What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is their effects upon the way I see and experience the world. Last month I viewed the exhibition, “Robert Irwin: Site Determined” at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach. The exhibit focused on the artist’s luminous and arresting drawings and architectural models. In fact, I have never seen drafting as beautiful and precise as Irwin’s. It is not for want of looking. Last weekend I saw Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes and a few of LeWitt’s wall drawings at SFMOMA. The works felt like formal and conceptual warm-up exercises to Irwin’s site determined works. Creating art that exists outside the domain of a frame and the walls of a gallery and instead in the perceptions of a viewer, is the legacy of Irwin’s body of work.
What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is how his art continues to develop along a trajectory he set out for himself early in his career, one grounded in the philosophy of phenomenology. At 89, Irwin continues to create influential new works. His installation at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas was completed in 2015. At my ripening age his example motivates me to push myself – not toward some predetermined outcome or achievement, but to follow my own inquiry.
What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is how it informs and guides my work as a landscape architect. Several years ago I had the good fortune to deep dive into Irwin’s body of work. I read the books, visited all the installations and exhibits, spent a week (wearing white cotton gloves) reading and looking through the Robert Irwin Papers at the Getty Research Institute. I have interviewed Irwin, and listened to and transcribed these conservations. He is a warm, approachable, and generous teacher.
One particular conservation with Irwin I transcribed took place at the University of Alabama on March 29, 2007 and remains particularly memorable and representative of what I like most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin:
“What I am trying to test, or the game I am playing doing a garden and being an architect and all that is … what I try and do in that situation is make what I do respond to all those things which are existing cues and I do not invent or design anything. I pay attention to those existing cues and finally assemble them… the thing I am really involved with is not just changing or making a garden, but changing the whole process of how we make it a garden, conceptually to make things different in the world, and that is where I am going.”