Robert Irwin Artwork

Robert Irwin was born in 1928 in Long Beach, California. He attended Otis Institute and Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. He began as an abstract painter 50 years ago, and first exhibited his work at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Two series of paintings, made primarily of dots or lines, followed. However, as he pursued his philosophical and critical inquiry, Irwin grew dissatisfied with traditional picture-making, and next focused on work that hovered between painting and sculpture — acrylic discs made between 1966-67 that floated out from the wall, appearing suspended in space.

Irwin first became curious about pushing the boundaries of art and perception in the early 1970s, and eventually he left studio work behind and abandoned painting and object-making to pursue a new kind of work that he called "conditional" — installations that dealt directly with light and space and were made in direct response to given architectural situations. For the past 45 years, Robert Irwin's oeuvre has relied primarily on invitations from museums, galleries, and individuals to propose works that focus on the actual site itself — installations created specifically for a room, a garden, a museum, or gallery space.

For reasons mainly due to space, expense, and the fragility of the work, most of Irwin's site-specific installations have been either deinstalled or destroyed. These include important projects such as: Fractured Light — Partial Scrim — Eye Level (1970-71) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Black Line Room Division + Extended Forms (1977) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Ascending (1994) at the Musé e d' Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France; and Double Diamond (1997-98) at the Musée d'Art Contemporain, Lyon, France.


Irwin designed and developed the Central Garden at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in 1997, which features a flowing ravine and tree-lined walkway that lead the visitor through an experience of sights, sounds, and scents. Other outdoor-sited works include 9 Spaces 9 Trees (1980-83), later reinstalled at the University of Washington, Seattle in 2008; Filigreed Line (1979) made for Wellesley College, Massachusetts; and Two Running Violet V Forms, part of the Stuart Collection at the University of California, San Diego. Irwin devised the master plan for the interior spaces as well as outdoor planting for Dia:Beacon, and the installation of a new palm garden at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

A retrospective of Irwin's work was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 1993; the exhibition traveled to the Kölnischer Kunstverein, the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. In 2008, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego presented a comprehensive retrospective spanning fifty years of Irwin's career. Recent projects and exhibitions include the reinstallation of his 1977 piece at the Whitney Museum of American Art and a new scrim work for the Secession Building in Vienna, in September 2013.

Irwin was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984. He has also been the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship (1976), the Chaloner Prize and the James D. Phelan award (both 1954), and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation medal in architecture awarded by the University of Virginia School of Architecture (2009). He holds Honorary Doctorates from the San Francisco Art Institute (1979) and the Otis College of Art and Design (1992). Irwin was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007.


"In a world saturated with spectacle and the kind of augmented reality made possible through the digital, Irwin's work, by contrast, raises critical questions about the fundamental nature of how and what we perceive and the value of 'looking at and seeing all of those things that have been going on all along but previously have been too incidental or meaningless to really enter into our visual structure, our picture of the world."
Donna De Salvo, Whitney Museum of American Art, essay for reinstallation of Scrim Veil—Black Rectangle—Natural Light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1977)

"The means with which Mr. Irwin has transformed the Whitney's fourth floor are so simple — and the illusion so easily deconstructed — that you might even call his effort the anti-Turrell. (Mr. Irwin can certainly do complicated, but he saves it for unusual situations, like the intricate, constantly evolving Central Garden he designed for the Getty Center in Los Angeles.) Like Mr. Turrell, Mr. Irwin was part of the Light and Space movement that sprang up in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. These artists' lack of interest in making visual objects led them to start creating situations that gave the viewer a new awareness of visual perception itself. They created, as was often said, the experience of "seeing yourself see." None of these artists did more with less than Mr. Irwin."
Roberta Smith, New York Times, July 25, 1013

"The palm garden that artist Robert Irwin is designing for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a long-term work-in-progress. It won't be finished for a few years, developing as the ongoing expansion and renovation of the sprawling museum-campus proceed. But since the fencing has started to come down around the new Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, set to debut in October, Irwin's palm garden has started to come into clearer focus. And it looks fantastic."
Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times

"Robert Irwin, perhaps the most influential of the California artists, moved from his beginnings in abstract expressionism through successive shifts in style and sensibility, into a new aesthetic territory altogether, one where philosophical concepts of perception and the world interact. Weschler has charted the journey with exceptional clarity and cogency. He has also, in the process, provided what seems to me the best running history of postwar West Coast art that I have yet seen."
Calvin Tomkins

"Art in California, and around the world, would not look the way it does today if not for Irwin, who has been exhibiting his influential paintings, sculptures and installations for 55 years... Irwin has made series after series of groundbreaking works, each defying expectations and expanding art's possibilities by stimulating the senses, challenging the intellect and stirring the soul. Some are better than others but none is gratuitous. The best compel you to zero in on the physical facts of your perceptions, whose riveting intensity gives way to a sense of expansive serenity."
David Pagel, Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2011

"For Irwin, the art doesn't succeed unless those who know nothing about his ideas can experience them just as well as the person who does."
Robert Pincus, The San Diego Union-Tribune, April 18, 2010

"Irwin wants his art to draw all of its cues from its surroundings, so that the response may be 'monumental or ephemeral, aggressive or gentle, useful or useless, sculptural, architectural or simply the planting of a tree or maybe doing nothing at all.' "
Carol Diehl, Art In America, December 1999

"Through sheer persistence he had been bracketing out all the elements conventionally associated with the art act (figure, image, line, focus, locus, object, finally even signature) until he had ended up pretty much in an empty room. He had held each element in abeyance, the better to burrow toward the fundament of all art, which he presently located in the human capacity for perception itself, not so much in what we perceive but rather in the sheer miracle that we perceive at all."
Lawrence Wescheler, Art in America, October 2011

"By deconstructing the process of perception, Irwin allows us to see how we see."
Rhama Khazam, Artforum