Home ANS Feature Less is More: Robert Irwin’s From Dawn To Dusk

Less is More: Robert Irwin’s From Dawn To Dusk

by Brian Nixon

2019 Alex Marks, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation: https://www.chinati.org/

Marfa, Texas (ANS)—California artist, Robert Irwin’s (b. 1928), monumental work Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 is a permanent installation housed on the grounds of a former military base in the west Texas town of Marfa.  Using the exact footprint of a former hospital, Irwin recreated the space to generate artwork of sublime simplicity. To go into too much detail about the artwork’s appearance would do it injustice; one has to experience it to understand its full effect.  But for the sake of those unable to get to the Chinati Foundation—where the artwork resides, a short word will suffice.

Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016

Photo–Mark Mahaney for WSJ. Magazine: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-artists-artist-robert-irwin-continues-to-create-and-inspire-1451572502

 Using see-through scrim as walls, Irwin follows the contours of the building (shaped like a square horseshoe) to interact with light emanating from windows transmitting the Texas sun.  On one side of the building black scrim inhabits the space; on the other side of the building white scrim dwells.  In between the dark and light portions of the building are door-like portals allowing the passage from one area to the other—light to dark, or dark to light, creating an ethereal, heavenly feel.  Depending on the time of day one visits, light will penetrate the windows and scrim, providing differing shapes and light-centric ambiance in the halls. Outside the building, Irwin created a landscape garden, an artwork of monolith stones.  The contrast between the airy-light ambiance found inside the building and the hard, rock art outside is an association of divergent comparisons.

Like other Light and Space artists (such as James Turrell), one needs to interact with—usually very slowly—the artwork in order to appreciate its nuances and striking effect.  As mentioned, attendance at Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 is needed to fully invest in the experience.

So why tell you about it?

Metaphor For the Christian Life

2019 Alex Marks, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation: https://www.chinati.org/

The answer is that I found in Irwin’s work a metaphor for the Christian life, discovering the ever-used phrase—less is more—accurately sums up the comparison between Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 and Christ.

The metaphor reminds me of a book by a Mennonite author—Living More With Less.  In the book, Doris Longacre gives insight into “a pattern for living” that encourages a lifestyle of simplicity.  Her book is similar to a phrase I heard in other circles, “Live simply so others may simply live,” a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. In a way, Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 demonstrates how an artwork can live more with less, providing a pattern for life and art.

Put another way, Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 is an artistic description of less is more, where simple materials and design lead to profound thought and experience, offering more in the area of reflection and contemplation and less in the areas of ornate physicality. The general metaphor that Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 provided for me is: the less we pursue things, the more time we have to pursue God  and the nature of being.  To this end, with Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 one finds core values of simplicity, solace, and sophistication.


2019 Alex Marks, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation: https://www.chinati.org/

Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016, though simple in form (strait lines, walls, minimal color, and light), is elegant and weighty, engendering thought and encouragement to slow down.  As one wanders the halls, light, subdued color, and silence stands is contrast to the world outside, including the jagged monolith rocks in the garden.  Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 is a sanctuary of sorts, a place to be still.  As I strolled through the building with other people, we treated it as a library or church; quiet reflection and unobtrusive whispers. Through Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016’s simplicity, deeper contemplation is encouraged, finding that design doesn’t need lots of objects—stuff— to be beautiful and meaningful.  The simplicity of light, shape, and elegant intention is enough to illicit profound purpose.


2019 Alex Marks, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation: https://www.chinati.org/

Another thing I found enlightening is that Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 stands on the footprint of an old military hospital, as noted above.  And though I don’t know if Irwin yearned for it to be a commentary on war and strife, using the imprint of a hospital—a place of healing and care—as the foundation of the work is telling.  Art can be healing, succor, a place where one finds salve for the wounds of life; much like a person coming to Christ.  Jesus put it this way, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 provides consolation, a place to think in quiet reflection, irradiated by beauty and the goodness of the space, finding healing for the heart and mind; solace for the soul, a place of rest.


2019 Alex Marks, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation: https://www.chinati.org/

Though simple on the inside, Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 is sophisticatedThere is a depth of thought to the work.  As books—and many articles—attest, Robert Irwin spent years working on the installation. There is deep consideration to his art, affording Irwin the ability to “design our experience,” finding “beauty in the benign,” offering a sense of simple existence, the unassuming act of being. In a similar way, so, too, with Christ.  The simplicity of Christ—come to him and let Him heal you—is the door that opens to immense wisdom and insight about life and human nature. The simplicity—of both Christ and Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016—leads to solace and then profound sophistication; they are entwined, one aspect leads to the other; and then conversely: sophistication can lead to solace and simplicity; a conjoining of strands.

Tri-Unity of Integration

It’s a tri-unity of integration—simplicity, solace, and sophistication that affords Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 the ability to convey intimacy with a grand vision; as is, with Christ.  Simplicity leads to solace and sophistication—wisdom and understanding, the preeminence of living in a moment of presence within a space. Sometimes less is more, and Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016, shows us how to live—appreciate and assimilate—more with less.

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