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Friday, July 11, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Visual Arts

James Turrell's bold Skyspace installation is a shrine to light

Seattle Times art critic

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"James Turrell Skyspace," a permanent installation at the Henry Art Gallery, is entered through the museum, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (until 8 p.m. Thursdays). $8, $6 seniors, free to members and students. The exterior illumination is visible at night from the street. 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 41st Street, Seattle (206-543-2280 or www.henryart.org).

Tonight: "Summer @ the Henry" with music, food, fire-dancing by Pyrosutra and spontaneous poetry by The Typing Explosion. 7:30 p.m.-midnight. $30. $20 members.

It hovers over the Henry Art Gallery courtyard like a spaceship touching down, aglow at night with ever-shifting colors. When you step inside the oval room and lean back against the bench-lined mahogany walls, it feels more like a sauna. But instead of heat, the new James Turrell Skyspace at the Henry Art Gallery bathes you in light.

If this were the 1960s, the Arizona artist's work would be called mind-blowing. A recent U District passer-by appraised the illuminated Skyspace in more contemporary jargon, shouting: "Architecture rules!"

Tonight, there will be major partying at the Henry to celebrate the opening of the Skyspace, a much-anticipated permanent addition by an artist who's long been a Seattle favorite. The Skyspace is an elliptical pavilion approximately 28 by 20 feet that stands 11 feet above the sculpture court on two concrete pillars. The retractable roof swings open to expose an 11-by-7-foot "oculus" ringed with recessed lighting that allows a carefully regulated view of the sky.

Entered via a catwalk from the original Henry Gallery doors (left high and dry by a remodel in the mid-1990s) the Skyspace adds new purpose to an architectural dead zone. "This plaza or courtyard was not exactly working well. (The Skyspace) is a way to enliven it," Turrell said during a recent visit to Seattle.

Viewed from the outside, it's a bold architectural statement. From the inside, it's a contemplative haven, a retreat for all seasons. When the weather is fair, the elliptical roof swings open to frame the sky and provide a natural light show that's especially dramatic at sunset. When the weather gets too cold or wet, the roof will remain closed and act as a screen to reflect hidden lights. That lighting will play with your perceptions in typical Turrell fashion: You might think you are looking at the sky, even when the oculus is closed.

At night, the Skyspace is an ever-changing light show. It's sheathed with 17-foot glass panels illuminated from within by the reflection of thousands of LED lights programmed to slowly shift hues. Within the glass walls are some 750 LED fixtures, each with 48 bulbs in combinations of red, blue and green. The subtle color variations derive from mixing those lights, as happens on a television screen. Seeing his Seattle Skyspace lit up for the first time reminded Turrell of flying over Los Angeles years ago with his father, who looked down at the sprawling city and remarked: "Peasant by day, princess by night."

This exterior lighting sets the Henry's Skyspace apart from the two others installed at U.S. museums, one at New York's P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and the other at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona. To see another Turrell outdoor light installation, you'd need to travel to Leipzig, Osaka, Paris or Frankfurt, where he has created dramatic nighttime lighting effects for urban buildings.

Our Skyspace has one more trick up its sleeve, too. In order to create a tentlike enclosure over the courtyard below, the surrounding walls of the Henry and the bottom of the Skyspace have been fitted with attachments to hold an awning that can be hoisted for special events. Henry Gallery director Richard Andrews describes the effect as "an almost translucent white skirt." Turrell's opinion of it is less ethereal. He laughingly calls the awning-clad Skyspace, "Dumbo in a skirt."

For a relatively small addition to the museum, the Skyspace was a huge engineering and construction challenge, led by Seattle architect Bruce Donnally. Everything about the design had to be utterly precise. For example, when the dome retracts, it has only a few inches of clearance to avoid crashing into the old entrance of the Henry Gallery. The first time the opening mechanism was activated, everybody held their breath.

The Skyspace rests on two columns, 11 feet high and 22 inches in diameter. Those concrete columns connect to two cast pilings that drop 20 feet below ground. All the power lines for the pavilion run inside the columns. "They were cast in place," Donnally said. "We used a very smooth form to get the glassy finish that (Turrell) always refers to as 'the shaved legs.' "

Then there was the exterior lighting. "We had to figure out a way to get the light distributed evenly," Donnally said. "There's a 10-inch cavity behind the mullions, and that had to be ventilated so it wouldn't overheat. And of course we couldn't let any light leak out." They solved that puzzle with a series of black baffles along the top. Circulating air can escape via a zigzap course that keeps light trapped inside.

Turrell didn't worry much about that stuff. "The artist is asking a lot," he said. "I'm the one happily making the problems. Someone else has to solve them."

But Donnally said Turrell was easy to work with. "He had a very clear and straightforward idea about the art impact he wanted. How we achieved it, he left up to us. It's hard to see the difficulty that went into it. It looks effortless."

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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