News | Love Affair Between One Artist and Texas
October 26, 2013
By Francesca Mari | New York Times
The morning before the opening of “The Color Inside” at theUniversity of Texas, Austin, last week, James Turrell, the artist, was pushing melon around his fruit plate and holding forth on the psychology of perception.
He was at the cafe of the Driskill Hotel with Andrée Bober, director of the university’s Landmarks program, which had commissioned the piece, and Hiram Butler, the Houston gallery owner. Mr. Butler has been instrumental in establishing Mr. Turrell’s reputation over the years, having sold more of Mr. Turrell’s art than anyone else — mostly to Texans.
During a pause, Mr. Butler leaned forward. “Terry Malick and James Turrell have been talking about doing a movie,” he said, referring to the Austin director Terrence Malick.
The white-bearded Mr. Turrell tried to come up with a name. “Who was in ‘Tree of Life’?” he asked. “Who’s the actor?”
“Brad Pitt,” Mr. Butler said.
“I need my glasses,” Mr. Turrell muttered, swiping a finger across his iPhone screen.
As usual he was dressed in all black. Or maybe his blazer was navy. As with his works, which orchestrate light, sometimes in colored sequences that play with a viewer’s perception, the juxtaposition of his shirt, pants and blazer — all various shades of night — makes it hard to tell.
What kind of film Mr. Turrell did not know. “ ’Tree of Life’ was his utopian movie, and artists are always thinking of these utopian projects,” he said.
Then he turned his phone to show a picture of Mr. Pitt holding a magazine with Mr. Turrell on the cover. One of Mr. Malick’s assistants had sent it.
Mr. Malick is far from the first Texan to appreciate Mr. Turrell.
The Dia Foundation, which has deep roots in Texas, bought the Arizona land in 1977 for his lifetime undertaking, the Roden Crater, an unfinished experiential piece in an inactive volcano.
His biggest collector was Isabel Brown Wilson of Houston, who before her death in 2012 donated 15 works to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, making it the art institution with the greatest number of Turrell holdings.
Now Mr. Turrell’s biggest collectors are David Booth and Suzanne Deal Booth of Austin. This year he has had three concurrent shows at major American museums: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York and his unofficial Texas home, M.F.A.H.
For his part, Mr. Turrell, whose work has been acclaimed for almost half a century (in 1984 he and Robert Irwin were the first visual artists to win MacArthur Foundation grants), believes Texas is “very important.”
“Art does, to some extent, follow economics,” he said. It’s “the most postponable purchase,” and artists “can’t function in an environment that is difficult on business,” he said.
In other words, money doesn’t hurt. “You’re going to have to put up with your Rick Perrys, and we’re going to have to” — Mr. Turrell paused and smiled — “Cruz on through.”
All artists, art gallery dealers and collectors need to be entrepreneurs, Mr. Turrell added, but nowhere more so than in Texas, because it does not have the same institutional legacy as a city like New York.
But “Texas is known to throw money” at both artists and professors, Mr. Turrell suggested. “This is why Texas is most respected and feared” — even disdained, as was the case, he said, with the rapid growth of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
“That happens with success.”
Ms. Bober commissioned “The Color Inside,” Mr. Turrell’s 84th “skyspace” work, in September 2008, shortly after she created Landmarks, an initiative to install public art on the University of Texas campus, with a long-term loan of 28 modern and contemporary sculptures from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The skyspace was Ms. Bober’s answer to students’ request for a prayer and meditation room in the new Student Activity Center. Students find Mr. Turrell’s white cocoon on the roof. “The Color Inside” is large enough for 25 people and is open during building hours, although it technically qualifies as art only during sunrise and sunset — the transition from “God’s light, or the light of the sun,” as Mr. Turrell, a Quaker, says, to our more “insignificant” light.
He programmed its approximately hourlong computer-controlled LED light sequence while observing the space over seven mornings and seven nights in August. Mr. Turrell is interested, as evident in his 40 years of work on the Crater, in creating the sort of place, like Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat, that connects viewers to something greater than themselves.
“Artists have always been involved in these higher purposes, and if you address the higher part of someone’s thinking, it often answers you.”
For that reason, in 2002, Ms. Bober chose to have her wedding in one of his pieces — the Live Oak Quaker Meeting House in Houston — as did Mr. Butler five years later.
The M.F.A.H. retrospective closed for 15 minutes this summer so a man could propose while Turrell’s “Ganzfeld” room was pink. “I have been asked twice to be the godparent of a child that was conceived” in one piece, Mr. Turrell added, laughing. “So the uses of these works is myriad.”
“One of the first e-mails we received” after announcing “The Color Inside,” Ms. Bober said, “was from a young man who said that he and his partner had been together for 14 years, and that he was ready to propose.” He asked if he could reserve the skyspace.
Mr. Turrell turned to Ms. Bober and said, “Sure.”
The New York Times, October 26, 2013