review-erickson-josephs-coat-2011-c2a9-james-turrell-photo-by-giovanni-lunardi-webJames Turrell. Joseph’s Coat, 2011, Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida
© James Turrell, Photo by Giovanni Lunardi.

Faced with the task of writing for Painters on Paintings, I wanted to find a painting that stopped me dead in my tracks. A strike of cadmium red cutting through to my soul, a work that stops everything for me. Painting can do that – Caravaggios and Beckmanns have pulled me close from across a museum floor. Sometimes, it is color that does this for me: a swath of blue green against a coral pink. After a long winter and a cool spring, I find that my inspiration stems from color, arresting me and connecting me in time.

This February I was at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota installing four of my wooden sculptures. One evening, the museum emptied of its guests, the curator Matthew McLendon mentioned he needed to check on something in James Turrell’s Skyscape titled Joseph’s Coat. Finished in 2011, it is Turrell’s largest Skyscape in the United States, boasting a twenty-four foot aperture. After finishing up in the galleries, I wandered through the empty museum to find Matthew. I expected him to be bent over his phone sending emails, ready for a bucket-sized margarita. Instead, I was surprised to find his six-foot-plus frame lying in the middle of the tiled floor ofJoseph’s Coat, his laptop open next to him playing Tibetan singing bowls. Above, the sky was changing colors as the interior of the space slowly shifted hues via illuminated LED lights. Dropping my bag, I too sprawled out on the floor.

I was stopped in my tracks and given no choice but to be still and take in the piece. It was one of those experiences with art that is simultaneously immediate and infinite. The kind of experience that makes me think of what Gaston Bachelard’s said about immensity in his book The Poetics of Space: “Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests…As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere; we are dreaming in a world that is immense. Indeed, immensity is the movement of motionless man. It is one of the dynamic characteristics of quiet daydreaming.” 

Lying there, captivated by the theatrics of light, I was floating in a visual daydream. I was pulled into the color of the lights—the sunset transforming the sky, the square hole in the ceiling smoothly sliding between greens, pinks, blues, the whole ceiling and sky briefly uniting. The square window opened up, receded into the distance and then, as the color transformed, the sky came forward. Each subtle shift in color had me in rapt attention. I reached for my phone, hoping to snatch an image of one of the color combinations, but it was impossible—this was something only to be consumed in that moment.

Long legged egrets swooped over the opening; a hot pink wisp of cloud danced across the stage. I floated along with the shifting sky, anticipating the next gem to reveal itself. Color theory in action: the sense of foreground and background, the confluence of the manmade and the natural display. Oh to recall the sky does these tricks daily, twice daily, constantly sweeping across with incredible color if we only stop to marvel.

I do not think I have the language to pin down what happened—the rush of color, slap of space, floating, flying, opening—combinations of tones I wanted to burn into my brain, to recreate later on a canvas. I know I felt a distinct sense of immediate immensity. A feeling that comes occasionally in the making of art and in the looking.

It was Joseph Albers, J.M.W. Turner and meditation practice wrapped into one.

I was receiving quick lessons in the sublime, immensity and the infinitesimal all at once. I was connected to the vibrations and ancient qualities of color. I also had an overwhelming sense that by being still, by clearing space, things were unfolding. As a painter, I am intimately familiar with the time I need to spend staring at colors, waiting for them to speak to me, to tell me what happens next. I begin my paintings by putting color on the canvas; the conversation unfolds in a sequence of color that moves between discord and harmony.

Watching the sky through the Turrell Skyscape, I thought about how no two experiences of this piece could ever be the same. A work of art is part collaborative collage with the universe.

The hour-long “show” ended when the sky was deep inky blue/black/purple and the color in the room faded slowly to white. Then it became a Malevich painting, the sky back in its proper place, the room illuminated, the sent of jasmine wafting around us. I returned again to the feel of the cool cement on my back.

Is it magic, this type of artistry? I love to think about how it acts as a bridge in time, how a painting made 40, 400, or 4000 years ago jumps out at us like a guard dog ready to attack, full of life and force. Great art invites us to connect to the present while echoing clearly from the past.

DSC_3601Emily Noelle Lambert, Veil (from the darkness to the light), 2014, Acrylic and wood on panel, 42 x 33 inches