Now in his 90s, Robert Irwin has been jousting with physical and metaphysical aspects of art since the beginning of his career. He was associated early on with the Light and Space movement in California, which found confluences with Minimalism but also sometimes exhibited such minimal tendencies as to barely exist in material terms. (“Light” and “space” are all around us, but we don’t tend to think of such ethereal matters as entities on their own.)
A big part of Irwin’s project has been to play with perception, or the ways that our real-time processing of experiences can differ from what we know to be true of optics, physics, neuroscience, and so on. But just as much owes to a sustained philosophical inquiry into questions of innumerable kinds. That curiosity helped make a study of Irwin’s life and work one of the most beloved art books of all time: Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a searching sort of biography by Lawrence Weschler that draws on decades of conversation between an artist and a writer who over the course of their playful dialogue became close friends.
Irwin’s art has taken many forms, from painting and sculpture to installations and even landscape design. Shared among all of them is an inclination toward erasure, or at least an experimental ambition to find ways to surround art’s effable and ineffable essence while bringing questions of visibility and invisibility to the fore. To survey those surroundings, here are nine of Irwin’s most “invisible” works dating back to the 1960s.
A formative early breakthrough for Robert Irwin arrived by way of painting lines—lots and lots of lines. Alongside his early goal to pare painting down to its essence was another related aim to set art free from subject matter, and so simple lines (such as the two barely discernible ones floating in orange above) became his go-to. As he told Lawrence Weschler in Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: “The simple straight line seemed to me to be my best possible tool, the cleanest element I could find, with the least amount of literate associations to it, and the greatest amount of power on the other side.” He worked on his many “line paintings” with painstaking care, moving the lines in relation to one another, extending them to different widths, and changing up color pairings and lighting scenarios in the service of effects that can be hard to see unless you’re looking at the paintings themselves—which was part of the point. As Weschler wrote: “They only ‘work’ immediately; they command an incredible presence—‘a rich floating sense of energy,’ as Irwin describes it—but only to one who is in fact present.”
Dots in Irwin’s early work functioned similar to lines, in that they pulled the eye ever closer while making it clear that what is in front of us and what we think we “see” are not necessarily one and the same. Zoom in on one of Irwin’s “dot paintings” and you will see thousands of little brush-stroked dots, all of them minuscule. But pan back even just a little bit and the effect is one of soft and subtle color washes that can be overwhelming in the quietest of ways. “The paintings blush,” wrote a critic for the Los Angeles Times in the ’60s. They also seemed to change the nature of time itself. Irwin told Weschler that it took him almost three years to make 10 such paintings, and the conventions of duration began to elude him: “From that point on I knew I would no longer be living or operating in that kind of time frame,” he said of escaping ordinary apprehensions of the most extraordinary elements (time, space, etc.) that abounded all around him.
Irwin went on to make disks that he painted in ways to blur distinctions between the edges of the works and the shadows they cast when hung in front of a wall. As cited in Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change, the catalogue for a 2016 exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the artist wondered: “Can I paint a painting that doesn’t begin and end at the edge,” one that starts “to take in and become involved with the space or the environment around it?” Irwin made disks in both plastic and aluminum—the former fabricated at an auto body shop in Los Angeles that made parts for custom race cars.
A form of sculpture to be looked not at but, rather, through, Irwin’s clear acrylic column grew out of the ambitious ’60s-era Art and Technology Program overseen by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. With colleagues like fellow Light and Space artist James Turrell, Irwin undertook studies into matters such as perceptual psychology and sensory deprivation, and while doing so he found (as noted in All the Rules Will Change) “that art is not an object—it is an experience—in each case a particular experience defined by the artist. Although much art depends on an object to convey or mediate the experience, this is a condition we have sought to alter by choosing the realm of perception as our art form.”
Scrim veil—Black rectangle—Natural light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1977/2013)
With the subtle installment of a translucent and barely-there scrim, Irwin radically remade a large gallery space in the Whitney Museum’s old Marcel Breuer–designed home in a way that lodged in the minds of those who were lucky enough to experience it. (After first installing the piece in 1977, he did it again in 2013, allowing for extra lodging.) Moving around the space was an exercise in recognizing how many different perspectives can attend the exact same dimensions, and everything was ever-changing. Of a similar work from a couple years earlier, Irwin said (in mind of watching other gallerygoers experience the work at the same time): “When you walked across the line into this space, it was very interesting to see how aware you were that they diminished in size, which is something of course that goes on all the time with our vision. Most of the time we don’t cognate on it; there are too many other distractions. But here you become really conscious of the people changing in size.”
Central Garden at the Getty Center (1997)
Conceived to accompany architect Richard Meier’s Getty Center in Los Angeles, Irwin’s Central Garden features a message on a stepping-stone for those who see it: “Always changing, never twice the same.” More than 500 varieties of plants serve as stars of the show, but every detail related to its inviting design came to matter deeply in the end. As Irwin told the Los Angeles Times a decade after it opened: “A garden is an adventure, and nature is probably the closest thing you’re going to get to that kind of—moving in a world, you know—push-pull, in-out, up-down, right and wrong. After a certain time, once the garden got going, it changed all the rules. It did things that were so much better than I had thought.”
Excursus: Homage to the Square³ (1998/2015)
Irwin first showed Excursus: Homage to the Square³ at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York and then mounted it again upstate at Dia:Beacon, where visitors could wander in and out of a sort of maze that seemed to dissolve in on itself. Fluorescent lighting tubes found various stations in ethereal chambers surrounded by scrims, and for some, it felt like a labyrinth in which every option for which way to turn would always be the best one possible. As Ken Johnson wrote about the work in the New York Times, “It was ethereal and, in a good way, somehow purgatorial, as if you might find your way to a clear divine light with time and patience.”
untitled (dawn to dusk) (2016)
Irwin’s interest in different varieties of light and environment found much to engage in a building-size installation in Marfa, the West Texas town where Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd lived and made his masterworks from the 1970s on. Scrims feature prominently again, as do arrangements of empty space that allow sunlight to pour in. As anyone who has seen the light in Marfa knows, that makes for a considerable amount of drama and awe. While in the midst of constructing the work, which was commissioned by the Chinati Foundation, Irwin told Texas Monthly, “We’ll see whether it’s art or not. I would say it might be a split decision for a lot of people—if you’re looking for something, it’s going to appear that there’s really nothing much there. To be slightly poetic about it, I’m trying to grab a will-o’-the-wisp. If I grab it too hard, the thing’s laborious. If I don’t grab it hard enough, it doesn’t happen.”
Irwin’s ongoing engagement with fluorescent lighting tubes—around which he wraps translucent gels in layers upon layers of color and patterning—worked in a wry fashion in “Unlights,” a show at New York’s Pace Gallery during which none of the sculptural arrays were powered on. No part of the effect was dimmed, however, and the new works proved just as easy to get lost in as anything else in Irwin’s oeuvre. A fun fact that provided covert thrills to gallery goers who had already become aware and could thus watch others discover for themselves: Certain “shadows” of the kind observable above (near the left-hand side, between the fourth and fifth wall hangings from the end) were in fact not shadows but instead stripes of gray paint on the wall. They brought the ethereal down to earth and made the earthly otherworldly.