Master of Light

By Kay Kipling December 1, 2011


Turrell; Interior of Skyspace in the meeting house of the Live Oak Friends in Houston, Texas.James Turrell has brought the light to Houston, Minneapolis, Dallas, New York and a host of other American cities, as well as abroad. Now the artist, who works in the ethereal-sounding media of light and space, brings it to Sarasota, with the installation of his major Skyspace at the Ringling Museum of Art—the first in the state, and only the second public Turrell space on the east coast.

There’s been nothing but buzz about Turrell and the Skyspace since the project was broached during the tenure of former museum executive director John Wetenhall. The placement of a piece by Turrell was always part of the museum’s expansive 10-year master plan, which led to so much renovation and construction on the grounds. But now that it’s at last coming to fruition, with the advent of a Greet the Light winter solstice opening Dec. 22 at the Ringling, the excitement at the museum has reached fever pitch. Indeed, listening to modern and contemporary art curator Matthew McLendon speak about the piece is a bit like hearing about the descent of a deity—hard to explain or comprehend until you see and believe it for yourself.

"All art is experiential, of course, but this work truly defies description," says McLendon. "The museum today is the last secular space in which you’re invited to have an experience of duration, to spend time with a work of art, in contemplation. You turn off your cell phone, forget about Facebook and meetings, and have the experience of ‘seeing yourself seeing.’ Turrell manipulates, heightens and changes your perception. Skyspace removes all the extraneous material, making us much more cognizant of the process and our role in the process."

Photo Courtesy of Florian Holzherr, copyright James TurrellOn a more mundane level, this much about the Skyspace can be explained: It seats 56 people at a time, on benches gently tilted back so that viewers can comfortably look upward through the piece’s large oculus, to marvel at the changing Florida light and skies above them. A central colonnade supports the piece’s lighting systems (at sunrise and sunset, there will be a precisely blended and programmed sequence of colored LED lights), and, unlike other Turrell spaces, which tend to be austere, this one will be covered with creeping jasmine and vines—a uniquely Florida touch.

Lucky Sarasotans may be the first to experience the Skyspace, but McLendon predicts contemporary art aficionados from around the world will make the trip here just to see Turrell’s latest masterpiece."In my mind, it’s bold, in the same way John Ringling’s purchase of the museum’s Rubens pieces was bold," he says. "In this year of celebrating 100 years [since Ringling’s arrival in Sarasota], it’s looking forward to the next 100 years of Ringling."


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