Robert Irwin: A Life of Light and Space

Remembering Robert Irwin
Remembering Robert Irwin

Table of Contents

Robert Irwin passed away on October 25th at the age of 95.

Irwin is widely considered the originator of the California Light and Space movement, which rejected the traditional practice of making objects. Instead, Irwin and his fellow Light and Space artists focused on creating experiences that engaged the viewer’s senses and perception.

“Even though we didn’t have enough evidence, we were completely confident that we were on the right track and everyone else was full of shit, you know.”

Robert Irwin

The Cool School – Official Trailer

Ferus Gallery and The Cool School

Irwin’s first solo exhibition was in 1959 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Ferus Gallery was the contemporary art hub in Los Angeles from the late-1950s through the mid-1960s.

It was also home to a group of artists who departed from gestural and abstract expressionism painting on the West Coast, who became known as “The Cool School.” Several art movements began or were fostered here, including the Light and Space Movement.

The term “The Cool School” was coined by Artforum’s managing editor, Philip Leider, in his 1964 essay “The Cool School.” At the time, Artforum’s offices were above Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.

“A hatred of the superfluous, a drive toward compression, a precision of execution which extends to the production of any trifle, an impeccability of surface, and, still in reaction, a new distance between artist and work of art, between artist and viewer, achieved by jocularity, parody, the inclusion of irreverent touches and symbols, or, above all, by the precise, enclosed nature of the work of art itself: where an Abstract Expressionist canvas begs to be touched, a construction of Larry Bell’s, for example, cries: “Hands Off!”

Philip Leider

Ferus closed in 1967 when Irving Blum, the gallery’s curator and partial partner, left to open Ferus/Pace with Arne Glimcher, owner of New York’s Pace Gallery. Ferus/Pace was open for two years.

“Ferus stands as a symbol of the transition of Los Angeles from provincial center to what it is today–an internationally recognized center for the arts,” said Henry Hopkins, former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and what is now the UCLA Hammer Museum in The Los Angeles Times in 2002.

Irwin first exhibited with Pace in 1966, presenting his dot paintings at the gallery’s first gallery in New York at West 57th Street. He remained good friends with Arne Glimcher, Founder of the Pace Gallery, and had over twenty solo shows with the gallery.

“In my long career, I have been privileged to work with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century and develop deep friendships with them, but none greater or closer than Robert Irwin. In our 57-year relationship, his art and philosophy have extended my perception, shaped my taste, and made me realize what art could be.”

Arne Glimcher, Founder of the Pace Gallery
The ferus gallery artist in 1962. (left to right: john altoon, craig kauffman, allen lynch, ed kienholz, ed moses, robert irwin, and billy al bengston. ) photo by patricia faure.
The Ferus Gallery Artist in 1962. (Left to right: John Altoon, Craig Kauffman, Allen Lynch, Ed Kienholz, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, and Billy Al Bengston.) Photo by Patricia Faure.

Robert Irwin

Irwin began as a painter, and he would later leave the art world for a decade to pursue philosophy, dialogue, and experimentation.

He later founded the California Light and Space movement, which explored abstract human perception through multi-sensorial experiences. Influenced by Southern California’s unique light and landscape, 

Irwin’s profound artistic inventions that used light and space as critical materials cultivated his reputation as a visionary figure at the vanguard of experiential art.

While exploring the nature of materials, light, and perception, Irwin made his living as a gambler and professor. He taught at The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Chouinard Art Institute. His students included Ed Ruscha, Chris Burden, and Vija Celmins.

His contemporaries in the California Light and Space movement include James Turrell, Helen Pashgian, and Larry Bell, who explored the relationship between light, space, and perception through optical illusions, immersive environments, and ephemeral materials.

“It’s about the exploration. It’s about the encounter. It’s about the journey into that work. So it’s a different experience, but it’s all about the experience.”

Helen Pashgian

The movement had a significant impact on the development of contemporary art, and its influence can be seen in the work of artists working today.

Irwin’s installations transform our experience of being in the world using the simplest of materials in an art world dominated by spectacle. His unconventional and often ephemeral projects defy categorization and commodification; “catching lightning in a bottle” was the artist’s favorite metaphor for describing his work.

