How Robert Irwin Transformed The Hirshhorn With Light And Space

The artist’s exhibit design for his own show helps visitors engage more deeply with it.

Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, has been called “a revelation,” “a magical show,” and “simply unexplainable.” Critics have raved over the exhibition’s attention to his early work, the number of pieces included, and the transcendent manipulations of fabric for the original work Irwin created for the Hirshhorn.


That’s all by design–of Irwin himself.

As curator Evelyn Hankins explains, the artist was heavily involved in every step of planning. “When he proposed this design for the layout of the show I thought, ‘oh, we’ve never done that before,'” Hankins says. “He thinks a little bit differently than the rest of us.”

Installation view of Band in Boston, 1962; Bed of Roses (partial), 1962; and Untitled (partial), 1962, in Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2016. Artworks: © 2016 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Cathy Carver.

Irwin is one of the pioneers of the California Light and Space movement, along with James Turrell and Larry Bell. He’s famous for his fascination with perception; given some time, his paintings and installations can change the way you see the world, a quality Hankins was hoping the Hirshhorn show would illuminate.

Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change charts a progression from 1958 to 1970, a period that’s lesser known than his later work, which was entirely conditional and created in response to various environments (making it extraordinarily hard to capture in a retrospective). But the earlier works, including 30 paintings on display at the Hirshhorn, show the artist questioning the tenets of the medium. His “line” paintings challenge the notion that paintings had to represent something, while his “dot” paintings attempted to create art without any marks; the “disk” paintings blur the line between art and environment. The show also highlights his small “hand-held” paintings that were meant to be touched and examined intimately (though, at the Hirshhorn, they’re displayed in a vitrine).

The Hirshhorn’s collections are housed in its round, drum-like building, which was designed by Gordon Bunshaft and opened in 1974. The curvilinear walls and open spaces allow for inventive ways of displaying art–a challenge that Irwin took on by designing his own vision for the exhibition. Hankins took that vision and collaborated with the museum staff to bring it to life.

At the Hirshhorn, Irwin decided that each work should hang alone on a floating wall that is only attached to the ceiling and floor with spacious passageways on each side. By allowing for each art work to have its own “room,” Irwin’s design encourages the kind of contemplation he believed was necessary to connect with his art. Hankins explains that Irwin banned photography of his art for more than 30 years because he was interested in a bodily engagement with the art, which could only be experienced in person.


The floating walls not only highlight each work and provide enough space to have a perceptual experience with the art, they also draw attention to the museum’s circular shape. While most artists Hankins has worked with have some say in how their art is displayed, Irwin’s design, she said, was exceptional. “It reflects his conditional practice–the idea that he works in response to the given circumstances of a site,” Hankins says. “The installation of the entire show becomes a commentary on the architecture.” Irwin’s design emphasized the structural bones of the building, while its spareness highlighted the architecture’s grand, light-filled curves.

In fact, the final work in the exhibition was created specifically in response to the building’s circular shape. Called Square the Circle, the installation is composed of 125 feet of scrim, a semi-transparent gauze-like fabric, that’s been strategically hung on one wall to create the illusion of straightening its curve, according to Holland Cotter in The New York Times. “As you walk around it and take it in from different angles, you can get lost in the experience,” The Washington Post‘s reviewer wrote. “It’s surprisingly captivating for something so simple and subtle, and it can leave you awestruck and a bit disoriented.”

Hankins says that she overheard someone in the gallery say to their companion, “it’s not what the work is, it’s what the work does to you.” She thinks that’s the right way to approach Irwin’s work in general. “The whole idea is to see yourself see, to become aware of your perceptual processes,” Hankins says. “And maybe when you go outside [the world’s] a little bit different.”

Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change closes September 5.


About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable