Through Light and Space: Robert Irwin Illuminates the Unseen

Robert Irwin exhibit.

By Andrea Serna, Arts and Culture Writer

 In 1975 Robert Irwin boldly installed his first piece of public art on the campus of California State University Long Beach. Titled Window Wall, it was created for that precise location, taking into consideration the entire environment on which it was placed. Unlike a statue of Robert E. Lee, which sits in a plaza where the public can admire the sculpture, Window Wall  “breaks the frame.” That is, the sculpture frames the  surrounding ambient environment, rather than obstructing it. Essentially, the sculpture acts as a picture window.

Four decades later, the university invited Irwin back to his city of birth to honor his work with an examination of his most significant public art works at the Cal State University Art Museum. The exhibit, entitled Robert Irwin: Site Determined, is curated by Matthew Simms, professor of art history at Long Beach State and author of Robert Irwin: A Conditional Art.  

Irwin’s exploration of light as a medium in art and his association with the early California conceptual movement, established him as a member of the post-war avant-garde. Irwin and a select group of contemporary Los Angeles artists such as James Turrell, Larry Bell, De Wain Valentine and Doug Wheeler, developed the movement known as Light and Space. With reverence for the outdoor environment came a new way of making art. Irwin said that this form of art draws all of its cues from the environment.

The influence of his thinking is pervasive — through his years as a teacher to artists including Chris Burden, Vija Celmins, Joe Goode and Ed Ruscha — but his presence in the world’s museums is limited, because for years he made nothing that anyone could buy or transport.

Undoubtedly, his most widely viewed pieces of art are the Getty Gardens, a project that required 10 years of installation and maintenance. Many of us have walked through the gardens and watched it mature through the years. Each subsequent visit reveals beauty and maturity brought with the growth of the living elements. With virtually no experience as a landscape gardener, he met massive resistance from traditionalists but persisted with his conviction that “you can’t plan nature, you court her.”

The exhibit at the museum invites the visitor to witness Irwin’s thinking as he developed unique responses to different sites. Among the 20 drawings and two architectural models, are presentations for the Getty Garden, and the predecessor, a proposed outdoor environmental space at the Miami International Airport. The project was never realized, but the aesthetic was applied years later at the Getty Museum.

The exhibit culminates with one of Irwin’s most important site determined works, Untitled (dusk to dawn), completed in 2016 at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Created on the site of an abandoned and disintegrating army hospital, the artist made an ephemeral space, that mediates between indoor and outdoor. Irwin took advantage of the missing roof and window panes to incorporate his favorite palette, light.

At 89 years old, Irwin still has new projects in development. The new campus at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presents many possibilities, among them a garden project.

The exhibition runs through April 15. Information about lectures and other collateral programming for this show can be found on the museum website.


Time:  12 to 5 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and 12 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays.

Cost: Free


Venue: University Art Museum, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach

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