“We know the sky’s blueness even before we know it as “blue”, let alone as “sky.”
He explained later that the conception of an abstract thought occurs in the mind, through the concept of self. Following, the physical form is then recognized, communicating the form to the community. Then, the Objective compound occurs, delineating behavioral norms and artistic norms, becoming identifiable. Then the boundaries and axioms introduce logic and reasoning and decisions can be made: either inductive or deductive. Formalism follows, proving and convincing a decision about the object being perceived. The study done by Irwin suggested that: “…all ideas and values have their roots in experience,… they can be held separate at any point and developed directly on the grounds of function and use, both that they in fact remain relative to the condition of both our subjective and objective being.” Robert Irwin’s philosophy defined his idea of art as a series of aesthetic inquiries, an opportunity for cultural innovation, a communicative interaction with society, and as compounded historical development.
In his book Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Weschler documents Irwin’s process from his early days as a youngster in Southern California to his emergence as a leader in the post-abstraction art world. Weschler describes the mystifying and often enchanting quality of these works in his book’s cover notes:
In May 1980, Robert Irwin returned to Market Street in Venice, California to the block where he had kept a studio until 1970, the year he abandoned studio work altogether. Melinda Wyatt was opening a gallery in the building next door to his former work space and invited Irwin to create an installation.
Between the years 1966-1967, he began painting aluminum discs. He was invited back as an individual exhibitor to The Pace Gallery in New York. In 1968, he began teaching at the University of California, Irvine. For the next two years, he started his work with clear acrylic discs, white convex structures fixed to the wall and illuminated by lamps. In 1970, he began his work on “Columns”, a series of clear acrylic columns. In 1972, he began his study on “sightlines” and “places” in the Southwest.
In 1970, the Museum of Modern Art invited Irwin to create an installation. Using the entire project space, Irwin suspended a white scrim 10 feet from the ground and attached shimmering stainless steel wires to the wall. In 1971 the Walker Art Center commissioned the artist to create Untitled (Slant/Light/Volume) for the inaugural exhibition of its Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed building. For Soft Wall, a 1974 installation at Pace Gallery in New York, Irwin simply cleaned and painted a rectangular gallery and hung a thin, translucent white theater scrim eighteen inches in front of one of the long walls, creating the effect of an empty room in which one wall seemed permanently out of focus. A permanent wall installation in the entrance corridor of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, the dimensions of Untitled (1980) exactly repeat those of the deep-set windows just opposite. In the early 1980s, Irwin was invited to participate as a collaborating artist in designs for the rejuvenation and improvement of the Miami International Airport. In 1997 he transformed a room that overlooks the Pacific at the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. To celebrate its 125th anniversary, the Indianapolis Museum of Art commissioned Irwin to create Light and Space III (2008), thereby becoming the first American museum to have a permanent indoor installation of the artist. For the piece, Irwin arranged fluorescent light bulbs in an irregular grid pattern across the walls surrounding the escalators, with a veil of scrim framing each side; as museum visitors go up and down between floors, they move through the piece. Trifecta (Joe’s Bar & Grill), a three-story permanent light installation at Swiss Re’s corporate headquarters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was inaugurated in 2012.
In late 2013, a 33-foot-tall acrylic column by Irwin was unveiled at the San Diego Federal Courthouse, where the artist worked with his longtime friends and collaborators, architect Martin Poirer and landscape architect Andrew Spurlock, on the courthouse’s outdoor plaza. The three-story-tall acrylic column, built decades ago but never given a proper home due to a series of unforeseen circumstances, refracts light and cast colors as the sun moves through the lobby. The fabrication of the columns and the technical issues related to the material, were all executed by Jack Brogan, a central character in the evolution of the techniques in the Light and Space Movement. The challenge and technique of polishing the columns to the required transparency was invented by Brogan and remains a high water mark in the field.
