“A monumental figure in the California Light and Space movement, Irwin made innovations across painting, sculpture, and installation-based work over the course of nearly seven decades, expanding the contours of the canon and continually pushing the limits of what art can be. Through his influential and experimental practice—marked by both scientific and philosophical rigor—he proposed a new kind of art making centering on phenomenology and subjectivity as subjects unto themselves. Through his profound artistic inventions that make use of light and space as key materials, he cultivated a reputation as a visionary figure at the vanguard of what is known today as experiential art.”
A Desert of Pure Feeling, a documentary tracing Irwin’s storied career, is available to stream on Amazon and Apple TV. It is a time-lapse video of the construction of an installation defined by rows of windows and series of scrims situated inside an abandoned Army hospital on the outskirts of Marfa, Texas. The film presents the project as the culmination of Irwin’s experimentation with light.
Several publications ran obituaries on Irwin and his impact in the art world. Christopher Knight, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Los Angeles Times, described Irwin as “one of the most important American artists of the late 20th century . . . Irwin was the leading figure in Light and Space art that emerged in the 1960s, the only wholly original art movement to begin in Los Angeles.”
The New York Times wrote, “Within the contemporary art world, Mr. Irwin’s work on human attention and perception—he called it, with a nod to scientific research, an ‘inquiry’ into perception—was highly influential; he won a MacArthur ‘genius’ award in 1984.”
According to Artforum, “His radical work profoundly influenced peers such as fellow Light and Space artists Larry Bell, Mary Corse, Keith Sonnier, and James Turrell, and artists of later generations, among them Chris Burden, Vija Celmins, and Olafur Eliasson.” Irwin told that same publication, “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.”
In 1984, Irwin completed the design for the Central Garden of the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles, a project that has become one of his most beloved—and visited—works. Irwin’s work is held in the collections of major institutions around the world, including the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Dallas Museum of Art; the Chinati Foundation, Marfa; Dia Art Foundation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, among many others.
“All feelings count,” Irwin told Artforum. “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.”