Eye on the sky: a new view from James Turrell at Ringling

A rare James Turrell installation at the Ringling may change the way you look at things.

click to enlarge DIVIDING THE LIGHT: This image of the Turrell Skyspace at Pomona College approximates what the Ringling's skyspace will be like, says curator Matthew McLendon. - Photo by Florian Holzherr
Photo by Florian Holzherr
DIVIDING THE LIGHT: This image of the Turrell Skyspace at Pomona College approximates what the Ringling's skyspace will be like, says curator Matthew McLendon.

On a sweltering day two summers ago, I wandered out of the sculpture garden at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis — a staggeringly great collection of outdoor works that feels like a safari of famous names in contemporary art — and saw a curiously interesting hole in the ground. More than a hole, I realized, it was a passageway into the side of a small hill. And after a moment of perplexity I thought, "Oh my god, it's a James Turrell."

What happened next stands for me as one of the more moving experiences of art I've ever had. After walking through the passageway, I found a bench inside Turrell's hidden concrete bunker inviting me to sit down and gaze upward, where a square aperture was cut out of the room's ceiling to create a window onto the sky. On a cloudless day, that square of pure blue (occasionally bisected by a bird in flight) was sublime, issuing a wordless appeal to experience the world overhead as never before.

This week the Ringling Museum of Art debuts its own "skyspace," as Turrell's meticulously designed and constructed observatories are called. A $2.9 million project — funded primarily by private donors — and the culmination of 12 years of planning, the Ringling Skyspace will be the largest completed to date when it opens and one of only two on the U.S. East Coast. (MoMA P.S. 1 in New York has the other.) To create the space, Turrell and his team topped the museum's 4,000-sq.-ft. Selby Courtyard with a concrete-and-steel canopy that frames a 24-ft.-by-24-ft. square aperture open to the sky. Beneath it, up to 56 visitors at a time can sit on benches made of reclaimed cypress. At sunrise and sunset, three arrays of programmed LED lights emit colored light inside the courtyard, altering viewers' perception of the sky visible through the aperture.

Born in 1943, Turrell is best known for his Skyspaces, of which more than 40 have been built in 25 countries. (His most ambitious project, the unfinished Roden Crater, entails the construction of an observatory and sculptural installations inside a natural volcanic crater near Flagstaff, Arizona.) But he's hardly a household name, perhaps due both to the site-specific nature of much of his work (making encounters with Turrell's art rare, unless you live near a Skyspace) and because he operates at an intersection of disciplines — architecture, astronomy, perceptual psychology — that defy easy consumption as art.

It's that fusion of influences into distinctive visual experiences that has earned Turrell a reputation among contemporary art lovers as one of the most interesting artists alive. His Skyspaces invite viewers to "see themselves seeing," explains Matthew McLendon, Ringling's curator of modern and contemporary art. At the Ringling, that effect will take place most dramatically during sunrise and sunset, when the LED lights fill the courtyard with changing colors of light, causing the sky outside — framed by the aperture — to appear as brilliant red, orange, green and indigo as well as azure. Though less sensational, the Skyspace by day — if it's anything like the Walker's bunker — should offer an equally contemplative experience.

"It's a space that distills and concentrates experience," McLendon says.

On Thursday, the Skyspace goes public for the first time at the museum's nighttime winter solstice party. (I'll be blogging about the event at cltampa.com/dailyloaf.) Between now and Jan. 5, the space will be accessible during regular museum hours; after Jan. 5, the museum will offer extended hours at sunset on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and a reduced ticket price ($5) for visiting only the Skyspace. Possible sunrise visiting hours remain to be determined.

Until then, two ongoing exhibitions make the Ringling worth visiting for more than just a glimpse of Turrell's project.

Installations of chattering, clattering machines by self-taught, 30-something Swiss artist Zimoun — exhibited as Zimoun: Sculpting Sound — also inspire delight in altered perceptions. Tiny DC motors the size of thread spools power the minimalist constructions, from a silver curtain of spinning wires that ping against a gallery wall to an array of empty cardboard boxes pummeled like drums by motorized mallets. The wittiness of the installations stems from the way Zimoun manages to coax sounds evoking a swarm of bees or a stampede of elephants from such humble materials, inviting viewers to pause and question the discrepancy between sight and sound.

Josef Albers: Color is organized (also by McLendon) as a more literal complement to the Turrell Skyspace. The exhibit showcases more than 30 prints by Albers, who was renowned for his teaching at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College (where his students included Robert Rauschenberg) and Yale. Over the course of his life but especially in the 1960s and '70s before his death in 1976, Albers made numerous series of abstract images to demonstrate complex relationships between color, form and perception. Screenprints from his legendary "Homage to the Square" and "Ten Variants" series are a focus here. Riffing on the same shapes over and over again, the prints make color do things you may never see it do again so elegantly: nested squares of yellow, chartreuse, brown generate an illusion of receding space; rectangles in vibrant indigo and vivid pink float atop each other with delicate grace.

All three attractions — art by Turrell, Zimoun, and Albers — invite us to perceive the things we think we already know just a little bit differently.

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