Take a Rare Dive into the Thought Process of Light and Space Pioneer Robert Irwin


Curator and CSULB Professor of Art History, Matthew Simms, speaks on Robert Irwin’s process at the University Art Museum. Photo by Asia Morris.

Follow the steps that led to many a masterpiece by renowned artist Robert Irwin at the University Art Museum.

Robert Irwin: Site Determined, which opened to the public Sunday, begins by showcasing a drawing of the artist’s first permanent site-responsive work, Window Wall (1975), which is located on the university’s upper campus. The artwork was recently conserved to Irwin’s specifications in association with the exhibition and is located just a 10-minute walk from the museum.

“In essence it’s an aperture,” said curator and CSULB Professor of Art History, Matthew Simms, during a media preview Friday. “He’s made a frame to look through and what you see on the other side, it’s essentially like this moving film that’s unfolding all the time with students coming and going.”

The drawing for Window Wall (1975) is also described as a moment when the Long Beach native “broke the frame” by creating art not made to be shown inside a traditional gallery space, but made in direct response to a specific outdoor site. The environment itself became the medium.


Robert Irwin, Window Wall(1975). California State University, Long Beach. Wood, sheet rock, and white paint, 80 x 109 x 6 inches. Collection of California State University, Long Beach.

“By the simple gesture of focusing attention he makes us—well he invites us—to stop and look and think about how this might be art, how what’s already there is interesting and could qualify as art,” Simms said while standing in front of the drawing.

The exhibition continues with a contemplative dive into Irwin’s process, giving the viewer an inside look at the drawings, diagrams and architectural models used to realize such works as the Central Garden for the J. Paul Getty Center, perhaps the artist’s most widely known site-specific work. This is the first time the plans for the Central Garden have been on display.

Irwin wanted the individual experiencing the garden, with its zig-zagging pathway, purposefully placed boulders, curated greenery and running stream, to step away from the Getty’s focus on many a renowned artist and to consider themselves as the center of attention; using the architecture of the space as a catalyst to look inward.

Two Running Violet V Forms - 1982

Robert Irwin, Two Running Violet V Forms (1982). Ink and pencil, 24 x 46 inches. Stuart Collection Records, Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego. Photograph: Philipp Scholz Rittermann. © 2018 Robert Irwin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Multiple decades of Irwin’s site-responsive experimentation is shown through his work for university campuses, including Two Running Violet V forms (1982) for University of California, San Diego, plans for Ohio State University, as well as drawings on display for a project never realized, the Arts Enrichment Master Plan for the Miami International Airport.

The exhibition culminates with a full room of plans for Untitled (dusk to dawn), what became a 15-year undertaking commissioned by the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, completed in 2016.

Marfa Color Plan - 2002

Robert Irwin, Marfa Color Plan (2002). color pencil on Mylar Sheet: 30 x 42 inches (76.2 x 106.7 cm) Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Promised gift of L.J. Cella Photograph: Pablo Mason © 2018 Robert Irwin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The only completed work of art in Robert Irwin: Site Determined is Pocket Pool (2016), one of his most recent pieces. It stands as another first for the artist as a departure from his previous works that have used fluorescent tubes to generate light, not reflect it as this one does. The colored pipes wrapped in layers of theatrical gels lined up against the gallery wall are another subtle reminder to pay attention, and perhaps ponder not the absence of emitted light, but to consider the shadows created by the cylindrical forms.

“It’s really up to you what you make of them,” Simms said.

DSC 0206

Robert Irwin, Pocket Pull (2016). Photo by Asia Morris.

Those interested in learning more about Irwin and site-determined works can attend a gallery talk with Simms on Wednesday, February 21 from noon to 1:00PM, a talk with award-winning Creative Director and Founder of Hood Design, Walter Hood, on Thursday, March 8 from 7:00PM to 9:00PM and a talk with University of San Diego Art History Professor Sally Yard on Wednesday, April 11 from 7:00PM to 9:00PM, all to take place at the UAM.

Robert Irwin: Site Determined will be on view through April 15 then relocated to the Pratt Institute of Architecture in Brooklyn. For more information, visit the website here

The University Art Museum is located at 1250 North Bellflower Boulevard.

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Asia Morris has been with the Long Beach Post for five years, specializing in coverage of the arts. Her parents gave her the name because they wanted her to be a world traveler and they got their wish. She has obliged by pursuing art, journalism and a second career as a competitive cyclist.