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A flowering of activity for Robert Irwin, 81

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No one seems more tickled than Robert Irwin himself by where the artist, at 81, has landed. "It's fairly humorous," he says with a smile. Whatever the unsavory circumstances, "I come up smelling like a rose. I like what I'm doing."

In his customary jeans and baseball cap, he sits among his newly installed work at Quint Contemporary Art in La Jolla, not exactly smug but clearly satisfied. This is his first commercial gallery show in California in 30 years, the result of several significant shifts in his working process. He resisted every one of them, but each ended up delivering unexpected opportunities. They've left him chuckling -- surprised and grateful.

His new fluorescent tube sculptures relate to other work he's made over the decades, but they sprang most directly out of an extensive exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's two newly built downtown locations in 2007-08. Director Hugh Davies organized the show, which traced Irwin's evolution from Abstract Expressionist painter to creator of room-sized environments defined by light, space and color.

The exhibition turned out to be a catalyst for Irwin. "For a lot of artists, having a retrospective kind of freezes them," Davies says. "With Bob it had the opposite effect. It really energized him."

"I resisted the hell out of it," Irwin recalls. "I said, 'Man, I don't need that now.' It's too much work, and I have no idea what to do with all that space at this point. It turned out to be a hell of a good show."

Irwin created five new installations for the exhibition "Primaries and Secondaries." Davies invited Irwin to be the first to use the museum's on-site residency studio to prepare for the show, but he dismissed the idea.

Born and schooled in L.A., Irwin had given up his Venice studio in 1970, when he shifted from making discrete objects to staging experiences determined by the conditions of their sites. Since 1990, he has lived in San Diego with his wife and teenage daughter, using an extra bedroom as an informal workspace.

"I hadn't had a studio in 35 years," Irwin recalls. "What do I need a studio for? But finally I started playing around in there," exploring the possibilities of mounting fluorescent fixtures in a fragmented, diagonal grid pattern. His sculptural sketches culminated in one of the show's visceral high points, "Light and Space," a syncopated spread of luminous dashes over a 50-foot wall.

The show led immediately to a commission from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where "Light and Space III," combining fluorescent lights and translucent scrim, remains on view. Spending so much time in the San Diego museum, Irwin got to know Joey Huppert, a 31-year-old security supervisor who also helped out with installations. An artist himself, Huppert had read all of Irwin's writings (as densely philosophical as his work is purely experiential).

Shortly after the MCASD exhibition, Irwin hired Huppert as a full-time assistant, his first ever. "I always worked alone, because it was the only way I could focus, but Joey is spectacular," he says.

Having an assistant has extended Irwin's physical and logistical range. For the new work, he has aligned fluorescent tubes of the same length (four, six or eight feet) in vertical groupings on the wall, using as few as three tubes at a time and as many as 33. He orchestrates combinations of the tubes, which are wrapped in colored theatrical gels -- jade, garnet, steel gray, pale blue -- and Huppert switches them in and out. They both stand back and assess each new permutation. Flipping on and off combinations of the lights gives the works elastic personalities: crisp and industrial one second, diaphanous and sensual the next. Cool colors suddenly turn warm and vice versa; opaque forms dematerialize; shadows assume heft.

In continuous dialogue with Huppert, Irwin studies the chromatic relationships, the tonal intervals. He speaks of texture, rhythm, alchemy, wonder and fun.

Irwin first experimented with fluorescent tubes around 1970. He was intrigued with their potential to create ambience but couldn't reconcile that with the way the eye inevitably gravitated toward the fixture itself. Dan Flavin, his friend at the time, had more interest in the elegance of the fluorescent tube form and pursued that brilliantly, according to Irwin, but he wanted to shift attention away from the thing itself to the effect it created. He was on the brink of moving "from matter to energy."

He made an installation using fluorescent tubes for the Berkeley Art Museum in 1979, but it wasn't until a two-part installation for the Dia Center for the Arts in New York (1998-2000) that Irwin harnessed what he considered the full potential of the medium. The complex environment incorporated multiple chambers walled in translucent scrim, fluorescent lights and colored gels on the windows. Visitors roamed through the space as if through pure atmosphere and color.

"Whenever you look at light, basically it's just air," Irwin says. "It has no tactileness to it. It's totally without density. At Dia, I developed that light so that it was toothy at times, it had a real physicality about it, an earthiness."

Irwin continues to work in the downtown museum's residency studio, and during the course of the Quint show -- "Works in Progress" -- he will exchange some pieces for others and vary the illumination patterns of those on display. Work from the series will be shown during the 2010-11 season at Pace Gallery in New York.

Also on the horizon is the possibility that his installation for Dia will be reprised at the organization's space in Beacon, N.Y., a facility that Irwin helped design. A project that Irwin proposed for the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, has been accepted.

Commissions closer to home have also kept Irwin's plate full. He has developed a plan for an outdoor space along the side of a federal courthouse scheduled to be built in San Diego in 2013, a hedge that fuses the botanical and architectural. He is working on the second phase (of four) of a palm garden for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Some of the trees in place now are brilliant specimens, Irwin says, but many are going to take 20 to 50 years to come into their own.

Like his design for the Getty Center Garden, the LACMA plan is a perpetual work in progress. Next year as part of its Pacific Standard Time programs, the Getty will publish Irwin's collected writing, edited by Matthew Simms, a Cal State Long Beach professor.

Davies compares Irwin's "extraordinary flowering of activity" at this stage in his career to that of Matisse. Irwin himself is certainly amused by it, but ultimately it's in keeping with the self-perpetuating nature of his enterprise, each creation doubling as a proposition that demands a response.

"Every time you do something, make something, it's final in a way, but it's not. It immediately raises a great set of questions. And if you become a question addict, which I am, you immediately have something you need to pursue."

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