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A Kaleidoscopic Portrait of an Artist by Those Who Know Best : On the eve of Robert Irwin's retrospective at MOCA, friends, family and others piece together the life of this enigmatic artist

June 13, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

The full arc of artist Robert Irwin's career is something to behold. Irwin started out in the '50s painting landscapes, then, says Walter Hopps--the dealer often credited with "discovering" him--"he used painting as a springboard into a vision as broad as the Earth itself." As will be seen in the retrospective of Irwin's work opening next Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the distance he's covered over the course of his 35-year career is vast, indeed.

Regarded as a seminal figure in the California Light and Space Movement that emerged in the '70s, Irwin moved from Abstract Expressionism, to Minimal works investigating properties of light and space, to site-specific works so discreet and finely tuned that if one wasn't alert, they could easily be missed. As the material presence of his work has grown more ethereal, the content has expanded to encompass the most profound philosophical questions.

The question that's had a hold on Irwin for the better part of his life is: Exactly what is the nature of perception? His answer to that question is a body of work designed to make the viewer aware that each of us invents the world according to how we choose to process the information that constantly bombards us--in short, his art is about paying attention.

Irwin's work is also about the sublime; though rigorously austere at a glance, this art is fueled by a sense of joy and is at heart a meditation on immanence.

Irwin's presence in the art world, particularly in Southern California, has been as commanding and hard to define as the art he's made. Born in Long Beach in 1928, Irwin is a revered teacher and lecturer, a legend at horse handicapping and a self-taught iconoclast who's always stood slightly apart from the art world.

Serving an apprenticeship of sorts at the Ferus Gallery in the late '50s, Irwin struck out on his own in the early '60s, then spent the years 1968 to 1970 investigating perceptual phenomena with NASA scientist Ed Wortz and artist James Turrell. In 1970 Irwin got rid of his studio and hit the road, spending the next few years driving around, visiting colleges, talking to students, thinking and writing. In 1976 the artist met writer Lawrence Weschler at UCLA, and the two immersed themselves in a heated discussion of philosophy that lasted three years.

Irwin then moved to Las Vegas and holed up in a skyscraper for a few years of solitude and returned to the world with a new sense of purpose. He's spent the better part of the past few years wrestling with city fathers nationwide as well as corporate boards in an attempt to sell them on a variety of progressive proposals for public artworks.


A man of enormous complexity, drive and energy, Irwin has touched many people over the course of his life. Herewith, a composite portrait of the artist by those who've known him well:

GOLDIE IRWIN (mother): "When Bob and his sister were young, I took them to the museum, but he really wasn't exposed to much art, so I don't know where his interest came from. But from the time he was a little boy he used to lie on his stomach and draw pictures for hours at a time. He did them well, and in high school they made a fuss over him because of his artistic talent.

"He was always a leader and was a thoughtful, analytical child. I remember times when the family would be sitting around talking with the radio on and he could look up and tell you everything that had happened on the radio--who won which game and who all the players were. He always had an ability to remember information.

"He was a caring, loving child and very inclined to want to please you. He was never rebellious, and though he probably did things we wouldn't have wanted him to, if he got in trouble he took care of it himself. I remember his father saying not long before he died, 'That boy never caused me five minutes worry in my whole life.' He's always been extremely disciplined and health-conscious and never smoked, didn't do much drinking and doesn't even drink coffee.

"He used to do beautiful portraits; in fact, when he was in the service he won a contest with one of his portraits that I still have up in my house. He has a fit every time he sees it but I love it--I can't think of another artist who can do bone structure better than he did. Then all of a sudden he stopped doing portraits and started doing these modern things that left me way out in left field.

"Whatever worries he's had he's kept to himself, but I know he's had problems. He was married when he was young and that didn't work out. He was fond of this girl but he told me, 'I have to give all my time to my work, and I don't have enough time to give her.' He also went through a hard time when he gave up painting and went into philosophy. He wouldn't go along with the policies of the art world anymore, and that created difficulties for him. At the time he told me: 'They try to tell you what to think, and I don't want anyone to tell me what to think.' "

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