Robert Irwin to create a major installation in Marfa, Texas

Robert Irwin in 1998, photographed in the Getty Center garden that he designed.
Robert Irwin in 1998, photographed in the Getty Center garden that he designed.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

American installation artist Robert Irwin will create a major piece for the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, the foundation announced on Thursday.

The project has been in the works for 13 years, Irwin said.

“I’m not going to count my chickens before they hatch,” he joked. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

He’ll have to wait a couple of years until then. Construction on the installation will begin next year and isn’t slated to be completed until 2016. It will be the first considerable addition to the museum’s permanent collection since 2004, when the museum opened a gallery dedicated to the work of John Wesley, a painter who Chinati founder Donald Judd also greatly admired.


Opened in 1986, the Chinati Foundation sits on 340 acres that used to be Army barracks. The museum will turn over to Irwin the building that had housed the barracks’ hospital.

Irwin said the building has essentially fallen down and will have to be rebuilt. That’s what will take the longest amount of time. Irwin’s part, he said, will only take a few weeks.

He initially was against an indoor installation because the quality of the sky in Marfa is unlike anywhere else, he said.

Still, the sky will play the biggest role in his installation, which will be about 10,000 square feet and U-shaped, dividing the building into two parts, one light and one dark.

“The windows will gradate, one side will start all white and become gray,” Irwin said. “The other side will do the opposite. The lights are the show.”

This isn’t surprising considering Irwin, 86, is one of the country’s best known Light and Space artists, whose 1960s movement challenged traditional visual perceptions using materials both concrete and ephemeral, with an emphasis on natural elements.


The installation at Chinati will be the first freestanding structure designed by Irwin that is devoted solely to his work. It has been made possible by a $1 million gift to the foundation by patrons Vernon and Amy Faulconer of Dallas. Half of the gift will support Irwin’s project, and the remaining money will support the museum itself.

Marfa is a fitting place for Irwin’s latest installation. He remembers driving through it in the 1950s and running into the artist Judd, who eventually moved from New York to Marfa in 1971. Judd’s investment in Marfa, and the opening of his museum, eventually contributed to the tiny town becoming world famous as a center for minimalist art.

“It was an amazing coincidence,” recalls Irwin of his midcentury encounter with Judd. “You have to go through Marfa if you want to get to Big Bend. It’s in the middle of nowhere, but there’s something enchanting about it.”

Twitter: @jessicagelt