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Artist Robert Irwin checks out the light in West Texas

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Irwin helped establish the Light and Space movement in California, but his latest project is at the minimalist art mecca founded by Donald Judd in the small town of Marfa.

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 West Coast artist is finalizing a permanent installation for the Chinati Foundation

Chinati, that mecca of minimalism, was launched by the late artist Donald Judd in the tiny West Texas town of Marfa. And this summer, Irwin is about to be canonized in that small circle of artists who include Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre and John Wesley. There's two wings of his art installation – a stark grey building around a central courtyard. Inside, long banks of high windows filter in the desert daylight in astonishing ways. 

As Irwin walks around the site, he meticulously checks if things are in order, and starts to adjust a filter on the windows.

IRWIN:  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. 

Robert Irwin onsite at Chinati Foundation, October 2015.
Alex Marks
Robert Irwin onsite at Chinati Foundation, October 2015.

At this point, Irwin is still making changes on-site. But he doesn’t want to overdo it.

IRWIN: Now comes those crucial [questions]: When does it become too much? Oh gosh, isn’t that an interesting idea?

These changes can be nerve-wracking, says Jenny Moore. She’s the director of the Chinati Foundation, which has already raised $5 million for the project — and changes cost money.

MOORE: Watching him make decisions on a construction site — that feels like watching an artist work in their studio. I mean, this is his studio. 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 10 feet or tweaking the height of a window or something like that.

She’s confident in Irwin’s judgment and walks out to see his sculpture in the courtyard. 
"Oh my God, I've walked this site so many times," Moore says. "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: I think what we’re sitting in right now is a central part of the art itself. We’re sitting in a courtyard. And Bob has worked at gardens and exterior spaces for several decades: the Central Garden at the Getty; the master plan, including all the exterior spaces, at Dia:Beacon; the palm garden at LACMA. And he’s now in talks right now about the master plan at LACMA and its expansion. But already I think you can feel a heightened sense of space here in the courtyard.

Robert Irwin onsite at Chinati Foundation, October 2015.
Alex Marks
Robert Irwin onsite at Chinati Foundation, October 2015.

Back inside, Marianne Stockebrand, the first director of the Chinati Foundation, watches Irwin perfecting his windows. "You know, he knows he always keeps a certain freedom for making changes up to a certain scope," Stockebrand says. "I mean, he wouldn’t start all over." (laughs)

Irwin considers the trees he just planted. Palo Verdes are found in Southern California, but here in West Texas, they’re on the edge of their frost tolerance. 

IRWIN: When you look at the courtyard — the addition of the trees, which we just now put the first row. Whoosh! You know — dynamite! It really worked. So now I know I really want the second row of trees. 

Irwin laughs when asked if he’d remove the trees if they didn’t work. “In an instant,” he says. This doesn’t surprise art critic Lawrence Weschler, who watched Irwin make delicate changes while building the Getty Gardens in L.A. in the 1990s.

WESCHLER: At the Getty, he had literally hundreds, probably thousands, of stones that he was moving around. Something you would barely notice, but it’s exactly the kind of thing he works on. And in that case, he was working with huge earth-movers to move boulders two inches to the side, and so forth.

Weschler was working at UCLA in the ‘70s when he first met the artist and was fascinated with Irwin’s focus on presence over image. "He happened to live in Westwood," says Weschler, "and we basically had lunch together for the next three or four years." Those three or four years of lunches turned into three or four decades of conversations. And they were compiled in a book by Weschler called, “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees.”

WESCHLER: Setting the Getty aside, he has had sensational, amazing shows over the years at different places. None of which still exist. He does now allow them to be photographed. But, none of the work, the major installations, and so forth, still exist. And this is going to be one of the unique cases. 

Robert Irwin onsite at Chinati Foundation, October 2015.
Alex Marks
Robert Irwin onsite at Chinati Foundation, October 2015.

Irwin installation at the Chinati Foundation in West Texas is the only freestanding structure devoted exclusively to his art. The artist knows he’s onto something big. 

REPORTER: What’s that one feeling you get when you’re in this space?

IRWIN: Aw, well, I’m not going tell you. I’m going to let you figure it out. So far it’s going pretty good. I think I got a winner on my hands.

And with that, Robert Irwin gets back to the job at hand – creating a permanent work of art.

Robert Irwin's installation at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas opens on July 23.

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