Many of the greatest works I am privileged to have worked with as an advisor have not been bought but commissioned. The first of them was by Robert Irwin, commissioned for the Rachofsky Collection 20 years ago, when I first began advising on the formation of private and public art collections.
Irwin had been a hero of mine since my first days in the art world, when, in 1977, I had one of my most powerful and vexing art experiences at an Irwin exhibition at the Whitney, before I knew anything much about contemporary art. For his installation “Robert Irwin: Scrim Veil, Black Rectangle, Natural Light, Whitney Museum of American Art (New York) (1977)”, the artist emptied the fourth floor of the museum’s former home, now the Met Breuer, and installed within it a translucent stretched cloth running the entire length of the space. Suspended from the ceiling and reaching about halfway to the floor, like a giant window shade locked into position between open and closed, it doubly bisected the gallery, with a painted black stripe running around the four walls at the same height as the thick black bottom of the suspended cloth.
Made with the most minimal of means, the “sculpture” had vast presence, harnessing every essential element that defined the space, emptied of things and filled with one’s experience in it—volume, architecture, light, and presence, and bringing to these elements utter clarity, strength, even a pragmatic nobility. It was an experience I would never forget, and one that could never be duplicated or found anywhere else.
A true innovator, Irwin is one of the most profound and influential artists of the last 60 years. Lawrence Weschler’s 1982 book about Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, is as giant a presence in my understanding of the contemporary artist as is the artist’s own fiercely potent way of activating experience through his art and also of speaking about it. And yet most art aficionados have not had direct experience with an Irwin work, and I can say with certainty that their presence and power is impossible to reproduce or capture outside of the experience of them.
When I first met with the artist to discuss the possibility of doing the commission for the Rachofsky House, he was hesitant. “I have spent the last two decades focusing on site-specific commissions,” he said. “I got 23 of them, and 22 were cancelled.”
And so, a few weeks ago, it was my privilege to see the completion of a permanent work by Irwin at Inhotim, a museum in rural Brazil that I have helped form in 5,000 acres of natural landscape and botanical gardens—a work that in many ways is an embodiment of the artist’s lifetime commitment to exploring perception and its immeasurable field.
Irwin began his career as a gestural painter before, in the early 1960s, deciding to dedicate his art to exploring perception beyond the limits of a traditional object. Beginning with dotted paintings that seemed to evaporate into vibration, he moved on to the room-sized environments that have occupied more than five decades of art-making. Irwin remains one of the most important and influential artists of the postwar period, spawning generations of artists creating art out of light and space.
It was an experience I would never forget,
and one that could never be duplicated
Untitled, conceived more than a decade ago and constructed as a permanent work in the landscape at Inhotim, is based on a simple architectural idiom created as a low-cost, low-tech means of onsite construction commonly referred to as “tilt-up architecture”. For Irwin, this affordable, utilitarian process—conceived with the utopian notion of making architecture accessible in places where it had previously been too costly to produce—remains half-erected, in a permanent state of possibility.
Atop each wall sits a triangular pane of mottled yellow glass—windows through which daylight passes, resulting in an ever-changing performance of the light of the sky against the floor of this octagonal structure, open to the sky, partially unfolded, like the shutter of a lens or the blooming of a flower.
This monumental work might appear to resemble the kind of traditional sculpture that Irwin’s life’s work has been created in contrast to. But first looks can be deceiving. Indeed, at Inhotim Irwin has created an ultimate examination of perception on the greatest scale—that of the Earth as the base for experience, and the Sun as the generator of light and life around which the our planet evolves. The Earth itself becomes a painterly ground, drawing light down from the Sun through the oculus of this sculptural form, creating an immeasurable field for experience and perception.