James Turrell, The Color Inside

James Turrell, The Color Inside, 2013. Black basalt, plaster, and LED lights, 224 × 348 × 276 inches. Commission, Landmarks, The University of Texas at Austin, 2013. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

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Audio Transcript

I’m Lynn Herbert, former senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Today I’m going to be talking about the Skyspace by James Turrell commissioned by Landmarks, the public art program of The University of Texas at Austin.


Amidst the hustle-bustle of the Student Activity Center at The University of Texas at Austin, rests a quiet and calm Skyspace created by the American artist, James Turrell. Turrell is an artist whose medium is light. Unlike artists who have depicted light in painting or incorporated light in sculpture, Turrell simply uses light itself, and his particular gift is in affording us the opportunity to have a unique and intimate experience with light. Words like “grace,” “revelation,” and “sublime” have all been applied to Turrell’s work. He takes us to this intense and lofty realm in a confoundingly simple way: he allows us to see ourselves seeing.


Armed with degrees in psychology and art, Turrell’s interest in perception and working with light has led to the creation of a number of different series of installation works that are distinct but interconnected. Most are indoors, but some are outdoors, and more often than not, they require an investment of time on the part of the viewer to allow their eyes to adjust to the different light levels and environments. Skyspaces are one common form in this series. Sometimes they are housed within buildings, but more often they are in freestanding structures of Turrell’s design. In these installations, Turrell creates an opening in the ceiling, framing a fragment of the sky. Viewers sit in a carefully lit space with a framed image above that has no surface and this allows us to see colors beyond what we could normally see in the sky.


One has to make a pilgrimage of sorts to find the Turrell Skyspace at the Student Activity Center, as it is located on the third floor rooftop. Walking through the glass door that leads to a rooftop garden, you become aware of a graceful and seductively curved building resting within the garden. Here, in the midst of this dense, urban environment is a serene, open and airy chamber in which to lose oneself for a time.


While Turrell is known for reducing his architectural spaces down to the fundamentals, there is always a simple elegance to them that makes them particularly inviting. Like two hands coming together to embrace you, the gentle curves of this elliptical building invite you to come in and sit down. Above you is an oculus, a beautifully delineated opening in the roof that exposes the sky. The Pantheon in Rome is perhaps the best-known historic architectural structure with an oculus. In the Pantheon, the heavens, as seen through a circular oculus, seem remote and faraway placed so high in such an impressively lofty dome, whereas Turrell’s Skyspaces have a more human scale and as such bring the heavens down to us.


The Skyspace can be experienced and enjoyed at any time of day, but the most striking times are during sunrises and sunsets, when the sky itself undergoes dramatic changes. It is best to settle in before the sky starts changing to give yourself time to enjoy the complete transition. During these times, Turrell enhances the experience by providing a specialized light program that projects a wash of vivid colors onto the walls that slowly change for the duration of the sun’s rising or setting.


In a Turrell Skyspace, the sky reveals itself in an altogether new guise. You find that you forget you are looking at the sky—color changes unimaginably, becoming rich, deep and intense. Reality might break in occasionally in the form of a bird flying overhead, or a cloud floating by, but your reverie quickly engulfs you again. As the sky gets darker, it becomes almost velvety and you want to reach up and touch it. It is wondrous what can happen to a viewer over time as the Skyspace offers us perceptual awakenings on so many different levels.


One last note: The Student Activity Center Building hours of operation vary during the year. Please check online for hours, especially if you are planning to watch a sunrise.

activity guides

James Turrell, The Color Inside, 2013.

American, born 1943


James Turrell’s artistic medium is light—not paintings that depict light, nor sculptures that incorporate light, but simply light itself. His art offers viewers the opportunity to have unique and intimate experiences with light and to appreciate its transcendent power. Whether through projections, printmaking, or site-specific installations, Turrell’s work is influenced by Quaker simplicity and the practice of going inside to greet the light of revelation.


In the 1960s, Turrell began to experiment with light projections and a variety of installations in which light from the outside penetrated inside, enabling viewers to perceive color within darkened interiors. In some, he cut away parts of the walls to reveal the sky. These cuts evolved into Skyspaces, rooms with sharp-edged apertures in the ceiling that seem to bring the sky down through the opening, almost within reach.


The Color Inside is Turrell’s eighty-fourth Skyspace. Like many others, it is a destination, located on the rooftop of the William C. Powers, Jr. Student Activity Center. Though Turrell’s architectural spaces are reduced to the most essential elements, they retain a simple elegance that makes them particularly enticing. The Color Inside is distinctive for its intimate proportions, elegant palette, lyrical lines, and brilliant washes of color that can be experienced during specialized light sequences at sunrise and sunset, causing the sky to appear in unimaginable hues. Also available for observation during the day, the Skyspace offers a quiet, contemplative space for the campus community and visitors.


In naming The Color Inside, Turrell said, “I was thinking about what you see inside, and inside the sky, and what the sky holds within it that we don’t see the possibility of in our regular life.” The space he created encourages the kind of quiet reflection that cultivates attention. Turrell reminds us that not only does light reveal what is around us but it also makes known that which is within us. 


To make a reservation to visit The Color Inside, visit the James Turrell website.

James Turrell, The Color Inside, 2013. Photo by Florian Holzherr.
James Turrell, The Color Inside, 2013. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

Location: William C. Powers, Jr. Student Activity Center Rooftop

GPS: 30.284792, -97.736327