The new Live Oak Friends Meeting House has a rectangular hole in its ceiling, through which the changing sky is seen. The hole and the room it’s in are Skyspace, an installation by artist James Turrell, which is open to the public on Fridays, from about half an hour before sunset until half an hour after.
From the outside, the building is a cross between an oversized bungalow and a Japanese palace. Influence from Renzo Piano‘s Menil Collection abounds. The tacky hardi-panel siding (the building’s worst feature) is painted Menil gray. Turrell’s piece can be seen as another tricky natural lighting schemes like those of the Rothko Chapel, The Twombly pavilion, and the Menil itself. Watching a section of the metal roof slid aside to open the Turrell piece, I thought of other new retractable-roof buildings in Houston: Enron field and the new football arena. Houstonians can’t decide whether to be outdoors or in. The meetinghouse is a compromise: a fair-weather Pantheon, allowing nature inside, but only on nice days. But then, In Rome, it usually doesn’t rain all summer, there are no mosquitoes, and the temperature rarely exceeds 85.
The meeting house is axial in plan, which makes Turrell’s centralized piece almost impossible to integrate. Hard oak pews make it uncomfortable to look upwards, inducing a lot of neck craning for people looking at the Turrell piece. Both the barrel-vaulted ceiling and the crick in my neck were reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel.
Turrell’s Skyspace frames a swatch of sky as if it was an abstract painting, focusing attention on its changing color and texture. The seven birds and three airplanes that crossed that pristine rectangle were startling punctuations of the infinitely slow progression of color, as day became night. The rectangle starts out much lighter than the illuminated ceiling and ends up much darker. Having taught a lot of color theory, I expected the most intense color effects to occur when the sky rectangle and the illuminated ceiling were nearly the same value, and I was right. During the ten-minute period bracketing this reversal hot neon orange, electric blue and other colors too fugitive to describe flicker in and out with impressive strength. It’s just as well that photographs are not allowed; it’s one of those things you’ve got to see for yourself. Less showy but equally impressive are the outrageous series of deep blues seen as night falls.
In church with my parents I was a wriggler, and I still chafe at enforced reverence. The slightly uncomfortable hush as everyone stared at the unbroken blue sky made me long for a bird dropping or a police helicopter. Even as I was enjoying it, one corner of my mind couldn’t help laughing at myself and a hundred other oldish white people with sore butts and stiff necks as we stared patiently at a hole in the ceiling. Turrell’s Skyspace is for grown-ups: the only toddler present just didn’t care.
Viewing the piece is an interesting social experience. As in a famous John Cage performance, one becomes acutely aware of the chorus of coughs, shuffles and murmurs produced by the audience. The piece is like an airport lounge, but without the suspense. Everyone’s waiting, but the event we’re waiting for is so incremental and so predictable that anticipation becomes as diffuse as the light effects. You don’t have to pay constant attention, but you can’t read a book either. There is a subtle heightening of attention as the color effects become more intense, and an equally subtle attrition as darkness falls.
I can see the same sky every evening from a lawn chair in my driveway, but I don’t see it the same way. Like other pieces of transcendental minimal art, Turrell’s Skyspace pares away distractions to enhance formal subtleties of vanishing delicacy. My advice is to get there late. Not getting a seat is a blessing, and the best part of the show is the last half hour.
Bill Davenport is an artist and writer from Houston.