Light, time, and transcendence

James Turrell's Skyspace astounds the senses

James Turrell, Skyspace, The Way of Color, 2009, stone, concrete, stainless steel, and LED lighting 228 x 652 inches © James Turrell (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas).  Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Key Points

  • James Turrell’s Skyspace: The Way of Color is one of multiple Skyspaces that he has designed. It is a circular room designed by the artist, with an oculus — a round opening, not covered by glass — in the ceiling. LED lights along the top of the walls change color, allowing visitors to observe the sky at dawn and dusk and see how the colored light and passage of time change our perception of the color of the sky.
  • The work emphasizes the contingent relationship between us and the world around us, as well as the absence of one truth. Everything is dependent on human vision and what we bring: our own perception.
  • Skyspace: The Way of Color is an earthwork, a type of artwork that takes nature as its medium. Earthworks were something that artists began to explore in the 1960s, as attention to human beings’ impact on nature and the ways we were endangering it began to increase.
  • It also draws on earlier use of the oculus in buildings, most notably the Pantheon in Rome, emphasizing the idea of the viewer looking up to the heavens and the way the eye of the divine may be looking down at us.

Go deeper

The work of art and a short artist biography at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art

Skyspaces at James Turrell’s website

James Turrell’s Skyspace I  at the Guggenheim Museum

The making of James Turrell’s Skyspace: Light Reign at the Henry Art Gallery

James Turrell speaks about his work in a video from LACMA

More to think about

Skyspace: The Way of Color asks us to spend time observing how natural and artificial light interact and affect how we perceive color. This in turn provokes an understanding of how different people perceive the world differently. How might we compare Turrell’s message about different perceptions of reality and works like Kenseth Armstead’s Surrender Yorktown 1781, that seeks to address a more rigid relationship between truth and lies?


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.