It's hard to remember now, but there used to be something at the Henry that the gallery called, with great hope, a "sculpture court." Surrounded by steep walls and a forbidding iron fence, the sculpture court was rarely home to any actual sculpture—unless you count the crappy metal chairs and tables from the museum's cafe—and was about as inviting as the exercise yard on death row. But thanks to $1.3 million from donors (Bill and Ruth True foremost among them) and the visionary leadership of the Henry's director, Richard Andrews, the erstwhile courtyard last July became home to James Turrell's SKYSPACE, a naked-eye observatory that brings viewers into an intimate, mind-expanding experience of the sky. There are a couple dozen Skyspaces in the world (the mother of them all is part of Turrell's "Roden Crater Project" in Arizona), all of them based on the same basic trick that Turrell has mastered of making a backlit opening in the ceiling display the sky as a thin membrane floating just overhead. The optical effects of the Skyspace are hypnotic and magical, especially during sunsets, when the sky ever-so-gradually assumes a thick, silky texture. Even the most trivial events—a passing wisp of cloud, a bird in flight—become moments of high drama.
The brand name behind the Skyspace—whose official Henry title is actually Light Reign, though I don't think anyone calls it that—may be that of international art star Turrell, but it is thanks to the skill of some local professionals that the Skyspace pavilion is such a precision-engineered marvel of construction: project architect Bruce Donnally and contractors Krekow Jennings. Donnally speaks with feeling about "the tremendous amount of personal love" put into the construction of the Skyspace—it's a love that shines through in details that invite the hand and eye, like the perfectly poured, marble-smooth concrete pillars and the gorgeous mahogany bench running along the interior wall (due to the structure's elliptical shape, each of the hundreds of the bench's slats has unique dimensions and is cut on an almost imperceptibly widening angle).
Their achievement is all the more impressive given the tight constraints of the courtyard space. One of the greatest challenges was posed by the structure's retractable roof, which is closed on rainy days (offering viewers inside an infinite floating blue "ganzfeld" of color instead of a view of the sky). On clear days, it's doffed like a hat by mechanical arms that bring it to rest mere inches from the gallery building. By night, thousands of shifting LED lights come to life under the structure's exterior skin of frosted glass, making the Skyspace a grand piece of public sculpture improbably better—inside and out—than anything we could have expected from a sad little sculpture court. Henry Art Gallery: 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 41st Street, 206-543-2281.
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