By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Just before sunset in late April, architect Duncan Nicholson brought a group of guests down the steep hill behind the brashly spectacular, John Lautner–designed Sheats-Goldstein house, now owned by Jim Goldstein. They were going to a concrete room built into the hillside, a skyspace called Above Horizon, by artist James Turrell. Turrell is known for spaces like this, with openings in the ceilings or walls and edges so thin it looks like there's no separation between them and the sky. Carefully calibrated light shows play while you look up or out — Above Horizon has openings in the ceiling and wall, both programmed to open smoothly as you watch. The sky's color and density appear to shift, sometimes quickly, sometimes so slowly you can't tell when the change occurred.
Nicholson, formerly Lautner's assistant and the architect who worked with Turrell on this space and two others in L.A., started the light show as guests found seats on the bench and off-white mattress built into the floor. But moments in he realized that he had started a show that commences slowly, not the one he had intended with changes quick enough to draw in even those with short attention spans — better to ease into the Turrell experience.
Probably because Turrell's skyspaces are immaculately crafted and have titles that could be from John Ashberry poems — Above Horizons, Third Breath, Knight Rise — it's easy to take him too seriously and miss the humor in what he's doing: making it gratifying to stare at the sky for drawn-out periods of time (the typical Turrell skyspace show is 45 minutes).
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Region: Mid-Wilshire/ Hancock Park
2902 Nebraska Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Category: Art Galleries
Region: Santa Monica
Right now, 70-year-old Turrell is having a moment. The artist, who studied at Pomona and began his career working with light projections in L.A., moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., in the 1970s to work on Roden Crater, the natural-light observatory he's been building for decades out of an extinct volcano. He won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1984, but it wasn't until the late '90s that he could support his work (the crater is expensive) without side projects — in large part due to the growing demand for skyspaces.
By June, when his retrospectives are open at LACMA, New York's Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, there will be seven privately owned skyspaces in Greater L.A. "They're popping up like mushrooms," says Nicholson, who cites L.A.'s weather and its historic openness to modern architecture as reasons.
It's also hard not to relate the popularity of Turrell's high-tech, pay-attention portals to current buzz about cultural distractedness, like the concern over swelling numbers of ADHD diagnoses and researchers' suggestion that our constant multitasking inhibits clear thinking.
At a panel at London's Frieze art fair last year, Joshua Cohen, author of the upcoming Attention: A (Short) History, wondered if the question "Are we more distracted now?" might be passé. Maybe the goal-oriented nature of most attention is the more pertinent issue. "How do you attend to something that has no utility?" he asked.
Seducing people into paying attention just for the sake of it has been Turrell's project for decades.
Turrell constructed his first L.A. skyspace in 1986 in the parking lot of MOCA's Geffen Temporary Contemporary. Cliff and Mandy Einstein — he an advertising creative director, she a former nationally ranked tennis player and instructor — had just begun collecting art seriously and came to see it. It was 20 feet on all sides. There were no LED or colored lights, just white tungsten lamps carefully placed behind wood benches. This meant the sky, seen through a square opening in the roof, was mostly just blue — but richly shifting blue.
Part of the effect of the white frame and lighting is that the color swallows up interrupting details like clouds, small birds or stars. "It's the densest thing you've ever seen," Cliff Einstein says of the blue sky, which feels like it's all right there, piled onto the opening. The couple commissioned Turrell to rebuild Second Meeting (his previous skyspace, built at PS1 on Long Island, is called Meeting) in their Brentwood backyard, clearing away trees and persuading the city to take down a defunct power line that would interrupt the view.
"You don't really have to know anything about it to be affected," Mandy Einstein says of the experience of Second Meeting, where, 27 years later, the couple still frequently spends evenings.
Goldstein visited Second Meeting before deciding to commission his own space, finally finished in 2004, and Nicholson brought workers on the Goldstein space to the Einsteins', too. "It's very difficult to explain," he says.
Collectors Dallas Price-Van Breda and Jarl Mohn, both of whom worked with Nicholson at Turrell's recommendation, also visited the Einsteins in the early 2000s when planning for their own skyspaces, though Turrell's designs for them are quirkier, riskier.
Price-Van Breda's space, finished in 2006, is up a stairway where a rose bed used to be. It's elliptical, with an elliptical door and an elliptical oculus that's cut into the bottom portion of the curved, sloping roof. Venetian plaster makes the walls smooth, while an irregularly curved bench made of 2,000 discrete pieces of wood curves comfortably under your neck, back and legs.