Where's the Art?



Robert Irwin (b. 1928) is one of the most respected and influential American artists of the postwar era. Irwin began his career in the 1950s as an abstract painter. He gradually abandoned painting, and then closed up his studio entirely, to travel across the United States making what he calls "conditional artworks," which are his responses to the specific physical conditions of a given location. Using common building materials, Irwin creates subtle installations that are intended to heighten our perceptions of the light and space of a site. His art is about helping us to slow down and appreciate a direct, immediate perception of the visual beauty that we encounter in everyday life.

For example, in 1979, the U.S. General Services Administration, through its Art in Architecture program, commissioned Irwin to create one of his site-conditioned artworks for the Old Post Office Building, which was then being renovated for offices and retail space.

Irwin faced two primary challenges in creating an impact-filled artwork for the building: the vastness of the interior atrium and the art commission's relatively small budget (less that $50,000). Irwin studied the architecture of the glass-roofed atrium, and how the color, intensity, and direction of natural light filtering from above changed throughout the day.

His solution, completed in 1983, was to suspend a grid of 48 scrim panels from the ceiling of the atrium, using steel cables. Viewed head-on, this grid of panels aligns with the openings of the arcades that run around the perimeter of the atrium. As Irwin recounted during a 2016 visit to Washington: "The building's interior is all windows; my work creates another layer of windows suspended in space." Yet viewed from the side, the scrims nearly disappear. Viewed from an oblique angle, the receding perspective of the suspended grid reveals the scale of the atrium's otherwise empty volume.

The scrims are made of polyurethane fabric, which was manufactured in enormous rolls to be used for industrial filters. Irwin repurposed this utilitarian material to capture the changing effects of light. In the morning, depending on clear or cloudy skies, the light that streams into the atrium can appear yellow, and illuminates the scrims.In the late afternoon, when the sun is no longer overhead, the shadows of the perimeter archways can cast a purple tone over the space, which again is picked up by the scrims.

The reinstallation of 48 Shadow Planes in the Old Post Office Building as it reopens as the Trump International Hotel has coincided with a major retrospective exhibition of Robert Irwin's work at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. This exhibition traces the evolution of Irwin's earliest work from the late 1950s through the 1970s, which culminated in the historically important and influential site-conditioned artwork that is exemplified by 48 Shadow Planes.

Robert Irwin Art Images

Art in Architecture Program

The GSA Art in Architecture Program commissions the nation's leading artists to create large-scale works of art for new federal buildings. These artworks enhance the civic meaning of federal architecture and showcase the vibrancy of American visual arts. Together, the art and architecture of federal buildings create a lasting cultural legacy for the people of the United States. Fulfilling the recommendation of President John F. Kennedy's 1963 Ad Hoc Committee for Federal Architecture that "where appropriate, fine art should be incorporated in the designs of federal buildings with emphasis on the work of living American artists," GSA convenes a panel comprised of art professionals, civic and community representatives, and the project's lead design architect to discuss opportunities for artists to participate in the building project. This panel reviews a diverse pool of artist candidates and nominates finalists for GSA to evaluate. Artists who receive federal commissions work with the project architects and others as members of a design team to ensure that the artworks are meaningfully integrated into the overall project.

Last Reviewed: 2020-09-17