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Rarely exhibited environmental artworks, artist evolution on view at California State University, Long Beach
Robert Irwin Drawing for Black on White (Wedge for Pacific Standard Time), c. 2011 color pencil and collage on Mylar Framed: 26 1/2 x 26 3/4 x 1 7/8 inches (67.3 x 67.9 x 4.8 cm) Sight: 18 x 19 inches (45.7 x 48.3 cm) Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Gift of Steven D. McIntee, 2013.109 Photograph: Pablo Mason © 2018 Robert Irwin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

LONG BEACH, CA.- The University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) examines the practice of one of the most significant American artists of the postwar generation in Robert Irwin: Site Determined. This exhibition traces Irwin’s process development as he embraced the ambient environment itself as his medium in his outdoor siteresponsive projects. The exhibition runs from January 29 to April 15, 2018, after which it will travel to the Pratt Institute of Architecture.

Robert Irwin: Site Determined reveals the artist’s process and demonstrates how he used landscape as muse and upheld observer as collaborator. It becomes clear, while viewing the multitude of the artist’s plans, that Irwin sees plays of light and spatial shifts as opportunities for a particular type of discovery, from visual perception, to environmental participation, to situational revelation. The artist establishes a new space for interaction-driven creative insight. With reverence for the outdoor environment comes a new way of art making—one that is intimate and full of affect. The story of Irwin’s growth is accompanied by the journey of the viewer, as they come to understand how their perception plays a role in art appreciation—an appreciation that contributes to a collective sense of place. Robert Irwin: Site Determined allows the viewer to stand alongside Irwin in these aesthetic inquiries, to recognize their body in space and realize the profundity of their own dynamic interactions with environment around them.

The first permanent siteresponsive work by Irwin, Window Wall (1975), is located on the CSULB campus—a newsworthy highlight of a site set within the city of the artist’s birth. The artwork, which is being conserved in association with the exhibition, was created in response to an invitation from the founding director of the University Art Museum, Connie Glenn, and her museum studies students. The museum will document the phases of the conservation process. Exhibition visitors will also be encouraged to take the short ten-minute walk from the museum to the conserved sculpture to enhance their experience through an encounter with this seminal site-responsive project.

Robert Irwin: Site Determined begins with his 1975 drawing for Window Wall, in the moment when Irwin “broke the frame,” turning the ambient environment itself into his medium. The exhibition traces his continued site-responsive experimentation over several decades, examining the development of projects now beloved, such as the Getty Central Garden and Untitled (dusk to dawn) in Marfa, Texas, as well as projects that were never actualized. Unrealized projects, like the Arts Enrichment Master Plan for the Miami International Airport, are unknown to the public, and these drawings and models are the only way someone can experience them. The artist writes that site determined art, “draws all of its cues (reasons for being) from its surroundings. This requires the process to begin with an intimate, hands-on reading of the site.” “A quiet distillation of all of this,” he adds, “determines all the facets of the ‘sculptural response.’” In this way, the artist relinquishes agency to the environment itself, commits to a conditional practice, and becomes a leading voice in contemporary art.

Robert Irwin: Site Determined invites the visitor to witness Irwin’s thinking as he developed unique responses to different sites. Almost all the drawings and architectural models of projects dating from 1975 to 1982 are in the context of university campuses, where foot traffic would energize the works. The figure above shows his drawing for Two Running Violent V Forms, with its initial pink coloring. The project was installed within a wooded area on the campus of UC San Diego. Irwin shifted his color choice and highlighted the natural blues of the site; indigo transparent scrims pulled tautly between seven poles captured the sky within the trees. Here we see the artist’s penchant for reframing the landscape to create a new sense of the environment.

The infinite possible perceptions of the micro and macro create the logical framework for the artist’s ambitious Miami International Airport commission proposal; derived from the tropical South Florida surroundings, the project plans showcase the artist’s sense of aesthetic order, from petal, to stalk, to stream. Although the project was never realized, the care with which creative choices were made is clear in these drawings, in each element snaking from the terminals to the gardens. In the Central Garden of the J. Paul Getty Center, Irwin applied the lessons of the Miami project with spiraling greenery around a walkable labyrinth. Several drawings and an architectural model guide the viewer through the developing conception of Irwin’s monumental, “modern garden,” as he termed it.

Robert Irwin: Site Determined also draws parallels between the artist’s aesthetic evolution and widening conceptions of his practice. The exhibition underscores his exploration of chromatic vibrancy and development as a draughtsman in the planning of his most ambitious projects. The UAM invites the viewer to observe the artist’s increasing creative freedom and expanding artistic range.

The exhibition culminates with twenty drawings and two architectural models for one of Irwin’s most important site-determined works, Untitled (dusk to dawn), completed in 2016 in Marfa, Texas. The project, at one time drawn with bright orange hues, was ultimately built in a monochromic palette upon the ruins of the Fort D.A. Russell hospital building on the campus of the Chinati Foundation. Although he ultimately decided against the use of color as shown here in Marfa Color Plan (2002), Irwin used the lack of roof and windowpanes to his advantage; hanging translucent scrim panels in the black and white hallways, the artist created an illuminated and ephemeral space that mediates between indoor and outdoor. The crawling dance of light and shadow in this acclaimed project creates its own color, when examined closely. The Chinati Foundation building’s art and architecture inspire long, lingering looks, deep reflection by the viewer, and represent a high point in the artist’s esteemed career. The drawings presented in the exhibition lead the viewer through the artist’s process as the project evolved, giving the viewer a rare glimpse into Irwin’s thinking in the development of his masterpieces.

This exhibition is organized by the University Art Museum, CSULB, and is curated by Dr. Matthew Simms, Professor of Art History, CSULB. Simms is editor of Robert Irwin, Notes Toward a Conditional Art (Getty 2011) and author of Robert Irwin: A Conditional Art (Yale 2016).

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