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Sky Space

Rice The Magazine of Rice University No. 3 | 2009

Turrell‘s installation, which inaugurates the new public art program at Rice, will stand in the green space in front of Alice Pratt Brown Hall, home of The Shepherd School of Music. The Rice Art Committee, co-chaired by Raymond Brochstein ’55 and Suzanne Deal Booth ’77, will lead the efforts for the development and construction of the project. The design will be open-air and could include a water element. Just as important will be the piece’s accessibility: The space was deliberately selected for the nearby parking and the openness around it, and the work will be visible from some high-rises around Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“I’ve worked in a lot of museums and private collections, and I think that, in a way, people in the art world have done a disservice to the field because it’s become too elite and insulated,” said Deal Booth, whose gift is making the Turrell piece possible. “So I’ve made a big attempt to bring access to art. Let’s not even call it ‘art.’ Let’s call it ‘interesting spaces.’”

Both art and Rice are ingrained in Deal Booth’s blood. Fresh from a summer spent in Europe touring museums and studying paintings, she entered Rice thirsting for all things art: the culture, the history, the lifestyle. An art history major studying closely with the department’s four faculty members, Deal Booth found what she was seeking, but when she met Dominique de Menil, a new hunger emerged.

“She set an example for me of how to get involved with the people around you,” Deal Booth said. “She set a tone for what I would call ‘high-level philanthropy.’”

Deal Booth got a firsthand look into her mentor’s passion by working as a student assistant during the time de Menil was involved at Rice University. Her job was to go through the late John de Menil’s files and catalog the information from the note cards. The work might have been dull to some, but Deal Booth loved it because of the art it introduced her to and the insight it afforded her into the de Menils’ collecting process.

Deal Booth’s association with Turrell dates back to 1980, when she was a graduate student in art history and art conservation at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. During that time, she worked as Turrell’s part-time assistant and helped build one of his first “skyspaces” at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. She later worked with him to install his first retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“I have always been intrigued by James’ work and his passion to create spaces where ephemeral or even invisible light — as is usually perceptible only in our dreams — can be experienced,” Deal Booth said. “It is with great joy that I am able to extend this gift to the Rice community.”

For more than three decades, Turrell has used light and indeterminate space to extend and enhance perception. His work has been the subject of more than 140 solo exhibitions worldwide since 1967. Since 1972 he has been transforming the Roden Crater, a natural cinder volcano situated in the Painted Desert in northern Arizona, into a large-scale artwork. Through the medium of light, the piece relates to the surrounding sky, land and culture.

His permanent installations are on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York; the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas; the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt am Main, Germany; and the Panza Collection in Varese, Italy, among others. Turrell has two other major projects in Houston, the Quaker Meeting House and “The Light Inside,” a site-specific, artificially lit, interior installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. With the addition of Rice’s naturally lit, outdoor installation, Houston will become the only city where the public can see both types of Turrell’s work.

“Having a new work by an artist with the stature of James Turrell at Rice will be a profound statement for the university’s intention of creating a public art program with high aesthetic merit,” said Molly Hubbard, Rice’s newly appointed university art director. “Imagine the experience for the multitudes of viewers who will be drawn to the work, not unlike a pilgrimage site.”