Two years ago this Saturday, James Turrell’s “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace (aka The Suzanne Deal Booth Centennial Pavilion) opened to the public. Since then, more than 75,000 people have visited the work of art that has become one of the most photographed attractions on campus and a popular recommendation for tourists.
“It’s a star and people are drawn to it,” said Rice Public Art Director Molly Hubbard. “It’s so picturesque.”
During sunrise and sunset, visitors simultaneously experience Turrell’s composition of light projected onto the ceiling and the changing sky through a large square opening in the center of the ceiling. Turrell’s manipulation of light and space alter viewers’ perception of the color of the sky.
Sometimes the sky looks green … or lavender … or yellow … and visitors have been known to stand up and slowly turn around in circles while looking up at the sky and wondering, “How is that possible?”
“It’s an immersive experience, and people are mesmerized by it,” Hubbard said.
One of her fondest memories is the reaction of Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, grandson of the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, during the sunset light sequence. “He slowly turned to me bathed in tangerine and gave me a thumbs-up,” she said.
That moment was sweetened by the presence of Ruiz-Picasso’s wife, Almine Rech, because Rech was the first art dealer to show Turrell’s work in Europe when she featured one of his light installations as the sole attraction during a show in Paris, Hubbard said. “That was a pretty provocative moment in the art world.”
Emily Stein, assistant director of Rice Public Art, manages the skyspace and has a vivid memory of one of the first sunset light shows: “As the sky grew much darker and the lights warmed to a vibrant orange, the visitors erupted in applause,” she said.
The glow of Turrell’s installation during sunset has made the skyspace irresistible to photographers. Stunning pictures of “Twilight Epiphany” have appeared in Architectural Digest, Architectural Record, Travel + Leisure, Texas Monthly, Artforum, Fast Company, Huffington Post and more than 40 other publications. Upon the eve of its opening, the Houston Chronicle featured the artwork on the cover of Zest, and most recently the Greater Houston Partnership featured footage of the skyspace in its new video promoting the city of Houston.
“The skyspace has also quickly become a destination for marriage proposals and a privately rented space for weddings and corporate receptions,” Stein said. She noted that just Friday she received a message from her student docent that a couple got engaged at the end of the sunset light show.
Art patron groups from Harvard, Stanford, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museum have made special arrangements to experience “Twilight Epiphany,” which is also visited regularly by classes from the University of Houston, Downtown and students from Beeville Independent School District, among others.
“The skyspace is art anytime of day – with or without the light compositions,” Hubbard said. “In the afternoon when the sun hits at just a certain angle, the grass berm surrounding the space reflects on the roof, which glows with a subtle shade of green. It is sublime.”
In addition to engaging the eye, the skyspace was designed to engage the ear.
Rice Public Art has collaborated with the Shepherd School of Music, the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts and organizations like Nameless Sound and Diverseworks on daytime and post-sunset sound performances at “Twilight Epiphany.” The most elaborate of these was the Houston premiere of “Inuksuit,” which featured more than 40 percussionists moving inside and around the space while performing a piece by American composer John Luther Adams; the performance ended just as sunset began.
To keep the skyspace looking as Turrell envisioned for the seemingly nonstop visits by the Rice community, Houstonians and out-of-towners, Rice custodians clean all of the surfaces five days a week. Rice grounds crew members mow, trim and maintain the lush green berm. And three times a year the skyspace closes for several days while a private crew is brought in to do a special cleaning of the roof. The skyspace is also closed on Tuesdays to accommodate Shepherd School programs and private events.
Over the course of the past two years, Stein has trained about 20 undergraduate and graduate students to serve as docents for the skyspace. They greet visitors at sunset and gently ask them to silence their phones before the performance to best set the mood for Turrell’s intended contemplative experience.
Rice trustee emeritus and alumna Suzanne Deal Booth ’77, whose multimillion-dollar gift enabled Rice to commission world-renowned artist Turrell to design the skyspace, said this work of art continues to surpass her expectations.
“The journey from working as James Turrell’s student assistant to being the patron of this skyspace has been nothing short of extraordinary,” Deal Booth said. “The magical beauty commanded by the space itself has been a continual joy to me, and I am extremely gratified to see how many students, visitors and residents experience ‘Twilight Epiphany.’”
She said the transformative influence that the sunrise and sunset sequences have had on viewers has been “immensely rewarding” to her personally. “Friends, colleagues and complete strangers have raved about the impact of this experience, but perhaps the words of eighth-grade student Jesse Ramirez, who visited on a school field trip, express what I hoped to accomplish through bringing this work to Rice: ‘It’s like looking into a new galaxy and all the colors are just right there in front of you! The skyspace was the greatest thing I have ever focused my eyes on in my entire life!’
“I am thrilled with ‘Twilight Epiphany’s’ continuing relevance and power as a work of art by my good friend, mentor and collaborator, James Turrell,” Deal Booth said.
In appreciation for Deal Booth’s generosity and artistic guidance, the Rice Board of Trustees voted to deem the skyspace as the Suzanne Deal Booth Centennial Pavilion.