For the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Irwin created an outdoor installation of primal palm trees (Primal Palm Garden, 2008-2010) as well as an indoor 36-foot-long fluorescent light sculpture, Miracle Mile (2013), which glows behind them 24 hours a day.
After having been working and reworking his ideas to create a giant installation for the Chinati Foundation since the early 2000s, Irwin’s installation in Marfa — a U-shape construction about 10,000 square feet — will begin early 2015 and be completed and open to the public in 2016. The installation, situated at the building that had housed the former Army barracks’ hospital, will be the first major installation added to the Chinati Foundation since 2004 as well as the first freestanding structure designed by Irwin that is devoted solely to his work.
Other installations include: Fractured Light – Partial Scrim – Eye Level at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1970–1971); Black Line Room Division + Extended Forms at the Whitney Museum, New York (1977); 48 Shadow Planes at the Old Post Office Pavilion, Washington, D.C. (1983); Ascending at the Musee d’ Art Moderne de Ville, Paris, France (1994); and Double Diamond’ at the Musée d’Art Contemporain, Lyon, France (1997–1998).
He later designed and developed the Central Garden at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, built in 1997. In the Central Garden, Irwin’s concept of integrating experiential relationships to the built environment is abundantly clear. Those experiential elements fill the space. This project is widely praised for its design and flow. The 134,000-square-foot (12,400 m2) design features a natural ravine and tree-lined walkway that leads the visitor through an experience of sights, sounds, and scents. He selected everything in the garden to accentuate the interplay of light, color, and reflection. Planning began in 1992, as a key part of the Getty Center project. Since the Center opened in 1997, the Central Garden has evolved as its plants have grown. Irwin’s statement, “Always changing, never twice the same,” is carved into the plaza floor, reminding visitors of the ever-changing nature of this living work of art. To the artist’s dismay, a 1950s Fernand Léger sculpture was placed on the garden’s plaza.
Irwin recently completed the second phase of the installation of a primordial Palm Garden at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art which began in 2007. The Palm Garden is arranged in a “T” shape with the east-west axis running between and around, both the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the Resnick Pavilion. The north-south axis terminates with a grid of date palms serving as a counterpoint to artist Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation. Irwin has long been intrigued with how palm trees capture and reflect Southern California light; designing the Palm Garden provided Irwin with an opportunity to work with both the phenomenal and cultural perceptions of palms. Individual species of palms are planted in Cor-Ten boxes, modern and formalized versions of common wood nursery boxes. The sculptural containers make reference to the pedestal bases traditionally signifying art objects. Irwin’s use of palm trees considers the ubiquitous and iconic connection between the palm tree and images of Los Angeles.
In 1965, he participated in an exhibition called The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at another called XIII in Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil. In 1966, he exhibited both as an individual and with Kenneth Price at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and as an individual exhibitor later at The Pace Gallery in New York. In 1969, Irwin exhibited with Doug Wheeler at the Fort Worth Art Center in Fort Worth, Texas. In 1970, he first exhibited scrim “volumes” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For the next five years, he exhibited individually at the following locations: the Pace Gallery in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Minuzo and Ace Galleries in Los Angeles, the Fogg Art Museum on the Harvard Campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, the University of California at Santa Barbara, Fort Worth Art Center, and Palomar College in San Marcos, California. He participated in several joint exhibitions: “Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space: Four Artists” at the UCLA Art Gallery in Los Angeles and “Some Recent American Art” at the Museum of Modern Art exhibition for Australia. He also exhibited internationally: “Kompas IV” at Stedelijk Museum in Eindhoven, with other artists, Bell and Wheeler, at the Tate Gallery in London, and Documenta at Kassel in Germany.
In 1993, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles mounted the first comprehensive retrospective of Irwin’s career; the exhibition later traveled to the Kölnischer Kunstverein, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. In 2008, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego presented another comprehensive retrospective spanning fifty years of Irwin’s career.
Irwin has been represented by Pace Gallery, New York, since 1966.