Sky High

Artist James Turrell is having a moment--his gorgeous, calming Skyspaces, in particular, are popping up everywhere. Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens explains how a hole in the ceiling can feel like so much more

Though it sounds like a luxury high-rise or an exhibit at a grammar-school science fair, a Skyspace is essentially just an austere room painted in a neutral color, with a built-in bench around the perimeter and, more to the point, a large hole in the ceiling. The hole opens directly to the sky, and the room is positioned in such a way that celestial and meteorological events are crisply framed by the beveled opening. You sit down and look up, and the sky seems to descend to where you can almost touch it. The experience is reminiscent of the final scenes in the movie Contact--only better, because it's real.

The man behind the Skyspaces is James Turrell, a 63-year-old, cowboy-hatted, Santa Claus-bearded rancher/pilot/artist. Born in Los Angeles in 1943, Turrell says his first memory is of lying in a crib and watching light play on the ceiling. As a toddler, he devised a way to manipulate the blackout curtains (still around in Pasadena during the last days of World War II) so that he could see stars in the daytime. Turrell was often left in the care of his grandmother, who introduced him to Quaker teachings, urging him to "go inside and greet the light." At 16, he learned to fly, and then he studied mathematics and psychology as an undergraduate at Pomona College, east of L.A. On a neighboring campus, he earned a master's degree in art at the Claremont Graduate School.

At the age of 23, the young artist produced his first works from pure, high-intensity, electric light. "I come out of a painting space," Turrell said over a cup of coffee in August. "I started out with projected-light works and working indoors, but I'd prepare the walls--by sanding, etcetera--the way you'd prepare a canvas for painting."

The works were shown publicly at the old Pasadena Art Museum in 1967. Nearly everybody liked them, but hardly anyone understood them. At the time, southern California was putting its art scene on the contemporary map with what was called the Light and Space movement, which ranged from Larry Bell's glass cubes and John McCracken's glossy leaning planks to the mini-environments of Robert Irwin, which were activated by lighting a wall-mounted translucent plastic disk from four different angles at the same time. Even in this visionary context, Turrell was considered pretty out-there. And he saw opportunities for art everywhere. One night, a local vagrant broke into his studio in Santa Monica. ("It's now a Starbucks," Turrell says. "Could happen to anybody.") The man fell, suffered a concussion, and awoke inside a pure white space Turrell had created while the would-be robber was out cold. In the chamber sat a gold harp; Turrell's then-wife played the instrument professionally. When taken into custody by the police, the intruder was relieved to find he hadn't actually died.

"The biggest Skyspace, of course, is the crater," Turrell says. For more than 20 years, he has been laboring on a gigantic work of art near Flagstaff, Ariz. In 1974, armed with a Guggenheim artist's fellowship, Turrell spent the better part of a year flying his Helio (a high-wing lightplane) all over the western U.S., searching for what turned out to be an extinct volcano called Roden Crater. When and if the Roden Crater Project is finished, a visitor standing inside the vast, elliptical crater bowl will be treated to a celestial vision with a clarity that's rarely experienced. Most of Turrell's 1984 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant was poured into the project; other funding has come from the Lannan and Dia foundations, and the Skystone Foundation, which administers the project.

Turrell has remarked that with the Roden Crater, he's moved "this cultural artifice we call art" out into the rawest kind of nature. With his Skyspaces, he's taken a great and wondrous piece of nature--the sky--and brought it inside. All those of us in the audience have to do is be willing to greet the light.

Light houses

There are currently 36 Skyspaces in the world. Nine of the 20 in the U.S. are open to the public. The Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe will reopen its Skyspace on July 1 (it's closed for renovations). Another will be unveiled at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., in October.

Ideally, a Skyspace should be seen during multiple visits, at different times of day, and in different seasons. Dawns and sunsets are dramatic, with the aperture waxing from indigo to turquoise, or waning from bright blue to orange to black.

Note: In some cases, although the museum charges for admission, visiting just the Skyspace is free.

Chicago UIC Skyspace, University of Illinois at Chicago, South Campus, 312/996-5611, uic.edu, free

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