Into the Light

A new documentary captures the work of visionary California Light and Space artist Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin gazes into the light at his Marfa installation, untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016. Collection of Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo by David Hollander.

By Linda O’Keeffe

Eight years in the making, director Jennifer Lane’s documentary A Desert of Pure Feeling celebrates the life’s work of visionary California artist Robert Irwin, who died in October at the age of 95. Praised as a “sacred fool” who possessed “dogmatic purity,” he was renowned for his ability to transform the most mundane spaces, whether room, gallery, or building, into something extraordinary and wondrous. His unique alchemy earned him a band of followers and influenced a wide range of artists, including Ed Ruscha and James Turrell.
Most often associated with the Light and Space movement of the late 1960s, Irwin called his diverse architectural interventions “Conditional Art.” For one project, he used a length of string to outline a square on the floor; for others, he attached a white scrim beneath a skylight to mysteriously mask the sun; cut rectangular openings into a gallery’s windows to let in the Pacific Ocean’s sounds and reflected light; and stationed clear, acrylic columns in a row to fluidly distort perspectives. 

An example of an iconic Irwin “disc painting,” Untitled (Disc Painting), 1966-7. Courtesy of Pace Gallery, Collection of Arne and Milly Glimcher. Photo by David Hollander.

His materials were minimal, their purpose to highlight certain aspects of a space and then recede, letting the viewer’s observational senses take command. At times his transformations were so subtle they were easy to miss. But those who got it, got it, and in Irwin’s eyes the act of getting it—that poignant moment when awareness acknowledged itself—was tantamount to lightning caught in a bottle.

His inquiries into consciousness biased him toward the ephemeral, and for many years he didn’t allow his work to be photographed, or frozen in time. Lane dug up stills of some of his early installations, and they’re featured alongside interviews Irwin gave to various museum curators. He comes across as a fast and unpretentious talker, an approachable and even anti-intellectual philosopher, and a journeyman on the road less traveled. He also comes across as a renegade. He was proudly self-taught, at school he never possessed any notebooks, and he skipped college. He mostly managed without a studio, never sought a gallery or any form of representation, and saw no need to make anything sellable. Because he valued curiosity over notoriety, he endured periods of obscurity—times when he was content to hang out at the racetrack or polish his dance moves. As he often said, experience is the object.

The artist in Marfa in 2016. Collection of Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo by Joan Churchill.

Lane used time-lapse video to portray Irwin’s most ambitious commission: a building and surrounding landscape on the grounds of an abandoned former military hospital in Marfa, Texas. A 15-year project, untitled (dawn to dusk),  is both luminous and dark, with skylit interior enfilades, corridors, and passages overlooking lines of mesquite trees. Since its completion in 2016, it has become an art lover’s pilgrimage.

The same can be said of several public landscapes he began designing a couple of decades ago, to fulfill his vision of “sculpture in the form of a garden, aspiring to be art.” Diametrically opposed to his meditative, contemplative site manipulations, they express his deep immersion in symmetry, geometry, color, and texture. Arguably the most popular is his central garden at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, with its trellised bougainvillea and azalea mazes; then there are the monolithic quadrants of horn beam trees at the DIA Beacon in upstate New York, as well as the plethora of palm species at LACMA’s Primal Garden. As his plantings mature and change seasonally under the influence of time, wind, sun, and rain, another of his oft-used pronouncements rings true: “Every moment, the sky is a new event.”

“Every moment, the sky is a new event.”

Irwin’s credo was “I feel, therefore I think, therefore I am,” an aphorism originally coined by the Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich, from whom Lane borrowed the film’s evocative title. 

A Desert of Pure Feeling is available on Apple TV and Prime Video.  

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