Joseph Huppert’s seen exceptional places where you might commission an artist to make something, in some of the chicest locales: Los Angeles, New York, Paris, London. Clients there seek out his boss, Robert Irwin, who’s earned international renown for decades of artwork.
So Huppert stared at the mushrooms spilling from the ceiling in an abandoned ice factory in North Park earlier this year, repulsed by the dingy, moldy storefront. But when it comes time to create his own artwork, Huppert doesn’t have his run of an atrium at the Getty in L.A. He’s never made art specifically inspired by and conditioned to a particular space before, à la his boss — so who would commission him?
He had to try his ideas somewhere. In this kind of art, the space comes first. So, the ice factory it was.
This juxtaposition is normal life for a young artist testing his wings on the fringes of San Diego’s art scene at night, but spending his days in rarified air. And it’s been Huppert’s reality since befriending Irwin a few years ago.
Their relationship sets a remarkable old-meets-new stage. With a five-decade age gap between them, Huppert and Irwin mark nearly opposite ends of how visual artists make it in San Diego.
Irwin, 81, is famous far outside San Diego. Some recent smaller pieces command well into six figures. Huppert, his assistant for two years, is more or less unknown. Huppert made work and showed it this summer in that once-repulsive storefront, not knowing how many people would show up. The gallery didn’t even have a website until right before the show opened in July.
That the 32-year-old Huppert snagged a job assisting one of San Diego’s most prominent artists is an unlikely coup. Irwin’s at the forefront of “light and space” artists — abstract, contemporary artists placing focus on the way light and space interact. He’s experimented with light bulbs, color, even plants and trees. In local galleries where other artists would kill to be shown, Irwin has dedicated rooms to tinker.
Before Irwin, Huppert’s income was the typical patchwork of a young artist in an expensive city. He arrived in San Diego seven years ago from Phoenix, working at the Levi’s store at the mall and in a café. He worked at the art supply store, and then as a security guard at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
He met Irwin there a few years ago, helping to install a major show about the artist’s career. Huppert had read some of Irwin’s philosophies about human perspective and the importance of seeing and paying attention. Chatting with Irwin, Huppert would sometimes drop into conversation quotes from Irwin’s writings. Huppert would offer to help Irwin: lift a heavy object, climb a ladder, mail a package.
Irwin turned him down a few times. He’d never had an assistant before, and he’d always worked independently — why hire someone now? But Huppert persisted. Irwin finally agreed to the help. Now, Huppert’s working for one of his heroes.
“I love the guy, and it’s easy to talk about him,” Huppert says. “I think he is one of, if not the, greatest living artists, and I’m fortunate enough to spend all day playing with his toys.”
Some of Irwin’s most talked-about works are ICE Gallery in a couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, Huppert’s working with Irwin on this fall’s shows. And for his own work, he’s trying to pay attention to see what his next cue will be.