News | Iconic light artist James Turrell awarded National Medal of Arts

July 28, 2014

By Everett Evans | Houston Chronicle 

Artist James Turrell, who has more public installations in Houston than in any other U.S. city, on Monday received the 2013 National Medal of Arts from President Obama during a White House ceremony.

The award recognizes Turrell's ground-breaking art, which manipulates light and space in ways that force the viewer to question reality.

Turrell's "The Light Inside" is a signature feature of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The neon-lit underground passage, installed in 1999, connects the museum's Law and Beck buildings and is experienced by thousands of visitors each week.

"No other city has as many public works of his, and the MFAH has more of his works than any other museum," said Hiram Butler, whose eponymous gallery represents Turrell, in all his U.S. public installations, including works at colleges, universities and museums.

Butler reacted to Turrell's honor with a reminiscence: "When (fellow artist) Fred Sandback died in 2003, James said 'I feel like I've lost my audience.' To go from feeling that you had an audience of one to receiving a medal from the president has got to feel like a great leap in recognition."

Turrell's other Houston installations are the Skyspace at the Live Oaks Friends Meeting House, opened in 2001, and the "Twilight Epiphany" Skyspace at Rice University, which was completed in 2012.

"Houston has done all right by me," Turrell told the Chronicle in 2013, when the Houston museum hosted a major retrospective of his work.

Although Turrell, 71, lives in Flagstaff, Butler attributed the artist's strong representation in the city to two factors: his being a member of the Live Oak Friends, a Quaker community, and the long-time patronage of "three great Houston women: Dominique de Menil, Isabel Brown Wilson and Suzanne Deal Booth."

Butler characterized Turrell's work as a unique combination of "content and medium" that makes each creation "virtually impossible to describe."

"We've worked together for 25 years," Butler said, "and it has been a rare privilege."

Other Turrell installations in the region include works at the University of Texas at Austin and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

Turrell is the only visual arts recipient among the 2013 National Medal of Arts honorees. The others are:

Julia Alvarez, novelist, poet, and essayist, Weybridge, Vt.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music, presenter, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Joan Harris, arts patron, Chicago, Ill.

Bill T. Jones, dancer and choreographer, Valley Cottage, N.Y.

John Kander, musical theater composer, New York, N.Y.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, director and chief executive officer of DreamWorks, Beverly Hills, Calif.

Maxine Hong Kingston, writer, Oakland, Calif.

Albert Maysles, documentary filmmaker, New York, N.Y.

Linda Ronstadt, musician, San Francisco, Calif.

Billie Tsien and Tod Williams (receiving individual medals), architects, New York, N.Y.

The humanities awards went to:

M.H. Abrams, literary critic, Ithaca, N.Y.

David Brion Davis, historian, Orange, Conn.

Darlene Clark Hine, historian, Chicago, Ill.

Anne Firor Scott, historian, Chapel Hill, N.C.

William Theodore De Bary, East Asian scholar, Tappan, N.Y.

Johnpaul Jones, architect, Bainbridge, Wash.

Stanley Nelson, filmmaker, New York, N.Y.

Diane Rehm, public radio host, Washington, D.C.

Krista Tippett, radio host, St. Paul, Minn.

American Antiquarian Society of Worcester, Mass.