‘If I Can Make Them More Beautiful, You Know, Why Not?’

The acclaimed Californian ‘artist of light’ Robert Irwin died yesterday at age 95. Today, Observer looks back at his life and work in his own words.

In April of 2012, Observer’s then senior arts editor Andrew Russeth met with Robert Irwin at Pace Gallery’s East 57th Street space in midtown, where the artist’s ​​“dotting the i’s & crossing the t’s: part I” had recently opened. Russeth asked, point blank, whether Irwin (then 83 years old) was retiring.

A photo of two men surrounded by acrylic sculpture
Robert Irwin and Arne Glimcher in 2022. Courtesy Pace Gallery

“The shows are kind of summarizing some stuff, yeah,” Irwin answered before enthusiastically describing his latest project. He then reconsidered. “I’m not actually closing up shop.”

“dotting the i’s & crossing the t’s: part I” ran through July. Some months later, “dotting the i’s & crossing the t’s: part II”—a trio of thin, 16-foot-tall seamless transparent acrylic columns transmuted by shifting light—opened in the gallery’s Chelsea location.

Russeth met with Irwin again, to see the installation in progress, at which time the San Diego-based artist (a self-described ‘question addict’) waxed philosophical about what art is and what it’s for.

“dotting the i’s & crossing the t’s: part II”. Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy the Pace Gallery

“I was always asking myself, what is the actual goal of art, the actual subject of art? What justifies its high standing?” he said. “We’re building these cathedrals to art today, really almost to the level of absurdity, so you ask yourself, what does it contribute? I’m of the opinion that we are constantly discovering the world and that the point of art is that act.”

Who was Robert Irwin?

Born in 1928, Irwin began his career as an Abstract Expressionist painter in the 1950s after studying at the Otis Art Institute, the Jepson Art Institute and the Chouinard Art Institute but would transition to installation work just a decade later. The shift was one of increasing minimization—Irwin experimented with clean lines and dots, frameless paintings and then no paintings at all.

“I first questioned the mark as meaning and then even as focus; I then questioned the frame as containment, the edge as the beginning and end of what I see…consider the possibility that nothing ever really transcends its immediate environment,” he wrote in 1977. Putting it more succinctly in his 2012 conversation with Russeth, he said: “I painted myself right out” of the works.

A light sculpture by Robert Irwin
Robert Irwin,So. Cal, 2010 SCULPTURE, ‘Light + Shadow + Reflection + Color’, 72″ x 81-3/8″ x 4-5/8″ (182.9 cm x 206.7 cm x 11.7 cm), No. 5229. © Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Irwin, a MacArthur Genius Grant winner and one of the most influential Light and Space artists, would spend the rest of his career creating site-specific, light-bending architectural works: aluminum or clear acrylic disks affixed to walls, monumental polished acrylic columns, scrim and steel suspended from walls and over floors—all of which carefully utilized natural light or manipulated artificial lights to interesting effect.

In the 1970s, Irwin turned to light itself as a medium, altering fluorescent tubes with colored gels and mounting them in carefully arranged grids. In some cases, his installations were vast explorations of light and change. Irwin’s permanent untitled installation piece at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas (seventeen years in the making, completed when the artist was 87 years old) is a 10,000-square-foot structure of hallways, windows and translucent screens.

Post-vaccination American road trip
Irwin’s Marfa, TX installation for the Chinati Foundation in 2021. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

How did Robert Irwin think about art?

“Being an artist is really about a sensibility,” Irwin explained to Russeth during their conversation in Chelsea. “It’s an awareness about the nature of things, on a base level. A sensibility is applicable to anything and everything. It’s a way of going.”

A black and white portrait of artist Robert Irwin
Irwin in 1991. Courtesy Pace Gallery

His work was very much an exploration of whether he could create art that reflected his own sensibilities. It neither stood out nor blended in but instead was simply there for people to notice. At the 57th Street Pace show, he cut rectangles out of two of the gallery’s floor-to-ceiling windows in a work titled 1° 2° 3° 4° that let in the unfiltered sights and sounds of midtown Manhattan.

“I think it’s one of the better things I’ve ever done,” he said, “in the sense that it’s so much what it is, and it’s kind of authorless. You don’t think about whether it’s art or not art. It’s just about what you’re seeing or not seeing.”

And yet, Irwin didn’t think of his work as being a mere window with which he could force people to open their eyes to the world as he saw it.

“I’m in the beauty business,” he told Russeth. “I have never made anything in my life that was not as beautiful as I can make it.”

Exhibition "Light and Space" at Kraftwerk Berlin
Irwin’s “Light and Space” at Kraftwerk Berlin in 2021. Photo by Jörg Carstensen/picture alliance via Getty Images

‘If I Can Make Them More Beautiful, You Know, Why Not?’