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 mounted disks that trick the eye into forgetting the artwork has a boundary or an edge at all. In the 1970s, Irwin gave up studio painting altogether in favor of creating works like two violet fence-like structures he installed in a grove of eucalyptus trees at the University of California, San Diego campus, meant to alter the viewer’s perception in that space.

Sometimes Huppert drives him to L.A. or moves pieces so Irwin can see how they look.

“He says, ‘Put this there, put that there,’” Huppert says, “and I put things there.”


Huppert was reluctant to talk to me about his work. He hates the thought that his first attempts would be validated just by his association to Irwin. He rarely talked about his project with Irwin. He doesn’t have that chip on his shoulder to distance himself from his famous employer. But he wants his art to naturally merit any attention he gets.

Seeing how his famous boss makes art has given Huppert a unique window into an intimidating art form.

The type of work they do can require a tremendous amount of space, and the people to walk through and experience it. That’s hard to come by — especially for a novice like Huppert. But it wasn’t enough to just work on Irwin’s pieces. Huppert craves his own practice.

“I hated the idea of vicarious art-making,” Huppert says. “But I didn’t have the space, and I didn’t have any idea of what to make.”

That’s what eventually sold him on fixing up the North Park ice factory and making something there.

Joseph Huppert – Images by Sam Hodgson For full screen images, click the bottom right corner of the player.

He spent a month stopping by the old boarded-up factory trying to find some cue amid the junk. Huppert found compelling an exposed reddish wooden ceiling, and decided to create work that would highlight it.

He found a carpenter who would build the structure for his idea — an eight-foot by eight-foot by eight-foot cube of wooden boxes with perfect slats between them, mounted to the ceiling. The carpenter said it would cost $2,000 to build.

“I was scared to death,” Huppert says. “Not only is it money, but if he builds it, I have to make it.”

It was a lot of money to invest. He also thought, “Nobody’s going to buy this. I’m probably going to take a sledgehammer to it at the end.”

For the sake of his vision, Huppert agreed to the sum. He drew meticulous plans and scraped fungus out of the ceiling. He tucked stray wires away or cut them entirely. He redid the windows, added molding to the floors.

Huppert wondered: Should the boxes be white? Black? How would they interact with the window light? He thought about what happens when you color really hard with a pencil, when light reflects a kind of glowing silver effect on the paper. That’s what he wanted. He painted the boxes black and used a leather chamois to coat them with sixteen layers of powdered graphite — the stuff of pencil lead.

The cube dominates the room. When you enter the gallery, at the cube’s corner, the piece appears to hang above you, because the old ice factory’s floors are slanted toward the door. As you walk around the cube and see one side dead-on, the daylight appears to simultaneously glow on the boxes’ graphite surface and be sucked into them. From another angle, the light creates an illusion of the boxes glowing in a strip across their middles.

Huppert’s effort was not to convey a message, but to make something out of what’s already in the factory. Everything in the room is important: the spaces between the boxes, the relationships between the cube, walls and floor, the ceiling, the light and shadows.

To Huppert’s delight, Irwin attended the opening of his show. Irwin and Huppert’s unspoken pact is that the elder won’t insert his opinion into a work in progress. But this piece was done, ready for view.

“He really looked — at the boxes, the space,” Huppert says. “I could tell immediately — his pace was slowed.” And he stuck around, talking with Huppert’s friends and looking again at the cube.

Huppert’s piece has come down, and another of his friends will be showing work at the 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.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at or 619.325.0531 and follow her on Twitter: @kellyrbennett.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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