By Gregory Crofton
This film about little-known modern artist Robert Irwin is filled with his philosophical truths and beautiful works of art. It is a wonderful, delicately assembled doc, which took director Jennifer Lane eight years to make.
Irwin is a deep thinker and an unconventional one, best known for being part of the Light and Space art movement of the 1960s. Lane’s film is packed with shots of Irwin’s ‘dot’ and ‘line’ paintings, his seemingly empty “soft wall” gallery room, and a variety of sunlight-driven architecture projects.
Irwin, who died this month at 95, was the first artist to receive the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. But it took him decades to find commercial success. In fact, he never went looking for it.
Born in 1928, Irwin says he started out like anybody else, stumbling around not knowing what he wanted to do. High school hardly registered with him. Growing up in Southern California he was focused on girls, building his own car, and competitive ballroom dancing. He learned practicing with the doorknob in his bedroom.
Within a few years he went overseas for the military, not an uncommon thing in those days. Afterward he found himself in art school because it seemed to be a natural fit. But he left school before graduating. He studied art on his own at USC during the summer. There he studied the history of art, but only in pictures. At this point in his life he was not a reader.
By 1961, Irwin was part of a movement brewing at the Ferus Gallery, a hot spot in Los Angeles that helped bring modern art from Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol and many others to the broader public.
And he began to teach at the Chouinard Art Institute. He was not your typical teacher. He encouraged artists to develop their own voice and he did this by talking to them in depth about their work. At one point, he was a mentor to the performance artist Chris Burden.
“I never had a class with Bob but he always showed up and roamed around and talked to students,” says Terry Allen, an artist and musician. “He would sit down with you and talk about your paintings, and always had a suntan. He was always like kind of in-your-face talking. I’m mean he’s an epic bullshitter.”
But Irwin could back up the bullshit. He often chose a very difficult path, one others wouldn’t consider. For example, once his paintings and disc (pictured below) gained wider attention, he refused to let magazines photograph the works. He wanted people to experience the art for themselves.
Soon Irwin became frustrated with the art world, and he backed out of it completely. He now understood galleries and their displayed works of art as being insufficient endeavors which pointed him toward the possibilities of working with light and space.
First Irwin went back to the library. This time he read philosophy, and would talk to his contemporaries about what he read, sometimes for several days. Other times he read and wrote down his thoughts in notebooks. Through this process, he began to figure out the kind of art he wanted to make.
“Art is simply the game of inquiry,” Irwin says in the film. “It asks about the nature of aesthetics in the world, which exists everywhere and all the time. What art is really, and originally, is ‘What is the potential of this aesthetic interaction?'”
When Irwin wasn’t able to sell art to earn a living, he gambled on horses and would go to the racetrack often. He lived in Las Vegas for a few years, probably because of its access to gambling, but also because he loved its light, sky and beautiful sunsets.
Light, space and how those two things work with the natural world would become his real paintbox. It’s how he ended up working for 15 years on a project in Marfa, Texas, an area known for its beautiful sky, its art community, and Chinati, a series of large installations led by Donald Judd.
And around this time, really the second half of his career, Irwin designed a garden for the Getty Center, an art museum in Los Angeles. The result is mesmerizing and includes a circular walkway with trees and flowers along it, and a stream that flows to a central pool.
After I watched “A Desert of Pure Feeling” for a second time, I searched online for other videos on Irwin. I found this seven-minute clip. It helped me quickly understand the impact he’s had on the art world. He “broke the frame.” so to speak.
But the clip doesn’t tap the philosophy that provides the foundation for Irwin’s work. His years of exploration, where he pushed harder and went farther than others ever would, have allowed him to arrive at astonishing conclusions. Here’s one: “I don’t really think that revolutions cause change. Change causes revolutions.”
“Robert Irwin: A Desert of Pure Feeling” is powerful because it is able to distill Irwin’s wide-ranging personal evolution as an artist and present it alongside many of his momentous works of art. The combination of the two makes this film hum.
Listen to Irwin:
“One of the things that art essentially does is that it puts you into a position to have to actually actively participate in the perception of the world, of paying attention to it, and when you do that in a sense you put a value on it.
“I feel, therefore I think, therefore I am. The role of the artist is in that initial phase in which we process the world through our sentient being. When we succeed at the highest level what we have is beauty, so you have to put beauty as being equal to truth.”
“Robert Irwin: A Desert of Pure Feeling” was released Oct. 20 and is available in theaters, on Amazon and Apple TV. You can find more about the doc at Greenwich Entertainment.