San Diego-based artist Robert Irwin maintains a mythic presence in the local art community. Recently, Irwin was spotted at Quint Contemporary Art in La Jolla, celebrating his longtime friend and Ferus Gallery alum Ed Moses for his opening exhibition. A veteran of LA’s 1960s art scene, from the inception of the Light and Space movement, 87-year old Irwin still works at a prolific pace, and has become an international art world icon. Since the early 1990s, he’s lived in the San Diego region where the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) holds the most expansive collection of Irwin’s artwork. Currently, his signature installation 1° 2 ° 3 ° 4°, (1997) is on view at MCASD, La Jolla and Light and Space (2007), at MCASD, has recently been reinstalled in all its luminous diagonal glory and remains on view at the Jacobs Building, downtown, from November 20, 2015 – February 21, 2016.
MCASD Director Hugh Davies describes Robert Irwin as “his artistic guru.” Although Irwin discusses his wariness of guru status in Lawrence Weschler’s renowned 1982 Irwin bio, “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees,” Irwin seems to have comfortably settled into the role. Davies first met “Bob” in 1975 when he was then the newly appointed founding director of the art gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. From the start, Davies was impressed with Irwin’s site-responsive approach utilizing the gallery’s architecture, light, and space through scrim.
In the spring of 1976, Irwin was selected to represent the US at the Venice Biennale. He often jokes about how every time he would pitch an idea there was less and less money and space to work with until he found himself sit- ting outside the American pavilion watching leaves falling from the trees. In response he framed the fallen leaves with a piece of string. Davies describes the discussion between himself and Irwin at the Venice Biennale as “a really rigorous negotiation that tried both our patience,” but was ultimately pleased with the result. As Davies recalls, “Outside the courtyard with these large trees and on that section of the pavement there was the light filtering through the trees with the slightest breeze and the light was always changing like looking at a Monet water lily. He just simply laid down a square of string it was very subtle. He trained this natural event with the trees in the way that drew your attention-something you may have walked right over, but once you noticed it-it’s really beautiful.” Jenny Moore, executive director of the Chinati Foundation notes, “There are so many stories of Bob thinking that it didn’t have an impact and it had this huge impact, where years later he’s learned so many artists have responded to or referenced it.”
The 1976 Venice Biennale experience set the tone for Irwin’s work today reducing art to its most basic minimal form as a means to highlight light, space, and our perceptual senses. This sensibility carries into 1°2°3°4°. The piece frames MCASD’s stunning panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean through three square cutouts taken from the floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the ocean, allowing natural light, breeze, and the scent of salt air to come into the gallery space, and thereby challenging the notion of a contained sequestered museum. In terms of the title, the first three degrees Sally Yard, Professor at the University of San Diego, and author of a forthcoming book on Irwin’s unrealized Miami International Airport project, contends that each time she takes her students to visit MCASD, La Jolla, regardless of the exhibition installed, 1°2°3°4° is the piece that has a lasting impact on her students. And it’s the place where they predominately converge. 1°2°3°4° is the first Irwin piece that MCASD acquired shortly after Irwin moved to San Diego with his wife Adele. Davies recalls, “He had a standing invitation to make what- ever work he wanted… he came up with the idea of the piece we have up now.” He adds, “It’s been brilliant for us and I think it’s one of his most successful pieces. I love the idea that it’s not that dissimilar from the string piece [at the 1976 Venice Biennale]-a very simple piece that’s created by removing material, rather than by adding material.”
Davies’ enthusiasm for Irwin’s vision has had an even stronger impact on MCASD’s second downtown location, which opened in 2007. Davies maintains that the remodel of the industrial space lo- cated in the former baggage claim building of the Santa Fe Depot which shares a roof with the active train station today was “driven by learning from Bob,” in terms of how space is utilized, the need for high ceilings, and the impact of light. Davies also notes that due to the factory-like space it was decided to use the downtown museum as an experimental space focusing on artistic process and the implementation of works directly in the space.
Irwin was, in fact, the first artist to occupy the space as a resident before it opened to the public. In 2007, the retrospective “Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries” filled the downtown museum’s galleries. Highlights included the currently installed, Light and Space (2007), a floor-to-ceiling installation using over a hundred colorless fluorescent tubes mounted on the wall. In the vein of 1°2°3°4°, Light and Space operates in a space between archi- tecture and perceptual energy. It was during Irwin’s residency that he began “using fluorescent light tubes alone as the main triggers for a mass-less, enveloping, perceptual experience.” In 2015, Irwin’s works utilizing fluorescent light tubes were exhibited at White Cube, London; Xippas Gallery, Geneva; Dia: Beacon, New York; and Pace Gallery, New York: not a bad run for an artist who’s been active over half a century.
With 10 installations, eight paintings, seven sculptures, and 30 drawings, MCASD maintains the largest holdings of Irwin’s work. This collection will become more widely available to the public in 2020 when the MCASD, La Jolla expansion is expected to open. In the meantime, several Irwin works from MCASD will be on loan to the Hirshhorn Museum, DC, for its major retrospective, “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change” which opens this April. Davies’ one qualm is that the site-specific pavilion originally envisioned as part of MCASD, La Jolla’s expansion may no longer be realized. He states, “It was a very sad day for both of us when the trustees of the museum decided they didn’t want to dedicate that much space to one artist-the idea that it would be a space designed by Bob to show his work. I regret that it wasn’t possible to create his pavilion. That space still exists in the garden and maybe the trustees will still think it’s a great idea to build someday.”
For now, Irwin devotees can still anticipate his 10,000 square foot installation slated to open this summer at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. According to Moore, when Donald Judd formed Chinati he envisioned representation of Irwin. Irwin’s relationship with Marfa may be traced back to the 1970s when he abandoned his traditional studio practice and started driving into the desert taking him to Marfa where he ran into Judd by coincidence. Years later, in 1999, Irwin was invited to consider an installation at the former hospital site (the foundation is situated on a former military base). Moore explains, “The remains of the hospital were just the exterior walls by the time Bob started thinking about the site-the floor, the roof, and the ceiling were long gone, so it was just these walls that framed the window. The window was set at eye level it defined the thin strip of land and vast expanse of sky.”
After 15 years, the project is finally being realized. Moore is appreciative of the opportunity to witness Irwin in action. “What is incredible to me about Bob and this project is standing at a construction site with workers and heavy equipment moving all around and architectural plans in front of you-he’s standing there looking at this situation and it’s his medium. It’s fascinating to see him use space and a situation as a medium.”
The project will provide a site-responsive work framing and high- lighting Marfa’s unique landscape, which Moore expects visitors to be attuned to having made the trek to the foundation. “When peo- ple come to Chinati it’s this epic journey, it’s not an easy place to get to… you are already going to be a little heightened to the ex- perience out here.” Rather than a subtle intervention or temporary exhibition, visitors may encounter a full realization of Irwin’s vision. Moore states, “For Bob to have something that is his on his terms here permanently that people can return to time and again-I think that’s incredibly significant for us as an institution, for American art, and I think viewers will have this kind of quintessential Robert Irwin experience, that you can come and see always.”