Robert Irwin, who passed away in San Diego at the age of 95, was an artist with an insatiably curious mind. In 1966, he had a revelation while looking at one of his abstract “dot paintings” – he realized that the true beauty was not in the painting itself, but in the shadow it cast on the wall. From that moment on, Irwin wanted to create art without limitations or frames, constantly questioning the nature of art in his visionary works.
Irwin referred to his practice as “conditional art”. His art was often subtle and almost invisible, always influenced by the circumstances in which it existed. One of his beautiful works, displayed on the University of California, San Diego campus, involved placing blue-violet chain-link fences among a grove of Eucalyptus trees. The fences seemed to disappear, becoming ethereal scrims of color, enhancing the natural beauty of the trees.
Another notable work, exhibited in New York at Pace Gallery in 1974, involved Irwin adjusting a white theater scrim in front of a wall. Many visitors assumed the gallery was empty, but those who explored further were greeted with a disorienting blur. This challenged the viewers’ perception of space and highlighted the mysterious nature of seemingly empty rooms.
One of Irwin’s most enchanting pieces was created at the Villa of Giuseppe Panza di Biumo in Italy. A rectangle on a wall appeared to depict foliage, but upon closer inspection, it revealed itself as an aperture through the villa’s thick walls, leading to an actual tree outside. This work subverted the tradition of using a flat plane in painting to simulate three-dimensional reality, instead bringing the outside world closer to the viewer’s experience.
Irwin’s primary medium was not traditional materials like paint or sculpture, but rather our own perception, curiosity, and desire to understand the world. By challenging our experience of light and space, his works compelled us to critically engage with the act of seeing.
Throughout his 60-year career, Irwin served as a teaching figure. Though he didn’t follow traditional methods of imparting knowledge, he encouraged his students, such as Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha, and Chris Burden, to become their own teachers. His approach emphasized personal awareness and the continual pursuit of knowledge.
When Irwin was involved in transforming a factory into Dia: Beacon, he eschewed explicit instructions and instead prompted viewers to observe the differences in light between various parts of the space. Ultimately, he created two symmetrical doors, allowing visitors to make their own choices and engaging them actively in their experience.
Despite the cliché that great artists must be plagued by anguish and unhappiness, Irwin proved otherwise. His upbringing in Southern California, his love for restoration projects like hot rods, and his joyful disposition all informed his artwork. Irwin believed that the miracle of perception was not limited to just philosophy, but was intertwined with everyday experiences.
While Irwin received prestigious accolades for his work, including the MacArthur grant, he remained rooted in the everyday pleasures of life. He was often seen in casual attire, enjoying his favorite drink – a fountain Coca Cola. His ambition as an artist was not to create objects, but to increase people’s awareness of the beauty in the world, one day at a time.