Of Light and Space : Artist’s Sculpture Is So Tall Campus Has No Site for It


Robert Irwin’s art is good enough for a Museum of Contemporary Art show, but Cal State Northridge keeps it in a basement.

Irwin is looking forward to a major retrospective at the Los Angeles museum next month and then a European tour, a landmark in the career of the maverick Californian who helped found the acclaimed Light and Space movement.

But a piece that Irwin would gladly feature in his exhibit, a 33-foot-high, meticulously polished winged obelisk he built two decades ago, has been packed in cardboard in a basement at Cal State Northridge for seven years because the campus lacks an appropriate place to display it.


This banishment is a source of discomfort for Northridge’s art school dean, Philip Handler.

“People all over the world are doing tributes to him, and here we sit with this important work in boxes,” Handler said. “But when you are talking about a piece 33 feet high with very special needs, it’s not easy to find a place.”

The obelisk is a prism, wrought of nearly transparent acrylic and built so “the light overhead would make light look different at different times of day,” Handler said.

For Irwin, whose exhibit also will appear this year in Cologne, Madrid, Paris and at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the obelisk represents a turning point in a four-decade career.

“It’s a terrific piece that has never seen the light of day, so to speak,” Irwin said. “At the time it was built it was the third-largest optical instrument in the world; technically it’s an incredible feat. . . . All that work that was done, then nothing came of it.”

The column was built to occupy a three-story glass atrium in the home of an art collector, who died before it could be installed. The executors of the collector’s will “couldn’t figure out what the hell to do with it,” Irwin said.

Without its atrium, the obelisk was robbed of the special setting that, in Irwin’s view, rivals the work itself.

The idea was part of his quest to create art without image, to shift attention from an artwork to the viewer’s perception, said Lawrence Weschler, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine who wrote a book about Irwin.

“He wanted (the obelisk) to be this flash of light in the corner of your eye and when you turned you wouldn’t see it,” Weschler said.

The obelisk is typical of the site-specific pieces that made Irwin a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, said Dawn Setzer, spokeswoman for the Museum of Contemporary Art, where Irwin’s retrospective is scheduled to open June 20.

“He expanded the field of inquiry to, not just the object, but the environment around it,” she said. “He was trying to blur the line between the object and its surroundings.”

But 33-foot-high glass atriums are hard to come by.

The obelisk was turned over to the developers of Northridge Fashion Center, where it was installed amid concrete dust and sawdust that scarred its immaculate acrylic surface--a surface Irwin boldly compares to the finely ground face of the telescope mirror at Palomar Observatory.

To the artist’s dismay, mall architects installed expensive lights that played about the sculpture “like a Broadway stage” in a futile attempt to make it reflect colors, said Frank Sebastian, senior vice president of Yarmouth Inc., owner of the mall.

“We never got it functioning,” Sebastian said. “It was just an opaque piece of glass.”

To the designers who renovated the mall in 1985, the obelisk was a white elephant. By then chipped and yellowed with age, the sculpture was donated to the CSUN Foundation, Handler said.

When it acquired the obelisk, the university made plans to install it in an open courtyard in its proposed faculty office building. But when the building was completed, the administration realized that the site would mean exposing the obelisk to potentially damaging heat and it was never installed, university spokeswoman Kaine Thompson said.

Next, plans were made to build a 2,000-seat performing arts center on campus with a glass-covered atrium for the obelisk. But the center is on indefinite hold because of revenue shortfalls. The university has little choice but to keep the obelisk packed, Thompson said.

“It’s not in storage because we don’t value it. It’s in storage because we do value it,” Thompson said. “A 30-foot acrylic sculpture is not easily housed . . . and at this point, we can’t afford to build an atrium specifically for it.”

The sculpture, though exceptional because of its size and the stature of its creator, is by no means alone in the basements of the university. Like many colleges nationwide, Northridge is deluged with donated artworks. Over the years, an estimated 1,500 pieces, ranging from pre-Columbian terra-cotta figures to Kenyan funeral sculptures, have been placed in the hands of the school’s foundation, Handler said.

In recent years, university officials have launched an inventory to figure out exactly what the university has and where it is kept. Trying to prevent the university from becoming a receptacle for homeless artworks, the foundation now carefully reviews donations, Handler said.

The inventory may also serve another purpose: Artworks on display and in storage are estimated to be worth several million dollars, Handler said. And with recent cutbacks in state funding, foundation members have discussed whether some works, including Irwin’s obelisk, might be sold.

In today’s art market, how much the obelisk might command is anybody’s guess, said Janice Vrana, archives director of the Pace Gallery in New York, which has exhibited much of Irwin’s work.

Handler said dealers have suggested prices in the $250,000 range, but the value of the obelisk is complicated by the fact that it would require as much as $50,000 in repairs, Irwin said.

“It’s an understandable thought,” Handler said. “You need money; you sell something. The problem is that the art market is so down now that it doesn’t make sense to sell.”

Faculty President Louise Lewis, an art history professor, said the university should consider parting with the sculpture only if another can be acquired in its place.

“I’m concerned about us losing the opportunity to have a Robert Irwin sculpture,” she said. “Better to keep it in storage than to sell it off.”