Robert Irwin


Robert Irwin with a construction crew at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, 2015.

In 1970, Robert Irwin abandoned his studio. Rejecting conventions, he developed what he now calls site-conditional work—art created spontaneously in response to the myriad and minute details of an environment. His latest piece recently debuted within the curved walls of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, where “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change,” his first major US survey outside of his native California since 1977, is on view through September 5, 2016. He also has a permanent installation, untitled, (dawn to dusk), 2016, opening at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, on July 23, which focuses on the town’s singular weather patterns.

THE CLOUDS IN MARFA, instead of coming way up in the air like they do everywhere else, they come at a treetop level and just run across the sky. I wanted to do something outside, but Chinati wanted me to do something in this empty building. I gave it fifty windows on each side, and I made them a little high, so that when you look out there’s landscape, but the land is just a thin line and everything else is sky. When the lights come in, that’s pretty fucking powerful. Basically, I’m courting that light.

The walls are curved in the Hirshhorn. That’s kind of hard on art. So in the last room, I stretched a scrim between the curves. The scrim is a great material; it both is there and it’s not. It’s pretty magical. There’s nothing on the curved walls in that room, so basically I’m squaring it, which I think is a very powerful gesture. It’s a critique of the architecture. That’s the punch line.

Humans are perceiving beings, and that is essentially one of our great strengths. Part of my shtick is to make you aware of how fucking beautiful the world is. If there’s a role for art, then it’s somewhere in that realm, because we have no other real reason for it. What we’re charged with as artists is to examine and develop that ability to enrich our lives, to enrich what we do. You have to do your homework and find what fits with what you feel the emotional tension of a place is. At one point, I took my whole practice apart, piece by piece, and it genuinely became just straight lines—with a straight line, there’s no pictorial connotation at all. I spent I don’t know how many hours just putting a line up and down in relationship to another one. I would sit there and try to figure out why one was better than the other, why one was more correct, looking at it critically and trying to understand why and how it works.

Right now, art is an economic model. The proof of that is how almost essential art fairs have become. One of the assumptions there is that everything the artist does can be hung on a temporary wall with temporary patching and in temporary lighting, which is bizarre. And the more and more influential this becomes, the less it has anything to do with art. I don’t fit inside that model.

What is the nature of the game we’re in? Malevich said, No, it’s not “I think, therefore I am”—I feel, and therefore I think, and therefore, I am. And that is the name of the game. The brain is not in a bell jar, it’s in a body. All feelings count. Instead of being an artist playing to the concept of art being in a bubble, I left the studio, and I said I’d go anywhere for anyone. That’s essentially what a conditional art is. You don’t make anything until there’s some place or some situation or some thing that you’re going to examine. You start out where you don’t have a plan or an activity, then you go from there. You find that emotional tension. That’s a whole process of actually exercising the other side of what human beings are. We’re an incredible machine.

For more on Robert Irwin, see his portfolio for the January 2011 issue of Artforum.

— As told to Janelle Zara