As if on cue, those gathered in the James Turrell Skyspace for its formal dedication Friday night on the Rice University campus fell into a cathedral-like silence. Light play from the computerized LED system that ebbs and flows across the roof aperture of this rare art installation began softly, slowly and then dramatically intensified.
The vivid continuum of color diffusion grappled with the senses of everyone present, demanding complete surrender.
And surrender to the concept of art's central position on a college campus was the underlying motivation for Suzanne Deal Booth, a Rice art history major, whose generous gift made the Turrell installation possible. Though she calls Austin home, Deal Booth has spent much of the last two years in and out of Houston as the Skyspace became reality.
"It's something new and iconic for the university that I hope will be a game changer."
Friends of the benefactor came from around the world and across the art community to witness the unveiling of the project that has been years in the making. Italian art historian Stefano Aluffi-Pentini of Rome, London-based hedge fund manager Pierre Lagrange and designer Roubi L'Roubi had traveled the farthest. Staglin Family Vineyard owners Shari and Garen Staglin were in from Napa Valley.
Studying the contours of the pyramid-like structure were Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan, Nasher Museum director Jeremy Strick, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Gary Tinterow and The Menil Collection's Josef Helfenstein.
As she surveyed the artful landscape, Deal Booth said, "For me, it's a homecoming. It's something new and iconic for the university that I hope will be a game changer."
"When I was a student here at Rice, I was really involved with the de Menils and Dominique was my very great mentor," she said. "Coming back here, I felt that the humanities needed to be bumped up a bit. I'm hoping this will be like a big flag saying 'Hey, the humanities are still here.' "
Turrell was the rock star of the evening that included the dedication program followed by a seated dinner where dedication chairs Judy Nyquist and Leslie and Brad Bucher, both Rice graduates, presided.
"This really is in many ways the culmination of our campus art program."
Asked how he felt at this juncture, Turrell quipped, "Well, it's always a relief. Oh, I think you can find the same answer from Molly as well." He was referring to Molly Hubbard, Rice University art director, who has worked with Deal Booth and Turrell throughout the project and who organized the evening.
Between greeting various guests at the dedication, Rice University president David Leebron noted, "This really is in many ways the culmination of our campus art program. It's a tremendous addition and I think the symbolism at our Centennial and when you consider that one of our mottos is No Upper Limits, what would better symbolize that than this magnificent piece of art . . . with its integration of art, architecture and music, I couldn't imagine anything more perfect for us at this time."
Among those mesmerized by the Skyspace were Rice architecture dean Sarah Whiting, Shepherd School of Music dean Bob Yekovich, Tricia and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Y. Ping Sun, Fairfax Randall, Molly Crownover, Lynn Wyatt, Anne Duncan, Christopher Gardner, Sarah Dodd Spickelmier and Keith Spickelmier, Tara Conley, Emily Todd, Alison de Lima Greene, Ford Hubbard III and collector and former Houstonian Mickey Klein, in from Austin.
Don't miss CultureMap's exclusive interview with James Turrell on the Skyspace.