Monday, June 17, 2013


This is the first in a series of posts drawn from our archive. We are working on digitizing and integrating materials like artist records, photos, correspondence, video + audio files, notes and pieces of art into our website, and along the way our archivist Molly will be pulling out some extra-special items to share with us. First up is the ever-enchanting James Turrell, who was featured in the cover story of this week's The New York Times Magazine

Way back in the early 1980s, when the Pac-Man, Dallas, and astronaut Sally Ride absorbed the attention of the nation, the Mattress Factory was in its formative stage. Experimental theater companies performed on the first floor, a dance studio occupied the third floor, and the 500 Sampsonia Way building buzzed with sculptors, weavers, and photographers coming and going from the studios that occupied all six floors. In those days the museum, which had yet to dedicate itself completely to installation and performance work, rented its extra rooms to artists seeking studio space.

 Mattress Factory flier, circa 1980

Mattress Factory third floor dance studio, circa 1980
artist studio, Mattress Factory, circa 1980

I love thinking about the museum during this period and imagining how the principles that guide the Mattress Factory today were beginning to take root. When word began to circulate about an amazing exhibition being held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, founder and co-director Barbara and co-director Michael decided to call the artist up. Just like that. Recalling the episode in a 2002 interview Barbara states:
I think I made some smart remark like, "Well, now that you've had a show at the Whitney, you have to have a show at the Mattress Factory." He said, "Fine."
And so it happened that the nascent Mattress Factory museum brought James Turrell, one of contemporary art's leading stars and visionaries, to Pittsburgh. Looking back on that phone call now, it marks a significant turning point in the history of the museum--a moment when the ideas, energy, and entrepreneurial spirit coalesced to set in motion the creation of the museum we know today as the Mattress Factory.

James Turrell exhibition brochure, front cover

The three (Barbara, Michael and Turrell) met up on a street corner in New York City (vaguely recalled today as somewhere in Tribeca), piled into a cab, and made arrangements for Turrell to come to the Mattress Factory to make an artwork. It is likely that Turrell had no knowledge of the Mattress Factory when he agreed to the exhibit; there had only been three previous shows at that point and the artists were mostly from the Pittsburgh community. Asked later why he agreed so readily, he said that there was "just something there--a sense of trust about doing the show."

James Turrell exhibition brochure, 1983

In our next installment, we'll dig through some archival video of Turrell at the Mattress Factory, watch as the friendship between the museum and the artist takes root, and peer back into the Pittsburgh art scene of the time.

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