California Artist Brings New Installation to Chinati Foundation

“So far it’s going pretty good. I think I got a winner on my hands.”

By Tom MichaelJuly 19, 2016 10:25 am| ,

From Marfa Public Radio: 

With construction staff all around, Robert Irwin stands in the middle of a work-in-progress. In fact, it’s been 17 years in progress. The California artist is finalizing a permanent installation for the Chinati Foundation. Chinati, that mecca of minimalism, was founded by the late artist Donald Judd in the tiny West Texas town of Marfa. And this summer, Irwin’s about to be canonized in that small circle of artists who include Judd, Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain and Carl Andre. Right now, Irwin experiments with a filter on the windows.

“We’re looking at, essentially,” Irwin says. “You’ll notice this building is split in half. It’s a real subtle thing, but the building is two buildings. One’s a dark building. And one’s a light building. So right now I’m playing with the quality of the light.”

That’s Robert Irwin describing the two wings of his art installation – in a stark grey building around a central courtyard. Inside, long banks of high windows filter in the desert daylight in astonishing ways.

“It’s like what happens on a beautiful day here,” he says. “Damn, it’s nice here, you know. Did you see the sky here yesterday before the rain? You have a sky here that is magical.”

He’s enthusiastic about channeling the natural light. But even at this late stage, Irwin is making changes. And for a small organization. that’s already raised $5 million for the project, this can be nerve-wracking. Jenny Moore is the foundation director.

“And watching him make decisions on a construction site,” Moore says. “That feels like watching an artist work in their studio. I mean this is his studio. It’s it’s a little bit startling at first to see him moving things around, at the level of a construction site. Whether it’s moving a wall ten feet or tweaking the height of a window or something like that.”

But she’s confident in Irwin’s judgment. And walking out to see his sculpture in the courtyard, she’s relieved.

“Look it’s real – isn’t this amazing,” Moore says. “Oh my God, I walk this site so many times. To see it fully manifesting, it’s just. God, it just gets me every time. It really does.”

Outside, Irwin has arranged a basalt rock column, raised corten steel planters, and Palo Verde trees, planted in rows. Moore describes how Irwin first came to Marfa in the 1970s, during a cross-country drive.

“In one of those trips he just kept driving south and eventually he drove the entire perimeter of the United States,” Moore says. “But when he was driving south from California and was driving south through Texas and took a right hand turn off I-10 and came through Marfa and stopped to gas up his car. And he saw Don Judd and said what are you doing here. Donald Judd told him a little bit about what his ideas were for Marfa. So I think there are coincidences that happen in this place.”

Art critic Lawrence Weschler also met Irwin in the 1970s.

“In those days, I had never heard of Bob Irwin, which is not unusual,” Weschler says. “It’s interesting to note, that, around, as late as ‘76-77, he never allowed photographs of his work. On the grounds that any photograph would only show what the painting was not about and not what it was about.”

Because of this ban, and because much of his work was temporary, Weschler considered Irwin one the least-known but most important artists in the country.

“He has had sensational, amazing shows over the years at different places, he says. “None of the work, the major installations, and so forth, still exist. And this is going to be one of the unique cases, because of Judd’s vision. His general vision that it was there for posterity.”

This installation at the Chinati Foundation is the only freestanding structure devoted exclusively to his art.

Back inside, Marianne Stockebrand, the first director of Chinati, watches Irwin at work. She invited him to do the project.

“The first conversation was indeed in 1999, so now we have 2016 and you can do the math,” Stockebrand says. “In between there were a number of proposals. And Chinati was a fledging institution as you well know. It needed that time to develop and also be a real possibility from the part of Chinati.

It’s a stretch, for a tiny institution. But Irwin knows he’s onto something.

“So far it’s going pretty good,” he says. “I think I got a winner on my hands.”

And with that, Robert Irwin gets back to the job at hand – capturing the high desert light – and creating a lasting work of art for this West Texas town.

The installation opens July 23