I first came across Robert Irwin while I was visiting Minneapolis for an art conference when I was in my 20s. I took some time off and went to the Walker Art Center, one of the best museums in North America that I had heard about for many years. This is what I saw.
If it’s hard for you to figure out what it is you are looking at, it’s on purpose. It was slightly less hard in person and that is what made it so profound for me. I had come across that incredible creative moment when something skews your understanding of space, of what is real, of what it is you are actually seeing.
What you are looking at is a convex plexiglass disk that is out from the wall. It is painted and lit so that it looks as if it is hovering in space. Then it disappears and is flat tones on a wall. The it comes back and is pushing out towards you with power. It was amazing to just stand there and get lost in it’s visual everythingness.
Shortly thereafter I learned of a biography written about Irwin and found it.
The book told the story of his creative art journey from the disk you see above through his work as a master within the ‘Light and Space’ movement in art. The work in the book was incredible and I was hooked. The book is now one of my treasured possessions because it contains the autographs of both the author and Mr. Irwin. I will return to the story of the book after showing you some of his work.
Here’s another example of that same mysterious, disorienting visual balancing act Irwin does between dimension and flatness, solidity and ethereality.
Irwin started to move out from the gallery and put work in larger, less traditional art spaces. These panels hang in the middle of the atrium and both stand out and disappear depending on your location and the light at the time.
This is a very playful piece. It’s in a beautiful stand of Eucalyptus trees on the UC San Diego campus. It is a blue chain link fence that starts at a height twice as high as the normal person. Obviously it plays off the idea of utility but it also plays with the light that come into the grove and one’s perception of the color that is normally there in the trees, leaves and air.
I had the pleasure of coming across this art piece unaware when I took Caitlin to visit UCSD as a possible college location. I had seen the photos of it many years before in the book but completely forgot that it was on campus. We just happened to walk through the Eucalyptus grove and there it was. It really did change the beauty of the space in wonderful ways.
Irwin loves to isolate and divide while keeping something unified. It’s his way of saying look at all of this and look at just this at the same time. I love that about his work.
Later in his career he moved into using other elements to define space and light. Here he is using solid panels that appear light and heavy at the same time. The top ones levitate but also are dangerous in their percieved weight. Where do you stand, what do you think about walking in and around the space? The answers say more about you than the art.
Irwin took on a huge commission when he agreed to design the gardens surrounding the new Getty Museum in the Santa Monica Hills overlooking Los Angeles. As you can see, he was able to use completely non-art world material and create an amazing visual space that still insists on confronting your understanding of space and light in a way that both illuminates and enriches.
In the end, for all the intellectual and art-bound theories and philosophies I might find in Irwin’s work, in the end I am left with a true and unadulterated joy in the sensations of the world around us. Irwin is able to present us with a visual world that makes us think and makes us smile. How cool is that? I can think of no greater art achievement one can really hope to make.
The Story of the Book
Ok, back to the book. In 1976 I continued my education at University of California, Santa Barbara. While I was there I had a girlfriend for a while. Here is a picture of her a few years later visiting my then wife and me in San Jose.
While Toni was visiting was us I showed her the book about Robert Irwin. She laughed and looked at us funny and said, “You know that Lawrence, the author, is my brother, right?” No, I did not know that. Yes, I knew her last name and yes I saw his last name on the cover, I just never made the connection. So, I sent the book back with her to LA where she lived so she could hunt down her brother and get him to autograph it for me. She sent it back to me a few months later with inscription you see below.
You may have noticed that Robert Irwin also signed it. Here’s how that came down. I had attended San Jose State University as a graduate student pursuing my MFA. A year after I graduated I heard he was coming to school to give a guest lecture. I was pretty psyched, and if possible, meet him and have him sign my book. When the day finally arrived I had a dilemma. I was not able to go due to my work schedule at the restaurant where I worked. But, I could go to the very beginning of the lecture and perhaps meet him beforehand if I timed it right.
I was on the second story of the student union building standing looking over the edge into the large central atrium area, waiting for him to arrive for the lecture from the Art Department. When he came in he was surrounded by at least a dozen or more people, including the chairman of the department and many professors, including a number who had been my advisors. I was bummed about the crowd, figuring I would not get a chance right them to meet him. I saw them disappear under the walkway I was on to come up the stairs.
When they arrived at the top of the stairs they were all there except Mr. Irwin. I immediately asked the Chairman where he was and he said he had stayed downstairs to find a bathroom. That was all I needed to hear. I rushed down the stairs and found him walking down a hallway, indeed looking for a bathroom. I introduced myself, directed him to the bathroom and went in with him. We stood at side by side urinals taking a leak and talking. Luckily for me we both had to go really bad so it lasted a long time. I was able to to tell him of my admiration for his work, and the book, explaining about knowing Lawrence’s sister. I told him my status as a recent MFA grad, my working 3 jobs, including 2 part time teaching gigs at community colleges. He was incredibly gracious, especially considering we were peeing together.
When we were done we continued to talk and I asked him if he would autograph the book, which he did. He also gave me encouraging advice about how to deal with the first few years out of graduate school, how to work through hard things and keep creating worthy art at the same time. I then led him back up to the auditorium and to the front of the audience so he could give his lecture. I meanwhile skeedaddled to the restaurant to work my shift. I didn’t hear the lecture but I gained more than I had hoped!
If you are interested in learning more about Robert Irwin, you can check out these resources. There is a huge body of work he has done that will amaze you.
- Week #5 – Francisco Goya
- Week #4 – Robert Irwin
- Week #3 – Veruschka
- Week #2 – Albrecht Durer
- Week #1 – Roger Brown
- Week #10 – Coco Larrain
- Week #9 – Nina Levy
- Week #8 – Andy Goldsworthy
- Week #7 – Wayne Thiebaud
- Week #6 – Richard Diebenkorn
- Week #5 – Roy Lichtenstein
- Week #4 – Thomas Hart Benton
- Week #3 – Edward Hopper
- Week #2 – Henri Matisse
- Week #1 – Rembrandt