Irwin’s career was defined by radical gestures investigating the value of human sensory experience in a world that is increasingly mechanized, from his early experiments with biofeedback to his experiential installation in Marfa, Texas.

What is the Light & Space Movement? By Artbound, KCET

Robert Irwin’s Work Currently on View in London

‘Robert Irwin and Mary Corse: Parallax’ is currently on view at Pace Gallery in London. The exhibition brings together two Southern Californian artists who explore abstract human perception in their work.

The exhibition includes work from Irwin’s most recent series, Unlight, which consists of light-based installations that explore the relationship between light and space. Corse’s ‘White Inner Band’ paintings in the exhibition take a more painterly approach to changing the viewer’s interaction with light using reflective paint.

You can read more about the exhibition in the article ‘5 Shows to See During Frieze London.’

Robert Irwin + Mary Corse’s “Parallax” at Pace | Oct 10 – Nov 11 | 5 Hanover Square in Mayfair, London, UK

London Art Gallery Map

The map is marked for easier planning. Art fairs have yellow pins. Galleries and museums are blue pins with numbers.

Zoom into London, England, and pan over to the north side of the city center to find the Mayfair neighborhood. It is north of Buckingham Palace and east of Hyde Park.

Pace Gallery is on Hanover Park, which is on the east side of Mayfair and close to Soho.

Art Galleries & Spaces in the United Kingdom

50 Golborne
Addis Fine Art London
Aleph Contemporary Ltd
Alison Jacques Gallery
Almine Rech – London
Amanda Wilkinson Gallery
Anima Mundi
Annely Juda Fine Art
Atlas Gallery
Bartha Contemporary
Ben Brown Fine Arts
bo.lee gallery
Cardi Gallery
Carl Freedman Gallery
Carlos Ishikawa
Collective Ending HQ
Cooke Latham Gallery
Cristea Roberts Gallery
Cromwell Place
Cynthia Corbett Gallery
David Hill Gallery
David Zwirner
Dellasposa Gallery
Diba Art London
Ed Cross Fine Art
Edel Assanti
Flowers Gallery
FOLD Gallery
Francis Gallery
Frith Street Gallery
Galerie Max Hetzler
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac
Gazelli Art House
Goodman Gallery | London
HackelBury Fine Art Ltd
Hales Gallery
Hamiltons Gallery
Hauser & Wirth Somerset
Hauser & Wirth
Herald St
HOFA Gallery (House of Fine Art)
Ingleby Gallery
Jack Bell Gallery
Jack Shainman Gallery: The School
Janet Rady Fine Art Ltd
JD Malat Gallery
Kate MacGarry
Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery
Large Glass
Lévy Gorvy Dayan – London
Lisson Gallery
Long & Ryle Ltd
Lumitrix ‘The Studio’
Lyndsey Ingram
Massimo De Carlo
Maureen Paley
Mazzoleni Art
Michael Hoppen Gallery
Modern Art – London Bury Street
Modern Art – London Helmet Row
Michael Werner Gallery London
New Art Projects London
Nicoletti Contemporary
Offer Waterman
Pangolin London
Patrick Heide Contemporary Art
Pilar Corrias
Pippy Houldsworth Gallery
Pontone Gallery
PUBLIC Gallery
Rabley Drawing Centre
Repetto Gallery
Rhodes Contemporary Art
Richard Saltoun
Sadie Coles HQ
Skarstedt Gallery
Sid Motion Gallery
Simon Lee Gallery
Southard Reid
Sprueth Magers London
Stephen Friedman Gallery
Sulger-Buel Gallery
TASCHEN Store London
Tate Modern
Taymour Grahne Projects
The Approach Gallery LLP
The Cob Gallery
The Hepworth Wakefield
The Modern Institute
The Paragon Press
The Perimeter
Thomas Dane Gallery
Timothy Taylor
TJ Boulting
Turley Gallery
Union Gallery
Victoria Miro
Vigo Gallery
Waddington Custot
Wren London


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