmerizer," though his white-bearded, quizzical gaze seemed to wonder why he would be referred to as such. The feature's subtitle, explaining how Turrell has " … Knocked the Art World Off Its Feet," can't be easy to live up to, especially for a modest Quaker artist who asks only that we consider our relationship with light. We all read about the lady who fell down at his 1980 Whitney show, "City of Arhirit" – not in a faint, as widely reported at the time – but from disorientation as she attempted to steady herself against a wall of light. So when word came that the University of Texas' public art program, Landmarks, was hosting a viewing of the University-commissioned The Color Inside, a permanent Turrell Skyspace installation, this art enthusiast packed up some Dramamine and, as instructed, headed over to the campus' Student Activity Center rooftop at sunset.
For the uninitiated, UT's particular Skyspace is an elliptical structure of white plaster with an opening in the ceiling through which the viewer gazes at the sky, as seen juxtaposed with a sequence of changing contextual light crawling up the eggshell-like interior to the egg-shaped aperture. Skyspace installations in other locations can be square-shaped, however, as is the one at Rice University, Twilight Epiphany, and each is built to the dimensions of its setting. At The Color Inside, the viewer finds the colors intensely complementary to the changing colors outside. One gazes at a round of that shared sky so personal to each of us, like embroidery still on the hoop, and if one stares at the middle long enough for the rim to disappear, a "sky egg" appears to float above, like a René Magritte painting come to life. At one point, the viewers become the exhibit, at least for this writer, as they approach the aperture tentatively at first, then in groups, gasping with perfect strangers as a dragonfly flies over, and peering out of the aperture like a people who, trapped in an artificial culture, have never seen the sky. In naming the piece, Turrell has said, "I was thinking about what you see inside, and inside the sky, and what the sky holds within it that we don't see the possibility of in our regular life." Whomever you are, the piece succeeds in its mission to "bring the sky down into the intimate space of the viewer."
Born in 1943 to Quaker parents, Turrell was influenced greatly by that spirituality's practice of "going inside to greet the light of revelation as well as the belief that spirituality flourishes in simple settings," according to a biography of the artist. In fact, the genesis of the first Skyscape was Turrell's design for the Live Oak Meeting House for the Society of Friends, including an opening in the roof, through which light takes on a spiritual connotation that permeates all of his subsequent work. Part of a group of Sixties-era Southern California artists who explored light and perception, Turrell once collaborated on a project with a perceptual psychologist from the aerospace industry, and having studied perceptual psychology in college, he emerged with a new artistic path that he has explored since. As to the inevitable comparisons to the work of Minimalist artists, it is true that his Masters of Fine Arts degree included study with John McCracken and Tony DeLap, who, along with contemporary Donald Judd, were exploring Minimalist sculpture. Today, in addition to countless present and future installation works, Turrell has produced suites of prints, holograms, architectural models, photographs, and a line of ceramics called Lapsed Quaker Ware inspired by none other than Josiah Wedgewood. The artist Chuck Close is a friend and admirer. Currently, there are Skyscape installations dotting the globe in Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland; Cat Cairn, England; Vejer de la Frontera, Spain; Salzburg, Austria; Houghton Hall in Norfolk, England; the Guggenheim Museum in New York (disputed as specifically a Skyspace); and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas; as well as at Rice and UT.
Arguably the best public art the world has to offer is the sky. Existential pondering surely has its beginnings in the earnest heaven-gazing of the Celtic caveman, as he began to ponder his relationship to his surroundings. Therefore, a reductive attitude toward the esoteric nature of Turrell's perspective may not be the way to approach this work. After all, an artist who owns a 70-story-tall volcano named Roden's Crater (that contains several Skyscape chambers); has been honored by the Guggenheim, Lannan, and MacArthur foundations; and who became a licensed pilot by age 16, deserves serious consideration.
Lynn Herbert, former senior curator at Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum, discusses "The Color Inside": The best times to view this program are at sunrise and sunset, so visit www.turrell.utexas.edu for a current schedule, as hours vary throughout the year.