Go Toward the Light: James Turrell’s The Color Inside Will Warm You Inside

If you have yet to venture to The Color Inside, you’re in for a real treat. Situated on the rooftop of the Student Activity Center at the University of Texas, this “Skyspace” by artist James Turrell is part meditation room, part art installation. It’s been open to the public since October, but I only got around to seeing it for myself this week. I already know I want to go back.

For Turrell newbies, the 70-year-old Californian is known for his study of light and space and “considers the sky as his studio, material and canvas.” (For more about the artist and his work, clickhere.) His Skyspace series, which consists of more than 80 works of art throughout the world, incorporates space, the sky and the effect light has on our perception and reality. For The Color Inside, he’s created a small elliptical chamber with a round opening in the ceiling and a black basalt banquette running along the surrounding wall. It provides Austinites a glimpse into this artist’s uniquely minimalist approach for mind-expanding experiences.

I invited my coworkers Jenn Hair, Kimya Kavehkar and Kim Vo to join me at the Skyspace at UT, which came about through the university’s Landmarks program. We all came separately, and no one was quite sure what to expect, myself included, even though I had been to see Turrell’s massive Guggenheim exhibition in New York City last year.

For that show, he took over the entire museum, filling every room, including the spacious ground-floor rotunda, with his observations on light. As is the case with a casual art lover, there were moments when I was completely befuddled by what I was looking at. In fact, upon first walking into the rotunda and seeing all these people staring up at the ceiling—transformed into a series of rings, almost like looking into a giant collapsible plastic cup—I was unimpressed. I didn’t understand why everyone was being swept up in the fervor over this artist. Until, that is, I had walked through the whole exhibition and returned to the rotunda to find a drastically changed space. It was now enveloped in a brilliant red, making me feel all giddy and warm inside. I became one of those people staring at the ceiling, transfixed by the ever-so-slowly changing colors. Not only did the spectrum of hues alter the way the space and people looked, but it also affected my feelings. 

The Color Inside is a mini model of that Guggenheim exhibition.

I arrived late for my 5:37 p.m. reservation (you need to reserve a spot on the website). When I reached the third floor of the SAC, I was a little harried. Again, unsure of what to expect, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get in. A young man sitting outside the elevator asked me if I was here for The Color Inside and motioned where to go. “Down the hallway, out the door, walk around the curved structure, and you’ll find the opening,” he said.

It was a cloudy, freezing cold day. When I entered the space, Jenn and Kim were already inside, seated on the banquette and staring up at the sky. Fortunately, the seats had radiant heat so our backsides didn’t have to suffer.

The ceiling was swimming in lavender, and it took me a while to settle down. I noticed a couple sitting across from us, and there was a young man reclining on the banquette, looking upward. It was incredibly peaceful—in fact, I heard more of a wind or ocean-wave sound than the noise of rush-hour traffic along Guadalupe Street.

For several minutes, nothing happened. “I thought the color would change, like at the Guggenheim,” I whispered to Kim. She told me to keep looking at the sky. After a few moments, I began to make out the wisps and swirls of clouds in the overcast sky, like puffs of thick smoke. That calmed me down. Still, I wondered if this was all there was to this Skyspace.

We could hear the sound of heels approaching outside. It was Kimya. She, as well as a few others, entered the space and took a seat. One guy came in and left after a few minutes. 

Finally, the show got underway. I noticed that the colors began evolving, going from soft lavender to a deep purple to a striking electric blue to a palest of pale yellows. With each change in shade, the color of the sky also changed, as did the hole in the ceiling. The longer you looked at it, the more alive it became—growing from an ellipsis to a circle, expanding in size and, at times, seeming to move closer toward me. There was one moment when I began to see green spots along the sky opening. I mentioned this to my cohorts, and they had the same optical effect. Trippy!

We stayed in the space for about 25 to 30 minutes. (I’m really not sure how long it was because time seemed to slow down in there.) We walked out into the cold, a little numb from the chilly weather as well as from the experience. We shared our thoughts, agreeing that the coolest part was seeing the green spots.  

The Color Inside is not for the impatient. It's a place where the mind can relax and the eyes and ears can take in the sights and sounds and simple shifts in observation and perception. It won't transform your life, but it may make you have a new appreciation for certain things—like light, color and mood. Stick around to see the color changes, and you'll find yourself letting go of your inner art critic and becoming transfixed by the subtle-to-vibrant display. I’d like to go back on a clear day, just to see what happens to the sky without a cloud in sight. Will the sky change the way it did with clouds? I'll have to book another reservation to find out.