NORTH ADAMS — The deep fuchsia glow is what got me. It was an absurdly cold late-May evening — 43 degrees! in May! — when my viewing of “C.A.V.U.,” James Turrell’s brand-new Skyspace at Mass MoCA, was set to take place. Like a handful of others, I burrowed into my jacket and trekked under darkening gray skies across the museum’s brick-and-concrete campus to an iron bridge over an industrial spillway that led to the barrel-shaped building beyond. A crack in the tall bronze doors bled seductive hot pink. Under an ashen-gray dusk, it beckoned.
Turrell’s Skyspaces work that way. Set apart from their surroundings but open to the air above, they’re interior worlds that rely on what’s going on outside. They offer something familiar — the sky — framed in a transformatively alien way. Like so many other great works across centuries, that’s what makes them art.
I’d been to “C.A.V.U.” (an aviation term meaning “ceiling and visibility unlimited”) in its pre-opening stages, with cement trucks churning and floor being laid. Even amid the din, the iris — the perfectly circular opening dead-center in the dome, 40 feet above the floor — was captivating, focusing my gaze on a shimmering disk of sun-drenched sky. I’d never seen clouds move like that, though I knew they must have. It made me aware like never before.
“C.A.V.U.” will be open during the day for that experience, but it’s at dawn and dusk when the show really happens. Turrell, who’s been working in the fuzzy nexus of vision and perception for some 50 years, uses buildings and light and, yes, the sky, but his most important tool is the eye itself. In those gloaming hours, the pupil dilates, searching for light instead of warding it off. That’s when “C.A.V.U.” comes to life.
At Mass MoCA, I settled into the black granite bench (heated, you should know) and reclined into its concrete back. The dome glowed pink, and the sky, flat gray in the world outside, appeared as a shimmering disk of pale green. An array of LED lights fitted around the upper rim of the bench cast light that shifted in intensity and tone; pink, then yellow, then blue. Then the sky changed, too. With the dome a dizzying cobalt, the gray cloudscape above appeared orange. When the dome deepened to purple, the sky turned lime green.
This was not a subtle effect: As the color intensified on the dome, the sky demanded to be seen in its new shade. My eyes, at times, throbbed. The group rimming the bench all around me laughed out loud as the colors grew more intense, whether out of joy or disbelief or maybe a little anxiety, as their eyes winged through what amounted to a visual roller coaster.
This was Turrell’s work in its essence: an experiential sojourn where your own sight couldn’t be trusted to relay an accurate rendering of reality itself to your brain. That’s really the point, one Turrell has made with various installations over the years: With manipulations of light and form, what’s solid appears vapor, what seems flat has dimension. Reality and perception don’t square. The dome, a giant arc of white plaster over concrete, looks like a giant, formless expanse. The oculus — really, just a hole in the roof — appears projected.
“C.A.V.U.” works with the space between day and night, where one folds into the other. Its arc, over either that last hour of daylight or darkness, is orchestrated. I kept thinking of it, in its spare, minimal beauty, as a visual embodiment of Eric Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 for piano. That is to say, for all the work’s stunning simplicity, its rhythms are particular, beginning to middle to end. As the sky grew darker, our journey drew to a close; the dome brightened to a crescendo of almost blinding white, and the oculus appeared as a flat, solid disk of inky black, with no color or feature or hint of anything to suggest the world beyond.
It was the oddest feeling: Of being emptied out and filled up at once. In the wondrous perplexity of that confusion, I noticed Turrell, who happened to be there with us that night, drawing himself up to leave. The group rose with him, in a standing ovation.
I did, too.
JAMES TURRELL: C.A.V.U.
At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org