A photograph of a blue sky with thin cirrus clouds that look like a series of slashes. Own work 2023.

Seeing the obvious in the Turrell skyspace

The Three Gems by James Turrell in November

by AK Krajewska

Whoever is in charge of the opening hours at the De Young museum must hate sunsets. The observation tower, with views of Golden Gate Park and parts of San Francisco, closes at 4:30, for example, and the earliest sunset ever gets is 4:50. I was up in the tower with my friend M- a bit after 4:30 on a cloudy day, feeling particularly unmoved by the view, when she said, "Let's go to the sculpture garden."

Decisively, she led us to the Turell Skyspace[1] which looks like a dome of grass from the outside and a cathedral dome with a hole in it from the inside. It has wonderful acoustic qualities too, amplifying every sound and sometimes people sing in it. There's a bench all around the edge of the inside, and you can look up at the hole and see the sky framed in its circle. I'm very fond of the skyspace, which is one of many that Turrell has built, though I have never seen any others.

Isn't it obvious?

"We're here at the perfect time," said M- and we looked up at the sky for a bit. Then she said "Do you know what this piece is about?" I felt like someone had asked me what coffee is about. Isn't it obvious?

"Um, it's about the sky," I said. About looking at a cut-out piece of the sky, about taking the ordinary beauty of the sky and framing a little bit of it so you see just sky and can appreciate it in a new way, and about the way the sky looks different depending on what's happening. I particularly like how the skyspace frames the fast moving fog on days when the marine layer flows by. And it's a bit about the sound in the space, too, the way it seem to be enclosed and amplified. So it's about the sky and a little bit about the sound.

We sat there quietly for a while and then she said "Do you want to know what it's really about?" And I said yes, and she explained how it works and holy shit I mean I've been coming to this place for literal years and I never knew and there's no signs of anything that gives you a clue. Most people who come here also probably never realize it either because for most of the year, you can't go at the right time, because the right time to go is sunset.

The Three Gems

When you stare at a patch of a certain color and then move your eyes away from it to a blank space, you see a negative of that color. In the skyspace, the white inner dome that frames the sky window is illuminated by colored light that shifts through a slow gradient of colors. Because the shift is so gradual, and because most of what you see is the color-illuminated inside, your mind tends to adjust its "white balance" and the sky appears to change color. At the same time, as your eyes flicker from the lit edge of the space to the sky, the negative color effect is projected to the sky. At least, that's what I think is happening.

The subjective experiences is that as you look at the sky as it gets darker and the colors shift inside the space, the sky appears to change color, and the round sky portal which at first seems flat begins to take a convex shape, like a bezel. Although it was cloudy, and even rained, the sky above me appeared to turn deep blue, and sometimes bits of green flickered across it.

Other Turrell skyspaces work this way as well. M- learned about it when she visited one in Japan, where they had a whole evening program of it, and even gave you blankets so you could stay comfortable as it got dark. She said towards the end, the sky appeared to turn red. The Three Gems wasn't that dramatic when we saw it, though we didn't stay until full dark.

It's the gloomiest time of the year

And that's the trick of it. To see the color change, you have to be there as the sky dims. However, the De Young museum closes at 5:15 p.m., and for most the year, sunset is much later than that, so you don't have the chance. You have to come during the period when sunset is before 5:15 p.m., roughly speaking, mid-November to mid January.

Viewing notes for the myopic

For some reason, the effect doesn't work as well if your vision is blurry. I wouldn't expect color vision, especially of a big blob of sky, to be affected by visual acuity, but it is. When I wore my distance glasses, the colors were spectacular. When I wore my everyday indoor glasses, it was just OK. So if you're nearsighted, wear your glasses. And if you're not seeing anything interesting at all, maybe get your eyes checked for distance vision.

My best guess is that something about it depends on a the sharp break between the two fields of color. Some photos of Turrell skyspaces look like flashing color Tattwa cards. Tattwa cards juxtapose distinct geometric shapes in a bright color on a field of a contrasting color, which, when you stare at them, creates a sense that they are flashing, moving, or changing. It only works if you get the colors just right and if the shapes are neat and clean. When I made a set of Tattwa cards in the OSOGD we did it as a big group craft project and used carefully selected colored paper to cut out the shapes. I saw some people's painted Tattwa cards and they didn't seem to have the effect because most people can't manage those clear lines.

If the skyspace works in a similar way to flashing color Tattwa cards, a neat demarcation between color fields is necessary for the full effect.

How to get there

The Turrell skyspace in San Francisco is located in the sculpture garden on the grounds of the De Young museum in Golden Gate Park. It doesn't cost anything to go into the sculpture garden, though you might have to go through the museum entrance and walk through the museum cafe and come out again. Sometimes you can just walk in by the cafe and other times you have to walk through the museum. Either way, it's free. The skyspace is a little hard to find, because it's all the way at the back of the garden and doesn't look like much from the outside. Look for signs along the path. Weekdays are especially nice if you can make it out, because it's quieter.

And obviously, go now[2], while it gets dark so early. Don't let rain deter you. The bench inside stays dry and the effect seems to work fine when it's raining.


I still think it's about seeing the sky. Just, not the usual sky.

[1] I keep thinking it's Tyrell, but that's the fictional android manufacturing company, while the artist who makes the skyspaces is James Turrel.

[2] Or, if you're reading this a long time after I posted it, go between mid-November and mid-January.