ROBERT F. IRWIN / 40 YEARS
A Review by Marvin Malecha, FAIA
Dean, NC State University College of Design
The journey of a creative individual is best reflected in the evolution of the work that is produced. An ancient American Indian proverb characterizes this search by reminding us that we are not human beings on a spiritual journey, rather spiritual beings on a human journey. There comes a point on this journey when we are called to pause and reflect. Robert Irwin has done just this in his book considering a 40-year path of self discovery. He presents for the reader parallel paths of personal evolution and maturation, the relationship with influential teachers and mentors, the acquisition of skills, and the reflected work of each period of his life.
By sharing his journey Robert Irwin demonstrates the production of his art is anything but a solitary experience. Through his work the reader meets his family, his teachers, colleagues and even his students from the State of North Carolina Central Prison. The reader is engaged as he confronts his demons and celebrates with him as he experiences success. As the text progresses and the work evolves, the advice of the American Architect Louis Sullivan comes to mind, "accumulate abundantly and then give of yourself abundantly." Each experience as a painter, photographer, furniture maker, sculptor, museum designer and photographer adds to his work and enhances his insight into his art.
Perhaps the most touching aspect of this book, besides the striking paintings, is the deep affection Mr. Irwin demonstrates for his teachers. It is an affection born under the fire of intense criticism on the one hand and caring engagement on the other. In short, it is the fundamental characteristic of life at the North Carolina State University College of Design even today. The friction of intensely creative people with exceptional intellectual skills has within it the ability to strike fire from the flint of people's minds. Mr. Irwin describes this interaction as a merging of the right and left sides of the brain. This sensitivity to brain function derives from the struggle with learning disabilities that caused his intellectual drifting and eventual philosophical evolution. What begins as a severe handicap evolves into strength for it opens to him the possibility at seeing the world in creative ways. A humorous incident described in the book tells of a moment when he self consciously admits to friends that he suffers
from A.D.D. only to be told by his artist friends, "We're all A.D.D. you fool." What is clear is that the book chronicles a life of seeing the world differently.
Mr. Irwin asserts that each painting, each project in life, is a portal to the next. This book successfully communicates that the most fascinating aspect of an artist's life is a state of continual transformation.
If the purchaser of this book is only inclined to look at pictures, it is still worth the investment. While heaping praise on others throughout the book, Robert Irwin has also evolved a way of seeing that is fresh and startlingly vibrant. Clearly, his eye has become capable of seeing the passions of life. This is a story replete with the images that tell of its richness without the accompaniment of words.