When Robert Irwin started to make art in the late 1950s, he began as a painter. Yet he soon came to feel that the limitation to the space provided by the frame (as is conventional in classical panel painting) was overly constricting, and so he questioned that structure. This critical interrogation ultimately led the artist to adopt a stance that was innovative at the time. On the one hand, the environment in which art was presented was crucial to this new approach; on the other hand, perception—both the artist's, during the work's conception, and the beholder's later on—increasingly became a central factor in his work, which evolved in the direction of site-conditioned installation art. In 1970, he took the logical next step and gave up his studio; he would henceforth realize works developed immediately from their environments and the specific conditions found, reflecting on their sites in the artistic implementation and changing the ways they were perceived. In his thinking of the role of art as "conditional" – something that works in and responds to the specific surrounding world of experience – Irwin may be regarded as a pioneer of site-conditioned art.
The artist's primary means of manipulation were light and space—he is widely considered a leading protagonist of Light and Space Art, whose roots are in 1960s California. This loose affiliation of artists shared an interest in the interdependent perceptions of light and space; their experimentation featured transparent and refractive materials such as glass, neon lighting, and Plexiglas. Irwin, moreover, has a preference for semitransparent fabrics that absorb light but also let it pass, whence their ability to generate effects that change the perception of a room. An exemplary work we might mention here is Untitled (1970), a column made of Plexiglas Irwin initially installed in his studio. An architectonic element that is transparent while also reflecting and diffracting light, the work is present and absent, visible and invisible at once—and it is this very paradox that poses a precise and fundamental challenge to our habits of perception. Irwin's works are not so much immaterial as rather surfaces that reflect this phenomenological immateriality into their surroundings or absorb it.
Robert Irwin, born 1928 in Long Beach, California, lives and works in San Diego, California.
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