James Turrell’s Portal Into the Sky

An exploration of ‘Meeting,’ a site-specific installation at the MOMA PS1.


Camera_obscura / Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Here is a view of the wooden benches and square aperture of James Turrell’s Quaker-inspired piece ‘Meeting’ from 1986.

Your eyes follow as a silky cloud moves delicately across the ever-blue sky. In the corner, you see an airplane fly past, leaving a faint chemtrail in its wake. A group of people are leaning back on wooden benches, their heads craning up to a rectangular aperture in the ceiling. The slight hum of city life fades into the background. The room is quiet except for the occasional shuffle of pants or shoes. You are engrossed in the slow movement of clouds, and it feels as if the sky is a blanket that has been laid over your whole being. Although this may seem like an interactive movie or meditation class, this incredible experience is actually James Turrell’s Meeting, a permanent site-specific artwork displayed in the Museum of Modern Art at P.S.1 (MoMA P.S.1). 

Meeting was born nearly fifty years ago in a third floor classroom of P.S. 1, a public school in Long Island City, Queens. In 1968, Turrell had accepted art curator Alanna Heiss’ invitation to join another 100 artists in transforming a crumbling public school into the revolutionary gallery that would inspire the rise of avant-garde art in New York.

At the time, James Turrell was a recent graduate of University of California Irvine’s studio art program. After his studies, he rented an abandoned Santa Monica Hotel with the intent of experimenting with high intensity projectors against its empty walls and corners. These early works were called “Projection Pieces.” Essentially, he sculpted with beams of light, welding them to create optical illusions of tunnels, cubes, and pyramids. From certain angles, the beams appear to be a three-dimensional shape floating in the room and emitting light. This is due to the high contrast between an intense light source and a darkened room, which leads to our incapability to comprehend the existence of walls and other surfaces in the room. His reconstruction of space and light strove to reveal how not only our eyes are crucial in processing images, but our brains as well.

Turrell’s use of shape and color to manipulate human perception in such a way that viewers see light as a physical object later becomes a common theme throughout his works.  “You don’t normally look at light, we’re generally looking at something light reveals. For me, it was important that people come to value light…rather than light being something that reveals, light itself becomes something of a revelation,” he said in a 2013 interview with Art21. 

His early explorations with light laid the foundation for his later works, which sought to defy the boundaries between the interior and exterior. In 1976, Turrell stood in a third floor classroom of MoMA PS1, with a heavy-duty jackhammer in hand. The tool was used to strike through the four feet of concrete ceiling that separated the “interior” from “exterior.” The result was a rectangular shaft that opened towards the New York City sky. This act marked the beginning of Meeting, the second of over one hundred pieces in his series of  “skyscapes.”  

The sky and its light had always been Turrell’s muse since his youth as an avid fighter pilot. During the Vietnam War, he flew missions over Tibet and the Himalayas. The high altitudes exposed him to changes in vision, sparking his newfound curiosity in human perception. As a result, in 1965, he studied perceptual psychology at Pomona College. After receiving a degree in psychology, Turrell pursued fine arts at the University of California, Irvine. Skyscapes served as an integration of his dissonant life experiences in psychology, art and aviation. They were an artistic endeavor with roots in his fascination with the sky and his knowledge of human perception. Turrell’s goal in creating these apertures was to cultivate a shared appreciation for the bright and vast space we often disregard.

His goal was achieved, as Skyscapes inspire a sense of awe and tranquility in viewers by allowing them to feel the sky’s physical presence. “You see no contrast with the depth of the sky and your view, so you realize its closeness. Sometimes if you are conscious enough, you’ll discover that you are in the atmosphere and you are not separated from the sky. At night and even in the day, you will have this feeling that you are one with the universe,” said Richard Walker, an astronomer who worked with Turrell . Meeting provided a necessary spiritual and visual break from the hectic, fast-paced New York lifestyle and bustling streets. 

However, this New York location itself proved to be quite problematic, as the commute to MOMA PS1 was notoriously dangerous. “Going out on the number 7 [subway] and going out to Long Island City was not as safe,” said Turrell. In order to avoid the troubles of subway transportation and to fully monitor and experience the piece during construction, Turrell lived on site, in a tent that he had pitched in the classroom. While living onsite, he made the decision to drill wooden planks into walls, creating seating along the room’s perimeter. 

Now, viewers are seated on inclined wooden benches that line the white plastered walls of the room. The minimal, simple, and peaceful space was inspired by Quaker meetinghouses. Growing up as a Quaker in Pasadena, California, he made frequent visits to meetinghouses with his grandmother. “She said we were going inside to greet the light. I liked that,” he said in an interview with Artnet. In Meeting, he decided to transform the spiritual meaning of “meeting the light” into a more literal sense. Similar to the architecture of Quaker meetinghouses, the wooden benches in Meeting are arranged such that viewers are facing each other. Creating a communal space for feeling the sky and its light alludes to the unified transcendence of Quaker worship and the human experience. 

A key aspect of Meeting is Turrell’s use of artificial lights in the room. These Osram Linestra tungsten light bulbs allowed him to prove that the color of the sky is a concept created by our perception. They warmly light the room’s interior with rich, golden, yellow colors that seem to increase the sky’s clarity. This illusion of a more intense sky occurs because the color of light emitted from tungsten light bulbs and daylight are on opposite ends of the color temperature spectrum. “The big thing is that any time you light a white surface with warm light in the interior, you‟ll intensify it in the opening, the quality of blueness. It can be a rainy day and you’ll have a blue sky,” Turrell explains. 

In 2014, Meeting underwent a few physical changes, including the transition from tungsten light bulbs to computer-controlled LED lights.  The hues of these energy-efficient light fixtures are synchronized with the varying schedules of sunrises and sunsets throughout the year. The interaction between the LED lights and the color of the sky eliminates our ability to comprehend the sky’s depth. As the sky darkens with time, the lights become stronger and more vivid. For instance, when the sky is a pale lavender color, the room is a dull gray color. As the sky becomes a deeper and darker blue, the room lights up with increasingly bright orange colors. This contrast creates an illusion where it looks as if you are staring at a flat painting of the sky framed by a solid color. Although senses of depth are dulled, viewers become more aware of the transitions in the sky’s color as the sunset progresses, reminding them of the changing presence they would otherwise overlook. This LED light experience is referred to as a “sunset viewing” and is open to all MOMA PS1 visitors. 

Although Turrell’s skyscapes are found in over twenty countries and seventeen American states, Meeting remains the only skyscape in New York. This installation provides the opportunity to experience the New York City sky in a spiritual and calm environment. 

The sky and its light had always been Turrell’s muse since his youth as an avid fighter pilot. During the Vietnam War, he flew missions over Tibet and the Himalayas. The high altitudes exposed him to changes in vision, sparking his newfound curiosity in human perception.