Los Angeles Times
Time, space and presence
Robert Irwin stays true to himself — a contradiction wrapped in a wink — in a variety of new exhibitions.
SAN DIEGO — “Nobody in this town knows I’m here, so don’t blow my cover,” Robert Irwin says as a photographer’s shutter clicks.
The line is pure Irwin: a contradiction wrapped in a wink as he alludes to his identity as a Los Angeles artist despite living in San Diego for almost 30 years.
The exhibition “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change” opened this month at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. It presents paintings, discs and acrylic columns created from 1958 to 1970, the pivotal time before Irwin closed his studio and embarked on the creative journey that would transform his practice. Capping the exhibition is a new piece using 124 feet of translucent scrim that stretches from floor to ceiling, slicing the circular space with a pane of light.
At New York’s Dia:Beacon, Irwin’s “Excursus: Homage to the Square³” opened in June and is on view through May 2017. Conceived in 1998 for the Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea, “Excursus” is in a former factory that Irwin redesigned, inside and out. It’s a milky fog of white scrim rooms spiked with fluorescent lights wrapped in bands of intense color.
This July, Irwin will unveil his largest project, an installation for the Chinati Foundation that turns the remnants of an old Army hospital in Marfa, Texas, into a 13,000square-foot structure of rhythmic windows and walls focusing attention on the surrounding desert. He says he’s been working on it for 15 years, generating at least 20 plans. Now, with just a few months to go, he’s still deliberating.
“Looking at it, unfinished, it’s doing some pretty interesting things,” he says, slowly. “I’m questioning everything. I thought about all the stuff I can do to make this thing worth the trip. But now I’m feeling the less I do, the better.”
The Marfa installation combines massive amounts of concrete and basalt with scrim and tinted film. The building, which makes the viewer see the sky, is a monumental form from a man whose work hinges on what biographer Lawrence Weschler calls “the tiniest thing … that just happens to be the only thing that matters.”
“He’s someone who can’t be identified in any one way,” says Evelyn Hankins, curator of “All the Rules Will Change.” She finds herself explaining Irwin’s trajectory to people struggling to reconcile the artist’s garden design at the Getty Center in Los Angeles with his Light and Space work. They’re all born of the shift that occurred after 1970, when he began creating art in response to the specific conditions of a site, intended to reawaken perception.
“There is no designated medium or look,” Hankins says. “The great thing about all three of these projects is that they give people a chance to see all of the different ways that he operates.”
She approached the artist in late 2013, wanting to show how his early objects laid the foundation for the site-conditional work. Irwin, who says he has “no interest in going over all the stuff in the past,” countered with a proposal for a new piece extending out from the building, a feathery form like the gills of a mushroom. That ran afoul of the Smithsonian’s engineers. Irwin was unfazed and came back with another idea.
“He’s extremely patient,” Hankins says. “When we were doing the feasibility project outside, it went on for like a year. He never seemed to lose his patience. He just saw the Smithsonian and its entire process as part of the given circumstances.”
Patience and determination may explain why, at age 87, he’s “busier than ever,” according to his studio manager, Joseph Huppert.
Mary Beebe thinks so. Irwin’s “Two Running Violet V Forms” was one of the first pieces she commissioned as director of the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego. Over the years, the director and the artist have become good friends.
“A lot of it is about persistence and building up a reservoir of works,” she says. “It’s an old story — other artists around him were getting more attention. He just kept doing what he does and stayed true to himself.”
It helps that Irwin has allowed his work to be documented, after five decades of objecting to photographs. He began collaborating with San Diego photographer Philipp Scholz Rittermann, resulting in a book published in 2014 by Rittermann and Quint Gallery.
But no matter how meticulous, words and pictures only approximate the experience of time, space and presence — the feeling of a breeze coming through “1° 2° 3° 4°,” three rectangles cut into the oceanfront windows at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Or the surprise of encountering 33 feet of clear acrylic prism in the atrium of the federal courthouse in downtown San Diego. From some angles, the winged obelisk almost disappears. The viewer sees only that architectural elements are suddenly not lining up as they should, a sly touch of humor in a government bureaucracy.
Beebe notes that some people initially mistook “Two Running Violet V Forms” for athletic equipment.
“But once you allow yourself to look at something in a different way, or just a more curious way, then ...”
She searches for words. “It is very ephemeral, this sense that you get. It’s not something you can hang on to.”
Now that the Hirshhorn exhibition is open, Irwin and Huppert will turn their attention to Marfa, two publications in development and protecting “Primal Palm Garden,” one of Irwin’s pieces at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that they fear is threatened by expansion plans. LACMA said that Irwin had overseen the move of some palms because of construction of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures nearby, and that palms likely would be added when that museum is closer to completion. The proposed LACMA building by Peter Zumthor will not affect Irwin’s work, the museum said.
Irwin appears happy to leave the details to Huppert. He’s interested in the frontiers of neuroscience and philosophy. He wants to explore what might be art. “There’s going to be a wonderful debate,” he says, “which I would love to stay around and be a part of.”
There it is: the smallest nod to mortality, gone in an instant.
“I’m not depressed, because I’ve had too good of a time,” he says. “I got the best game in town, and I love playing it.”