Artist Robert Irwin’s Architectural Drawings and Models Go on View at Pratt

Robert Irwin: Site Determined, open at the Pratt Institute through November 28th, showcases the artist’s rarely-seen drawings and models.

robert irwin architectural drawings models exhibition
Speaking at the opening of Robert Irwin: Site Determined, artist Agnieszka Kurant said Irwin’s art “is like a lens, something to look through…it’s about the experience [that] turns reality into something else.” Courtesy of Pratt Institute; photo by Daniel Terna

Art and architecture frequently rub against each other—at their heart, they both involve the careful manipulation of materials to shape human feelings and perception. It’s only really the work’s scale (and the need for egress and plumbing) that separates the two, however, sometimes an artist makes a tremendous leap into the architectural area. Such was the case with artist Robert Irwin’s Untitled (dawn to dusk), a ground-up reconstruction of a military hospital in Marfa, Texas that’s filled with screens that subtly play with light, reflection, and depth. Irwin is best known for those kinds of site-specific installations, which he began producing in 1970, but the architectural drawings and models (including those for the Untitled (dawn to dusk)) created for those artworks are infrequently seen. Robert Irwin: Site Determined, now at Pratt but originally on view in Long Beach at the University Art Museum at Long California State University, aims to change that.

It’s no coincidence that Irwin’s drawings and models had been rarely shown: The artist had been reluctant to showcase secondary documents, especially since the site-specific artworks can only be truly experienced in-person. However, art history professor and exhibit curator Matthew Simms managed to convince him otherwise—that it was valuable to show the process (especially for other artists and architects) behind his installations.

The drawings and models themselves will look familiar to any architect: One model of Untitled (dawn to dusk) is a careful study in structure; another presentation diagram for a Miami International Airport art program reveals how Irwin communicated to his clients and commissioners. (The Miami airport plan, which proposed parks, artworks, and other new social spaces for the airport, went unrealized.) The drawings are crisp and colorful—a delight for anyone who fancies the old-school, hand-drawn approach to rendering—though as Irwin initially suspected, the show is probably most effective if the visitor has seen the artworks in question. Drawings certainly do have evocative power, but the real thing is always more potent.

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