For the past two decades, Robert Irwin’s installation in the Texas town of Marfa has been something of a distant possibility, a long-rumored project commissioned by the Chinati Foundation, and focused around the dilapidated grounds of the former Fort D.A. Russell hospital where the organization makes its home. Now complete, the massive installation work, Irwin’s only permanent, free-standing composition, has transformed the space into a placid marker of time, a place where meticulous architectural geometries make masterful use of the West Texas sun and landscape in a prime example of Irwin’s unique sculptural vocabulary.
Located in the heart of the Marfa desert, the Chinati Foundation has already built an unimpeachable archive of works exploring intersections of construction, space and time, fundamental elements of Donald Judd’s practice, particularly in response to the dazzling light and empty planes of the Texas earth. Exuding a composed stillness, these vistas sit at the core of his later work, and long served as an inspiration not only in his pieces, but in those of his collaborators, colleagues and friends, among them Irwin’s own pieces, which translated a similar approach to space through the lens of 1960’s Los Angeles and beyond.
At Marfa, his piece invites each of Irwin’s distinct material and environmental interests into one of his most complex spatial configurations yet attempted: the long, narrow hallways of the hospital building are divided by white and black scrim, a frequently used material in his practice, and opposed by a running series of carefully space, resized windows. Expanded beyond their original scale, the openings in the building’s brickwork cut light into loose panels or wide panes against the scrim itself, tracing slowly moving lines across it, which in turn varies in opacity based on the direction or intensity of the light passing through the building.
No element is wasted in Irwin’s piece, with windows, scrims, ceilings and walls all serving to amplify or attenuate the intensity and spacing of light as it gleams across the desert landscape. In some areas, one can peer directly through the building, seeing the hills and planes of the town and its surroundings recast in carefully organized frames. Elsewhere, the opaque scrims turn the space into a hall of mirrors, as beams of light converge or intersect on various portions of the room.
It’s a powerful convergence of forms that Irwin operates here, with each element not only serving to invite conversations between interior and exterior, but equally serving his clean-cut, geometric tastes on their own compositional level. In certain light conditions, the room fades into a deep shadow, showing the converging lines of each window set in opposition to the rectangular door frames and hard lines of the scrim. It’s a perfect unison of so much of the artist’s work, where the conditions of their installation are designed not only to facilitate a broader understanding of the world around the object, but equally to push a certain attention to architectural space itself, and the subtle imperatives these structures place upon the viewer’s attention. The building is both a marker of time and Irwin’s experience with it at equal measure, a place where the artist’s hand makes the passage of light and the movement of time and space readily apparent.
Considering Irwin’s work over the course of his career, this seamless convergence of so many of his theoretical and material interests seems a perfect addition to the Chinati Foundation’s already canonical collection of artists working in this conceptual landscape, and a fitting continuation of Donald Judd’s vision for the Texas desert itself.
— D. Creahan