One of the pivotal figures in recent American art, Robert Irwin's career has spanned a period of more than 50 years. His site-responsive works aim to refocus the habituated eye, posing questions rather than providing answers and encouraging the viewer to be made aware, afresh, of the visual field around them. Irwin has said about his art that he tries to ‘open up things’ and ‘just allow them to happen’, but also that ‘the pure subject of art is human perception’: a conditional activity determined by context.
Residing on the West Coast, Irwin began his career in the late 1950s making Abstract Expressionist paintings which were at first gestural and intense and then developed into minimal studies in form and colour, sometimes on shaped canvases. His interest in perceptual phenomena soon took him beyond notions of object making and the studio, and he began to make art in response to a particular site, or to a set of conditions, switching his focus to energy and process rather than material and object.
A leading exponent of the ‘Light and Space’ movement, Irwin’s installations employ light, string and scrim to create subtle alterations in physical space. Architectural in scale, his works emphasise and expose particular spatial and perceptual experiences, for example by painting walls a particular colour; suspending panels to create a focused space beneath (Pure Space, 1990), or using taut panels of material scrim to change and intervene in specific architectural details (Square the Room, 2007). Panels of scrim stretched on wooden frames are also used to create sequential walls or chambers, whose colour is manipulated and harnessed to potent effect, using coloured gels over fluorescent lights. In this way, a physically perceptual passage for the viewer is created through works that, instead of emphasising their presence, recede through their light translucency and act like brackets for our phenomenological experience. Irwin’s charged use of colour relates to the work of Josef Albers as well as to those of Barnett Newman to whom he made a titular homage in the work Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue (2006˗07), composed of vast matching panels of single reflective colours placed over floor and ceiling to energise and expose the volume between them.
Since the early 1980s, Irwin has become well known for his public works which react to the specific conditions of a particular site, often making use of features such as the surrounding architecture, topography or indigenous flora. Such large-scale outdoor projects include the landscaping of Dia: Beacon Center for the Arts (completed in 2003) and the lush gardens of the Getty Center, Los Angeles (completed in 2005).
Robert Irwin was born in 1928 Long Beach, CA and lives and works in La Jolla CA. He has exhibited in many museums internationally since 1960 including Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; MCA Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebaek and Whitney Museum of American Art. Recent solo exhibitions include Wiener Secession, Association of Visual Artists, Vienna (2013); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2010) and MCA San Diego (2007˗08). He was the first artist to receive the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award in 1984.