SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Robert Irwin, the artist, unveils a large-scale installation of his work in the West Texas desert today. It's a project that's been in progress in the town of Marfa for almost two decades. From Marfa Public Radio, Tom Michael has a portrait of the 87-year-old artist.
TOM MICHAEL, BYLINE: Robert Irwin's latest biggest work is a U-shaped building that wraps around a central courtyard lined with trees and a sculpture. Today, construction workers are scattered around, hammering and plastering and turning this space into a work of art.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)
MICHAEL: The plain concrete building is sunk deep into the ground. One wing of the building is more open to the natural light and the other filtered to be dark. From inside, it has the effect of drawing your focus out the windows. You can walk through at different times of day and have a different experience of the sky. And that's central to this work and to this high desert town.
ROBERT IRWIN: You have a sky here that is magical. It's not like other skies. Other skies are high up, and you're not conscious of them. But the sky here, the clouds - they come in low over, and they become aware of them.
MICHAEL: That's Robert Irwin. He uses natural light in many of his installations. He compares it to catching lightning in a bottle. Right now, he's experimenting with a light filter on the windows. At this point, he's not working from a plan, but making changes on-site. His work depends on its location.
IRWIN: People keep saying why Marfa? 'Cause something - something's happening here. It's a beautiful place.
MICHAEL: This installation has been commissioned by Marfa-based Chinati Foundation, a mecca for minimalist art. Irwin began working on it 17 years ago. The foundation's director, Jenny Moore, marvels at his process.
JENNY MOORE: It's incredible to me how much he holds in his head and nails, time after time. I mean, for me, he'll describe an experience or things that he's seeing. But he's making determinations in space that when they become actual, I think, God, of course, but he's known it all along.
MICHAEL: It's a gamble. At a cost $5 million, Irwin's project is twice as much as the foundation's annual budget. Marianne Stockebrand is the foundation's first director. She met Irwin in her native Germany and later invited him to do the project.
MARIANNE STOCKEBRAND: Well, as you can see, this is an incredible undertaking for a museum of this scope. Where would you find something similar of this scope dedicated to one artist? That is very, very rare, if they're anywhere.
STOCKEBRAND: And maybe only in Marfa, thanks to the single-mindedness of minimalist artist Donald Judd. Judd took an old military base, recreated it as an art destination and named it the Chinati Foundation after the nearby mountains. He filled it with works from his artist friends, and Robert Irwin was on that list. In the 1970s, Irwin had become restless working in his California studio and began to explore the empty spaces of the American West. Again, Chinati director Jenny Moore.
MOORE: When he left a traditional studio practice and started moving out into the desert and thinking about spatial relationships out in the desert, in one of those trips he just kept driving south. And eventually he drove the entire perimeter of the United States.
IRWIN: I had started at the border in San Diego, and I started going along the border. And I think, God, it's pretty magical on the border, so I kept going.
MICHAEL: He was just following the light. On that epic drive, he stopped to buy a bottle of Coke in Marfa.
IRWIN: By accident, Don Judd was here, and he was looking the town over.
MICHAEL: Both Judd and Irwin were captivated by the blue skies and low clouds of the high desert. And Irwin is capturing that buoyancy with his installation here. This is more than just a building. It's likely a culmination of his career. Also, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., is showing a retrospective of his work. Critic Lawrence Weschler wrote a book about his decades of conversations with Irwin.
LAWRENCE WESCHLER: He is one of the great students of the light, a student and a singer of the light. And that is going to show up in the building, too.
MICHAEL: Weschler once called him one of America's least known major artists, partly because in his early decades, Irwin never allowed people to photograph his work. He wanted you to experience it on location. In other words, you've got to be there to experience the beauty of the light. For NPR News, I'm Tom Michael in Marfa, Texas.
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