Experience Sunset: James Turrell’s Skyspace at the Ringling Museum of Art

Imagine staring into a deep dark blue pool of calm water and getting lost in its depth.

Now imagine lying on your back on a floor of a museum and the ‘pool’ is the sky seen through a deftly designed 24-foot square ‘hole’ in the ceiling. Enter Skyspace and experience Joseph’s Coat by James Turrell at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.

Color photograph

James Turrell. Joseph’s Coat, 2011 © James Turrell, Photo by Giovanni Lunardi.

Turrell’s kinesthetic art is an invitation to experience energy in relation to light, sound, wind, and the canvas of a changing sky by quieting the mind and observing. Opening our senses and our consciousness to the world around and within us, while lying on a bench or the floor to experience the sky, allows and even encourages a transformation of one’s perception.

The brochure given at entry to the sunset experience states; “James Turrell wants you to be aware of your active participation in perception – and see yourself seeing.”

Entering the courtyard of Joseph’s Coat, a gallery lined with long wooden benches felt to me like any other indoor courtyard until I looked up. The ceiling thinned at the opening to the sky. If inverted it could be a sheer dropoff without ledge or dimension. The floor was a slightly inclined square with a perimeter of drains to carry rain away and which double as light tubes for the sunset show.

I placed my mat on the floor between benches and noticed the small-leafed vines that climbed the plaster walls forming elegant green pathways upward. The scent of jasmine vines wrapped around a pillar nearby enlivened the air and brought greenery to the sparse courtyard.

Turrell’s Skyspace draws us in just by looking up, and I found that it offered me a chance to pause, to listen, to feel and yes, to see. The experiential nature of his work including lying on one’s back and watching the sky change, especially brilliant at sunset, is a dance between an artist’s work and the viewer’s evocative experience: the powerful essence of art. There for an hour, relaxing on my mat, hearing my breath, I tried not to fidget. I became mesmerized watching the grey clouds pass over following a strong summer storm. A train whistle in the distance caught my attention, like a Tibetan gong just before meditation.

The post storm breezes moved the clouds quickly and constantly changed the sky as if lifting layer upon layer of veils to reveal finally, a blue sky. A bird, then another, darted through the air on a strong gust followed by a jet’s contrail that curiously, as if on tiptoe, entered the square and moved diagonally from upper right to lower left, thinly sketched as if with a fine-tipped brush, then slowly dissolved by the wind into a series of thick wavy lines. Soon the remaining thick grey clouds thinned to wisps, faded to lighter pink, then to salmon and coral and with the help of the LED lights subtly projected up from the floor and elsewhere I couldn’t discern, the walls changed color too.

Deep ocean – blue sky set in and from the deepest part of the pool, a star, then another glimmered at the edge of the ethereal canvas. Cream to green to red walls and deep dark sky descending. We were entering the night. Or, maybe the night was entering the dozen viewers on the floor and benches of the Skyspace.

“How is it,” I thought to myself, “That this dance is ongoing every millisecond of our lives, at night quietly swirling above us and around us as we work, love, play and sleep? Yet, we are not aware of it.”

The movement and realization of energy, of dynamic molecules, and the give and take of this seemingly innocuous hole to the sky gave me a chance to pause, to listen, to feel and breathe, and yes, to see.

Molecules and light beams, daylight and darkness, starlight and Self and Other. To stare into a pool of space within the dynamic nature of changing light, makes life art and all that is, the world beyond and within us, Art. Clearly, it is a glimpse of the ongoing creative process. I’m a relative newcomer to the art of Mr.Turrell but through my discovery, I am drawn back… or should I say, drawn in again and again.


One can experience Joseph’s Coat Skyspace every day that the Ringling Museum of Art is open and two nights each week for sunset viewing. Yoga mats are encouraged. Check with the museum for specific schedules and details.


By Pamela Erickson, GLIMPSE journal correspondent. Erickson is an author, artist and librarian who lives on the Florida Gulf Coast with her husband and pets. Having taught for over 30 years, she seeks writing as a form of reflection, exploration, conversation and solace. Her novel, Each Other, is available here.

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