Inhabiting the Sky: James Turrell’s “Meeting” Reopens at MoMA PS1
In 1979, James Turrell stood on the roof of a dilapidated former public school in Queens wielding a heavy-duty pneumatic jackhammer. He used it to cut through four feet of concrete in the exterior of the building that would eventually become MoMA PS1, creating the rectangular oculus of Meeting (1980–86/2016), one of his earliest “Skyspaces.” While dozens now exist, Meeting was only the second Skyspace that Turrell had created, and the first in the United States. For decades it was a permanent fixture of the building, but in 2014, badly in need of repairs, it closed to the public. Meeting reopened in October following an extensive set of renovations overseen by the artist, which modified the work without fundamentally altering its nature as a place where, as Turrell has put it, the viewer meets “the space of the sky. So, the sky’s no longer out there anymore, but it seems to be brought close in touch with you and [the] space where you sit.”
The dating of Turrell’s work takes into account its evolution over nearly 40 years; first opened in 1980, it underwent renovation six years later to become more accessible. As part of the most recent repairs and enhancements, Turrell replaced the original plywood seating with teak, raising its height slightly and modifying the size of the oculus to accommodate the change. He added new multicolored LED lighting that activates during sunrise and sunset, adjusting automatically throughout the course of the year. As a result, the appearance of Meeting has changed, but as Turrell has explained, at that time he was limited both by technology and resources; the renovated space comes closer to what he had originally envisioned.[i]
The history of Meeting begins in 1976, when the visionary curator Alanna Heiss invited nearly 100 artists to create and exhibit their work in a former public school (P.S.1) in Long Island City, Queens. (Heiss managed to secure a 20-year lease on the building, which was still owned by the City of New York, for a nominal cost.) For the first show at P.S.1, Rooms, Heiss invited the city’s most cutting-edge artists to engage with the crumbling architecture of the neo-Romanesque building in ways that would radically reshape the trajectory of avant-garde art in New York. Artists responded to and literally altered the very fabric of the unconventional galleries, cementing a new kind of practice that would come to be known as “installation.” Turrell was one of the artists that Heiss invited to participate.
Heiss first experienced Turrell’s work when she traveled to Italy in 1975 to visit the home of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, who was an important early patron and collector of Minimalist art. Between 1974 and 1975, Turrell had created two penetrating cuts into the architecture of Panza di Biumo’s villa, one of which consisted of a rectangular opening directly to the sky overhead. Turrell also installed artificial lighting in the room’s interior, and Panza di Biumo has described the effect produced by this interior light as it interacted with the light outside: “[The] sky became pale blue and lost its depth, appearing again like a surface painted with a light color, something solid and ready to come out of a frame.”[ii] This was the first in a series of works that Turrell would call “Skyspaces,” carefully designed rooms or freestanding structures with precisely cut apertures in the ceiling that open directly onto views of the sky. Heiss was moved by what she saw in Italy, writing to Panza di Biumo upon her return that it had been “so inspiring to see the Turrell that I went right back to N.Y. and started work on the ‘West-East’ show.”[iii] An exhibition featuring the work of West Coast Minimalists, West East went on view in 1980, coinciding with the completion of Meeting.
At the time, Turrell was well regarded in New York, but there was little opportunity to see his work. Since the 1960s, he had been constructing environments that consisted entirely of light. Like other members of what is often called the Light and Space movement, which comprised a group of artists based chiefly in the Venice Beach neighborhood of Los Angeles, Turrell was primarily interested in human perception. Instead of focusing on creating an art object, Turrell engineered architectural spaces calibrated to heighten the viewer’s awareness of the body’s perceptual apparatus. After experimenting successfully with projection works, designed to generate illusory geometric forms by means of artificial light, in 1969 Turrell began making cuts in the walls of his studio in Ocean Park. These cuts — or “stoppages” — allowed Turrell to control the penetration of exterior light according to a preplanned set of instructions, a kind of “musical score.”[iv]
Because of the complexities and constraints involved in realizing the Skyspace at P.S.1, Turrell did not ultimately participate in Rooms. It was only three years later, after Heiss had secured funding from the NEA and various other private donors for West East, that Turrell finally began construction on Meeting in earnest.[v] At the time, the surrounding rooms were studios inhabited by other artists. It took him more than a year to complete the work, during which time Turrell lived in a tent inside it, having excavated away the roof. It opened to the public in 1980, the same year that the Whitney Museum of American Art staged a retrospective of Turrell’s artificial light works, introducing him to a far wider audience. Even after the Whitney show had closed, Meeting remained on long-term view at P.S.1.
