Robert Irwin, A Wizard Of Light And Space, Still Strong At 85

Robert Irwin, who has “convinced more young people to become artists than the Velvet Underground has created rockers,” exhibits in New York this month.

The Light and Space movement–that ragtag band of metaphysicians and light worshippers that sprang from SoCal in the 1970s–has produced some of the most accessible art of the last century. Who hasn’t been overwhelmed in a James Turrell skyspace, or delighted by the cognitive dissonance in one of Bruce Nauman’s neon puns?


Robert Irwin, a contemporary of both Turrell and Nauman, is lesser known (and arguably more challenging) but no less worthy of attention. Last week at New York’s Pace Gallery, Irwin unveiled the second installation of a two-part gallery show called Dotting the i’s and Crossing the t’s.

At first glance, Pace’s tall, skylit atrium seems to be completely empty. But take a few steps into the storefront space, and you’ll notice two thin lines stretching from the ceiling to the gallery floor. As you move toward them, the lines distort your vision just enough to be noticeable–shapes bend and colors refract around them. These are Irwin’s acrylic Columns, a series of sculptures he has refined over four decades since creating the first in his San Diego studio in 1970. The columns, at over 15 feet high and only a few inches wide, disappear and reappear as you move about the space.

The idea behind the prismatic columns is to manipulate our perception of space just enough to make us aware of it–never more. The reductive, almost invisible nature of the columns has provoked a certain amount of consternation among visitors (some more than others). I think that’s because even today, we go to galleries expecting to see fully formed “pieces” of art. Most of Irwin’s contemporaries, even if they’re working with ephemeral mediums like light, still present us with a finished product–Turrell’s skyspaces can still be understood in the context of Western art history, since each consists of a frame and an image. Irwin bypasses the frame itself, and the image, too. Rather than manipulating our sight, he invites us to simply see.

Also unlike many of his fellow Light and Space artists, Irwin has never expected his work to have broad populist appeal. As he told Art in America‘s Carol Deihl in 1999, “At the very best, a few people will walk in and it will change their lives.” Ironically, many critics have argued that Irwin’s work has inspired more young artists than his contemporaries. As curator Michael Govan told the New York Times in 2007, “[Irwin] has convinced more young people to become artists than the Velvet Underground has created rockers.”

Dotting the i’s and Crossing the t’s is on view at the Pace Gallery’s two Manhattan venues until October 20th.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.