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Remembering Robert Irwin, 1928 – 2023

Central Garden designed by Robert Irwin. Photo by Jim Duggan © 2006 J. Paul Getty Trust.

A monumental figure in the California Light and Space movement, Irwin made innovations across painting, sculpture, and installation-based work over the course of nearly seven decades, expanding the contours of the canon and continually pushing the limits of what art can be. Through his influential and experimental practice—marked by both scientific and philosophical rigor—he proposed a new kind of art making centering on phenomenology and subjectivity as subjects unto themselves. Through his profound artistic inventions that make use of light and space as key materials, he cultivated a reputation as a visionary figure at the vanguard of what is known today as experiential art.

Born in Long Beach, California in 1928, Irwin began his career as a charismatic painter in the Los Angeles “cool school” scene, presenting his first monographic exhibition at the city’s Felix Landau Gallery in 1957. By the early 1960s, his work took on increasingly illusionistic dimensions. It was during this period that he began creating his more restrained line paintings—guided principally by questions of structure, color, and perception—along with his dot paintings, works on gently bowed supports composed with small, illimitable dots rendered in near-complementary colors.

A few years later, in 1966, Irwin started producing his series of curved aluminum and acrylic discs. Extending out from the wall, these works cast shadows of elegant geometries as part of their display. Liberating this body of work from the constraints of two-dimensionality, Irwin further obscured the boundaries between the physical and the sensory in his art.

The artist gave up his studio in 1969, departing entirely from traditional modes of making to embark on a decades-long investigation into the relationships between light, space, and perception. In this pursuit, he took up what he termed a “conditional art,” growing his practice of making installation-based works into the broader field of architecture. He became known for using various media—including fluorescent lights, fabric scrims, colored and tinted gels, paint, wire, acrylic, and glass—to create site-conditioned works that respond to the specific contexts of their environments. “Catching lightning in a bottle” was the artist’s favorite metaphor for his practice.

Irwin’s first permanent museum installation was 1° 2° 3° 4° (1997), which he created for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. A decade later, on the occasion of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s 125th anniversary, he was commissioned to make Light and Space III (2008) for the museum’s Pulliam Great Hall—in this multifloored interior space, Irwin arranged fluorescent lights in an irregular grid flanked by semi-transparent fabric scrims.

He also produced permanent site-conditioned landscape works, beginning with his design of the Central Gardens at the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles in 1997. Other landscape projects include his master plan for Dia:Beacon, which he developed in 2003, and his palm garden for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which was completed in 2016.

The Chinati Foundation unveiled Irwin’s most ambitious and challenging project, untitled (dawn to dusk), in Marfa, Texas, in 2016. The largest artwork he ever created, untitled (dawn to dusk) is the only permanent, freestanding structure conceived and designed by Irwin. Occupying a former army hospital adjacent to the museum, this monumental architectural intervention includes both indoor and outdoor spaces that respond to the West Texas landscape and sky. The story of Irwin’s life and career told in A Desert of Pure Feeling culminates with untitled (dawn to dusk), which was in development for more than 15 years.

Over the past decade, Irwin returned to his studio, using it as an experimental space to develop sculptural works with florescent lights and acrylic—such as his Sculpture/Configuration works exhibited at Pace in New York in 2018 and his Unlight series, presented by Pace in New York in 2020 and 2022—while continuing to develop his site-conditioned installations.

Irwin’s work can be found in major museum collections worldwide, including the Chinati Foundation in Marfa; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Dallas Museum of Art; Dia Art Foundation in New York; the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; and many more institutions.

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