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Inside Robert Irwin’s Dazzling New Monument to Light and Space

Take a walk through Robert Irwin’s first free-standing installation in the art Mecca of Marfa, Texas.

Thick columns of basalt rock immediately captivate the attention as the centerpiece of the immersive environment that is Robert Irwin’s new installation Untitled (dawn to dusk). Stepping into the 13,000 square feet of architectural space, a long corridor of scrim draws the eye along a wall with shafts of light penetrating the structure. One is struck by the flawless balance and meticulous detail that merge to define a complex work that requires multiple visits to fully appreciate. Everything from the perfect alignment of the staples securing 180 foot lengths of stretched scrim to the Palo Verde trees and the color of the gravel in the exterior courtyard has been carefully orchestrated by the artist over 16 years. With Irwin’s impeccable, and sometimes obsessive, eye for design he has created a powerful monument to the art of light and space. As his only free-standing permanent installation, it is quite fitting that it is located at a museum that is dedicated to the intersection of art and architecture, The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. ­­­­­­

Sun streams through windows onto white scrim in the western corridor at sunset

Robert Irwin, along with iconic West Coast artists James Turrell and Douglas Wheeler, is renowned for his early experimentation in the 1960s. These artists were part of a prescient movement that created the first immersive environments, using both natural and artificial light, as well as space to create illusion and alter the viewer’s perspective. Interesting to note is that Irwin spent several years collaborating with NASA engineer, Dr. Ed Wortz, to explore the limits of perception and sensory deprivation.  This curiosity can be seen in all aspects of his work, from his early experimentation with the light and shadows of his ethereal discs, to his complex landscaping at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Chinati’s installation is the culmination of all Irwin’s work in a permanent manifestation—landscape, architecture, sculpture, light, space, and perception. ­

View looking through the white scrim

In our conversation with museum director Jenny Moore, she explained the history of the piece and her experience with Irwin. The Chinati Foundation was created by artist Donald Judd as an inspiring place for he and friends to create and show their work. Before, his death in 1994, he had spoken to Irwin about the idea of creating a permanent installation for his museum. However, it wasn’t until 1999 that former director, Marianne Stockebrand invited Irwin to realize the work on the site of former WWII Fort D.A. Russell hospital.

WWII Fort D.A. Russell hospital ruins taken in 2014

When Moore arrived at Chinati in 2010, she was excited about the prospect of taking on this momentous project. Over a number of years, Irwin developed and refined his design for the site, respecting the gravitas of the historical ruins and its location within the community. Although the original site was deeply evocative for Marfans, Moore assured us that Irwin was careful to take aspects of that space and permanently memorialize them in, what could be considered, an artistic rendition of the hospital. Moore describes Irwin as “deeply generous and endlessly charming."

“The way that he worked a construction site like an artist’s studio was one of the most inspiring experiences I have had with an artist," she says.

Robert Irwin’s final floor plan

Being in the space, his desire to “make our experience of [the] world," as Moore puts it, "more powerful and more beautiful” is palpable. At 87 years of age, he has created a profoundly authentic and emotional space. The row of rectangular cut outs, slightly above eye level, masterfully frame the Texas landscape and the expansive skies. Simultaneously, the natural light streaming through the windows shifts in color and shape, constantly playing with the viewer’s perspective. This work alone is well worth the pilgrimage to the far reaches of western Texas, where you will find an oasis of artistic minds in a magical town transformed by the vision of Donald Judd.

Learn more about Robert Irwin and The Chinati Foundation at the museum’s website, here.

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