Shedding Light On LA Artist James Turrell's Skyspace Installations

With two major exhibitions, the work of James Turrell is currently drawing massive crowds. But one private Skyspace in Southern California offers a far more intimate experience.

Jim Goldstein isn’t your typical collector—in fact, he isn’t your typical anything. Gracefully approaching his seventh decade, he is the man with the shoulder-length silver hair wearing an alligator suit and elaborate cowboy hat perched courtside at nearly every NBA game (he attends more than 100 each season) or in the front row at Paris fashion week. And although he’s used to his appearance getting attention, these days it’s the concrete box in his backyard that seems to be garnering more of it, thanks to two career-defining exhibitions on both coasts celebrating the once obscure work of light artist and Los Angeles native James Turrell. Goldstein lives in an iconic 1963 John Lautner house jutting out from a hillside in Beverly Crest. He’s been restoring, renovating and adding to the property over the past 40 years, first with Lautner himself, and, following the architect’s death, with Lautner’s protégé Duncan Nicholson. In the late ’80s, Goldstein teamed up his old friend Lautner with Turrell (whose work he’d been introduced to at Venice’s Ace Gallery) to design and construct one of the artist’s signature Skyspaces on the property. In 2005, after numerous delays, the installation was finally completed. “The city planning commission was getting proposals for some strange project that they just couldn’t understand,” says Goldstein.

Inside the single-room above horizon on Jim Goldstein’s property, viewers lounge on a black leather cushion to watch the show. Photo by Kenneth Johansson, Corbis Images

The finished work of art, called Above Horizon, is a collaboration between architect, artist and dilettante. The one-room structure is a reinforced concrete box built deep into the hillside and sliced with two oculi—one keystone-shaped opening in the ceiling and one rectangular portal in the corner. The latter was Goldstein’s idea, a suggestion that Turrell embraced. The design called for an operable, cantilevered cover to extend over the top and down the side of the structure to cover the oculi, and staying true to the spirit of Lautner, there could be absolutely no visible fastenings or machinery. Nicholson, who officially took over the project from Lautner in 1994, had the idea to approach experimental aviation designer Dave Ronnenberg (who was working out of Santa Monica Municipal Airport and had just designed the ultralightweight Berkut aircraft) for help. Together, they created the carbon fiber and fiberglass cover—an element Turrell liked so much he hired Nicholson and Ronnenberg to help him design two subsequent Skyspaces. Inside Above Horizon, Turrell’s signature interplay of natural light and multicolored LEDs has captivated not only Goldstein but also the hundreds of guests he has shared the space with over the years. “There’s a recessed leather cushion in the center of the space that is designed to seat four people,” says Goldstein. “But sometimes we squeeze six to eight people in there to watch the show.”

Photo by Kenneth Johansson, Corbis Images

But if you think a man who commissioned his very own light show would have a veritable gallery of other blue-chip works, you still don’t get Goldstein. Citing the 40-year-and-counting build-out of his home and its surrounding structures—the latest being a nightclub and suite of offices currently under construction beneath his tennis courts—Goldstein explains, “I suppose I would collect more art if I weren’t so invested—personally and monetarily—in creating it.”

Want more Turrell?

Two simultaneous exhibitions of James Turrell’s work are being held at LACMA and New York’s Guggenheim Museum. And although the tickets are probably easier to come by than a personal invite to Jim Goldstein’s house, museum representatives still recommend reserving well in advance, as they are selling at the speed of light.

Left: Photo by Kenneth Johansson, Corbis Images. Right: Aten Reign. Courtesy of The Guggenheim Museum

LACMA’s retrospective explores the artist’s 50-year career with light projections, sensory deprivation installations and two-dimensional holograms. It also gives a taste of the grandest and most personal of his works, Roden Crater, an in-process, site-specific installation Turrell has been building for nearly 45 years inside the mouth of a volcano on his Arizona ranch. The artist sacrificed both his entire savings and his family to purchase the land and execute his vision. “My wife said at the time, ‘You’re mortgaging our children’s future,’” Turrell recalled in a recent New York Times Interview, “and for that and other reasons, she left.” May 26, 2013 – April 6, 2014.

At the Guggenheim, Turrell executed what the museum is touting as one of the most ambitious (and complicated) installations within the museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright–designed rotunda. Called Aten Reign (2013), it’s a perception-altering combination of natural light and more than 1,000 color-shifting LEDs extending 100 feet up to the top of the rotunda. June 21 – Sept. 25, 2013.

This was originally published in California Home + Design's Fall 2013 issue. Click here to subscribe.

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