As Turrell’s first permanent room-sized installation in the US created purely for the purpose of gazing at the sky, Meeting informed not just dozens of subsequent Skyspaces, but also the many concrete structures he has embedded into the ground at the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in Arizona’s Painted Desert where he has been constructing his magnum opus for nearly 40 years. Meeting was also the first Skyspace to evoke Turrell’s Quaker upbringing. With an interior lined by benches, the structure echoes the architecture of Quaker meetinghouses. (In places like Houston and Philadelphia, Turrell has designed actual meetinghouses with Skyspaces embedded inside them.) The benches therefore suggest not just the shared nature of the experience of seeing the sky, but also the possibility of transcendence in the act of looking upward.[vi]
In Meeting’s new form, the updated artificial lighting intensifies this experience. Instead of the static hue of the original Osram Linestra bulbs, which emitted a soft orange glow from their tungsten filaments, Turrell now uses LEDs controlled by a computer. Synchronized with the exact timing of sunrise and sunset throughout the year, the interior colors cycle through a range of vivid hues, each one calculated to interact with the crepuscular pigmentation of the changing sky. At any given moment, the meeting of these colors can make the sky feel solid or as if it were dissolving into liquidity; at times the building itself seems almost to melt away. In the evening, when the sky darkens completely, the program ends on the original orange glow, making the celestial expanse feel like a solid black mass hovering above, as breezes, the glitter of satellites, and the sounds of the city penetrate from the outside.
In this way, the physical structure of Meeting dissolves in order to stage a meeting between outside and inside light, between viewer and sky; the space becomes a vessel for chromaticism and a transparent frame for sight. “I don’t care about ‘perfect’ walls, surfaces, and edges,” Turrell has said of the buildings that enclose his Skyspaces, “I just don’t want them to be noticed.”[vii] The minimal interiors of the Skyspaces work in the same way, directing the viewer’s attention through a physical cut in the ceiling and orienting perception upward while framing the sky as if it were a screen pulled taught across the enclosing structure.
Turrell has described Meeting as the first work in which he explored his fascination with the way “we make color” with our own eyes. The updated LED lighting now extends this logic to its formal conclusion, dramatically expanding the range and repertoire of colors that we can “give” to the sky. In 2016, after the new renovations (made possible by Mark and Lauren Booth), Meeting entered the collection of The Museum of Modern Art and is once again on public view at MoMA PS1. It retains the ability to produce the original tungsten hue, but during the day the artificial lights will now remain completely off. It is only during sunset and sunrise when either the new multicolored program or the original static one will be active. In the winter months, these moments will fall inside the museum’s regular hours, and Turrell’s Meeting will welcome visitors to use their own eyes to “move into” and “inhabit” the sky.[viii]
[i] As related by Peter Eleey, Chief Curator at MoMA PS1, who oversaw the renovation of Meeting, from a conversation with the artist.
[ii] Quoted in Julia Brown, ed., Occluded Front (Los Angeles: Fellows of Contemporary Art; Larkspur Landing, CA: Lapis Press, 1985), p. 54.
[iii] Letter from Alanna Heiss to Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. MoMA PS1 Archives,VIII.I.31. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
[iv] See Craig Adcock, James Turrell: The Art of Light Space (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 85–113.
[v] Alongside the money from the NEA grant, Turrell recalls using his own funds to support the project, along with a donation from Christophe de Menil; Panza di Biumo also contributed, as per a letter from Steven Nagourney to Panza di Biumo, dated November 13, 1980. MoMA PS1 Archives,VIII.I.31. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
[vi] On transcendence in Turrell’s work, see Marti Mayo, “Introduction,” in Turrell, Herbert, et. al., James Turrell: Spirit and Light (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 1998), p. 8.
[vii] Quoted in Adcock, Art of Light and Space, p. 45.
[viii] Quoted in Mark Holborn, ed., James Turrell: Air Mass (London: South Bank Centre/Hayward Gallery, 1993), p. 15.