News | Inner Intensity: James Turrell’s new Austin skyspace
October 25, 2013
By Molly Glentzer | Houston Chronicle
Soft clouds drifted across a cornflower-blue sky briefly Monday evening as a crowd gathered in James Turrell's newest skyspace.
With a cold front approaching, the weather was unsettled, although not quite as unsettled as it seemed inside the elliptical structure, which sits like an elegant plaster cylinder in the deck garden atop the Student Activity Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
In the hour leading up to sunset, the view through the skyspace's oculus - also an ellipse - turned menacingly gray-green, dark brown, deep olive, gray-blue, bronze, gray-gray, purple, peach, slate and midnight ink. Pops of lightning bounced dramatically through the clouds.
About midway through, a thunderstorm passed over, and raindrops caught the inside light like crystals as they dripped quietly to the black basalt floor.
That inside light, as Turrell's fans know, is produced by LEDs that are programmed to give visitors a meditative experience. It's a realm that seems otherworldly but is based on a pure reality: The LED sequence manipulates viewers' perception of the sky, making it appear to turn crazy, unnatural colors.
In "The Color Inside," the LEDs turn almost glow-in-the-dark vivid - green, orange, red, pink, deep purple - as they bathe the ceiling and upper wall.
Maybe I wasn't entirely remembering other Turrell skyspaces I've visited. Maybe the Austin installation's small size magnifies moments like that. Or maybe Turrell amped up the intensity in this piece for some reason. The structure's light goes beyond the sublime to something passionate, like an old hippie's rage against the dying light or, heaven forbid, a black-light tunnel in an amusement park. Whatever, I wasn't the only one who sensed it.
"I feel like I'm inside a lava lamp," the gentleman next to me said.
A younger person without that frame of reference might not have seen it that way at all or been more enthralled than distracted by the deep saturation.
Chatter filled the skyspace. Visitors had been told it was OK to talk during the preview and were invited to ask questions. Some who were experiencing Turrell's intangible magic for the first time were giddy. Others moved around to escape the rain or to experience the view from different perspectives.
It wasn't the reverent, contemplative mood I've come to expect at Turrell's installations. Perhaps change is inevitable as a larger audience learns about Turrell, who this year, at 70, suddenly became America's most celebrated living artist.
The pioneering Turrell has been refining his vision since the 1960s, a legend in the contemporary art world. But with concurrent retrospectives this year at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; New York's Guggenheim Museum; and the L.A. County Museum of Art (still on view), he's recently become more of a household name.
Turrell's unprecedented trio of shows were the buzziest exhibits of the year, exposing the masses to the range of his controlled, often disorienting installations. His work appeals on so many levels, even beyond the spiritual. People who didn't know they could like contemporary art can be dazzled by the experience, while academically inclined art professionals admire its conceptual riches, and tech-minded types can be awed by the workings.
During the years, Turrell has created a vocabulary to describe the ways he manipulates light. As Lynn Herbert notes in an essay about "The Color Inside," he's made "projection pieces" that create an illusion of three-dimensional forms on walls, "shallow spaces" whose light emanates from cavities, "wedgeworks" that look like transparent screens and fill rooms with misty light, "veils" that rain light from above, "dark spaces" that force eyes to peer inwardly and "ganzfelds" that surround viewers in a floating universe of changing light.
Turrell also has experimented with "space division constructions" that trick the eyes with light located behind holes in walls. His skyspaces evolved from very early "structural cuts" in buildings. Now they tend to be precisely engineered environments whose windows to the sky are shaped with a knife edge of about 1/16th of an inch - a detail that creates a contrasting, glowing rim at certain moments.
Turrell's still-in-progress magnum opus, the Roden Crater project, contains a little of it all and more. The dozens of big commissions he has accepted all over the world for decades are moneymakers to help fund it.
Carved into a huge, extinct crater near Arizona's Painted Desert, the Roden Crater already contains skyspaces and tunnels; when it is complete, it will have about 20 chambers, including rooms for observing solar and celestial phenomena.
Andrée Bober, a past director of Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, has followed Turrell's work for 20 years. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Texas, and when she moved back to Austin in 2008 to launch the university's Landmarks public art program, commissioning a skyspace topped her list of projects.
The student body was then developing the building program for a long-awaited Student Activity Center, an environmentally smart and dramatic complex of glass, steel, limestone and other materials designed by Overland Partners Architects. Its amenities include a black-box theater, a Starbucks, a Chick-fil-A, a Taco Cabana and a Japanese fast-food restaurant called Zen as well as study spaces and offices for student government.
The students also wanted the building to contain a reflection room, and Bober knew a Turrell installation would make it something special. Construction on the skyspace began soon after the building opened in 2011.
Turrell has designed about 80 skyspaces around the world, and each one is unique.
More intimate and enclosed than Rice University's year-old "Twilight Epiphany" skyspace, "The Color Inside" seats 25 people on benches of the same black basalt material as the floor. Drains are almost invisibly built in. Tall walls lift the space as far as possible above the lights of the city, to a point where no buildings interrupt the pristine views through the oculus.
Outside, a rim of white light at the structure's base sets the skyspace off nicely from the surrounding ipe wood deck, but from the ground it's inconspicuous. Turrell likes his installations to be a challenge to find; that builds anticipation and gives visitors a sense of discovery. To get to the rooftop where "The Color Inside" is located, they ride an elevator to the building's third floor. Then they have to navigate a wall to find the entry.
Turrell has said the name refers to "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."
Downstairs after the preview, study groups were gathered at tables near Starbucks. Outside, young people ambled in twos and threes and fives, going wherever students go after dark on a Monday. Through a street-level window at Gregory Gym next door, a room of treadmills throbbed with activity.
I suspect once the word gets out, "The Color Inside" will be a popular spot, too - although, one hopes, a quieter one. Bober said she's already had a request from someone who wants to stage his wedding proposal there.
"The Color Inside" is not designed for acoustics like Rice's space but for the recent opening, Landmarks commissioned a musical composition and a poem.
I listened to Joel Love's "Lightscape," a 10-minute string quartet, when I got home to see if it might transport me to a skyspace experience. The music evocatively captures the emotion of "The Color Inside." Maybe next time, I'll take headphones and play it.
H.L. Hix's poem "Words to Wordlessness," in four stanzas that suggest he might have gotten up to observe it from the north, south, east and west, nicely reflects Turrell's abstract minimalism and the floating feeling it can trigger.
But ultimately, you have to be there to get it. I look forward to going back, once the noise has died down.
Other Landmarks program works
"The Color Inside" was the first project planned by the University of Texas at Austin's Landmarks public art program, but not the first to be installed.
Bober jump-started Landmarks five years ago by borrowing 28 modern and contemporary sculptures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since then, Landmarks has also commissioned or acquired works by Mark di Suvero, David Ellis, Ben Rubin and Sol LeWitt.
Close to "The Color Inside" on the 433-acre campus are LeWitt's "Circle With Towers," a concrete block construction erected in 2012, and his recently realized "Wall Drawing #520." Monika Bravo's "An Interval of Time" is scheduled to open next, in 2014.
Bober also curates a video art series that rotates monthly. It currently features "Emily's Video," a year-old work by Italians Eva and Franco Mattes.
An audio tour is available as a free iPhone app (utexas.edu/iphoneapp/) and online atlandmarks.utexas.edu.
'The Color Inside'
When: Schedule changes; currently 6:25 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; programmed light sequences at sunrise and sunset
Where: Student Activity Center rooftop, 2201 Speedway, University of Texas at Austin
Admission: Free; reservations at turrell.utexas.edu
The Houston Chronicle, October 25, 2013