CineMarfa co-directors to premiere Robert Irwin documentary next week at DOC NYC Festival 

Contemporary American artist Robert Irwin inside his installation untitled (dawn to dusk) on the Chinati Foundation grounds. A new biographical documentary on the artist titled, Robert Irwin: A Desert of Pure Feeling, involved many Marfa residents and will premiere next week at the DOC NYC Festival. The film will be screened locally this spring. Film still courtesy of Director Jennifer Lane.

MARFA — Robert Irwin: A Desert of Pure Feeling, a documentary eight years in the making chronicling the life and work of contemporary American artist Robert Irwin, directed by CineMarfa’s Jennifer Lane, will premiere at the DOC NYC Festival next week on November 12. 

The co-directors of CineMarfa, Lane and David Hollander, are the film’s director and producer, respectively. CineMarfa, a film festival focusing on artist-made films which originally started in 2011, has been on hiatus for a few years due to the pandemic, but the organization plans to put on a full festival in spring 2023 which will include a screening of the Irwin documentary. 

The film contains sequences of the 2016 installation of Irwin’s untitled (dawn to dusk) at the Chinati Foundation, and many Marfa residents were involved in the making of the documentary, including producer and cinematographer Joseph Cashiola and executive directors Nancy P. Sanders and Carolyn Pfeiffer. 

Lane said after many years working on the film, the finished documentary was well received by Irwin and his team, and she is elated to be able to release it soon for public viewing. “We’re excited to finally have it done. We’re thrilled that Irwin got to see it. [We’re] just really grateful for everyone in Marfa who helped us when we were shooting there and our team,” said Lane. 

The journey of piecing together the full-length film initially began as a project to document the construction of Irwin’s large scale work, untitled (dawn to dusk), on the Chinati grounds. But upon discovering more about Irwin’s rich life and work history, and heeding a recommendation from Arne Glimcher of PACE Gallery, which represents Irwin, Lane decided to expand the film to be a fully-fleshed out biography of Irwin, who is now 94 years old. 

“That’s when we decided to expand and incorporate the Marfa footage into a larger biography of Irwin and all of his stages and phases,” said Lane. 

The film documents Irwin’s life in chronological order, touching on his early life growing up in Long Beach, California, his education as an artist, his fondness for horse-track racing and betting, and pivotal moments in his career, including the creation of his 1970s installation of Scrim veil—Black rectangle—Natural light at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The film ends with the Marfa project and artfully details the artist’s visit to a quarry in rural Oregon to select basalt, his on-site conversations with Director Emeritus Marianne Stockebrand and his meditations on the Marfa sky and West Texas landscape. 

Lane dug into preexisting archival materials, including the Robert Irwin papers at the Getty Research Institute, oral histories collected by author Lawrence Weschler drawn from the UCLA Center for Oral History, and old footage as sources for the film. A number of interviews, including two with the artist himself, and many more with art critics and personal acquaintances, shed light on the artists’ practice and legacy. 

Irwin’s thoughts on the artistic process and his continual questioning of the roles of form, space, light and architecture — many of the key elements in his work — round out the comprehensive look at the artist’s life. The artist is well-known for his site-specific, temporal exhibitions which challenge one’s perceptions of what an artwork constitutes and stir varying reactions from viewers. Lane said she was inspired by the depth of his ideas and sought to present them dynamically. 

“You don’t necessarily get the whole story from just experiencing his work,” said Lane. “There are these two vectors, which is his project of thinking and philosophizing, and then there’s the physical artworks that he makes. His thoughts, his ideas, his way of looking at the world intrigued me enough to keep going deeper into it and crafting a story.” 

In perusing the archives, Lane made a fortuitous discovery that helped guide her approach to the film —  Irwin had, in fact, answered the question, “If we were going to make a movie about your life what would it look like?”

“Irwin says, ‘Well, it would have to be the whole thing. Everything would be in there. You’d have to show how one thing led to another led to another,’ so I kind of took my cue from that,” said Lane. 

Director of the new documentary Robert Irwin: A Desert of Pure Feeling, Jennifer Lane on site filming in Marfa. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lane.

While Irwin is celebrated as a happy-go-lucky, all-American guy, Lane began empathizing with him through his vulnerability and willingness to open up about his struggles while she was sifting through archival material. In one candid scene, Irwin diverts from giving an art lecture to students to discuss how he feels disconnected from his peers and friends. 

“Every great artist really, most of them, have an equally well-crafted persona to go along with their art and Irwin is no exception,” said Lane. “I think it’s just very real and not bound up in ego. I think the questions that he’s asking are for everyone, not just for himself, and that’s why I think it’s important.”  

Lane noted that Irwin had made the difficult, yet brave, mid-career decision to stop making abstract paintings, which had garnered him success, in order to dive into the unknown territory of site-specific installations. 

“That’s a really big thing for an artist to go out there like that, to go away from something that is wanted into something that you don’t know if it’s wanted. That’s what impressed me: his willingness and his ability to change,” said Lane. 

The story is driven by Irwin’s own powerful quotes and is coupled with footage of his permanent installations, including Varese Portal Room, part of the Panza collection in Italy, Nine Spaces Nine Trees in Seattle, Light and Space III at Newfields, Indianapolis Museum of Art, and DIA Beacon in New York, where he assisted in the design of the facilities. 

Hollander, who has a background in filming art installations, shot most of the artwork using a system which allowed the camera to move through the installations similar to how a person would walk through a space. Cinematographers also utilized drone perspectives to show people an aspect of Irwin’s work they don’t typically get to see. Irwin himself strives to see more, to see things as a whole, and is interested in exploring aerial views, said Lane. 

“We came up with a system for supporting a moving camera so that we could move through these pieces as you would move through them as a person, moving your body through it, so that we weren’t just looking at it with a static camera eye,” said Lane. “I think that really brought it up to the level where you feel like you’re there.” 

“I really also tried to have the form mimic the content to some extent so that by the time you’re at the end, you’ve been talking about these immersive artworks, but by the time we’re in Marfa, we’re actually experiencing it as an immersive artwork,” she added of the film’s arch. 

A lot of thought and care also went into selecting the music for the film, which Lane said she used to emphasize feelings and cues. Lane’s vision for the soundtrack primarily consists of classical minimalism and features piano music by artist Roedelius, among others. 

For Lane, who also works in experimental film, the first time directing a full-length feature documentary was at times a daunting, unfamiliar task, but Irwin acted as her guiding light and his tenets helped inform her throughout the process, she said. 

“I really tried to hang on to that idea of trusting my sensibility and knowing that I had the vision of what the film was going to be in my head. As difficult as it was to execute it, it was Irwin that gave me that faith in myself,” said Lane.