“Robert Irwin: Doors of Perception"

“Robert Irwin: Doors of Perception"
Art in America (cover)
December, 1999
pp. 73-86

For over 30 years Robert Irwin has been finding ever more economical and elegant ways to separate the art experience from the material means of its conveyance. In a two-part scrim-and-light installation at Dia, he takes this process a step further, creating a truly nonhierarchical art.

All means are impediment. Only where all means fall to pieces, encounter happens.

--Martin Buber, I and Thou

In the middle 1960s, when many artists were taking up Duchamp's challenge and redefining form in art, Robert Irwin approached the problem through the most traditional of mediums: painting. Even as Clement Greenberg was trying to sanctify the flatness of the picture plane, Irwin, although he didn't know it at the time, was preparing to do away with it altogether. Ultimately, Irwin's aim was to isolate the art experience, to clear his work of any and all concrete manifestations so that it could be reduced to pure phenomenon.

In 1966 Maurice Tuchman organized a small exhibition of Irwin's paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), an occasion for which Philip Leider (the founding editor of Artforum) wrote an eerily prescient catalogue essay.[1] If one were to substitute "installation" for the word "painting," it could stand as an accurate assessment of much of Irwin's work today, demonstrating that the problems Irwin set for himself were in place from the beginning. The paintings in the LACMA show were white, almost 7-foot-square oils on canvas. The four sides or edges of each stretched canvas, rather than meeting the wall at right angles in the conventional manner, curved subtly back toward it, so that, viewed from the front, the border between the painting and the wall became almost unnoticeable. As Leider describes it, after a few minutes of viewing one became aware of another element--he calls it "a haze of color energy"--gathering in the center. He notes that this energy "is as neutral of any associative overtones as any presence on the canvas can conceivably be [and that] all elements extraneous to the evocation of an esthetic emotion and no other emotion have been eliminated with a fanatic's thoroughness." "What is left," Leider went on to say, coining a term that has come to characterize a school of artistic inquiry, "is an experience of space and light."

Even space and light, however, are not necessarily devoid of volume and configuration. Irwin was after something further, as Leider points out: "In Irwin's painting the point of modern art shifts from an exploration of the elements essential to the medium, to the elements essential in conveying the experience of art."

What's more, since Irwin considered the paintings unimportant except as a vehicle for the art experience, he did not allow them to be photographed. Not everyone, however, is going to stand in front of a white canvas and give it the time required to have the experience intended by the artist, and Irwin clearly was interested in more than an intellectual dialogue with the tenets of art history. He wanted his work to have a direct effect on the people who saw it, one that, far from being temporary, might potentially alter or extend the limits of their thought and perception. To achieve this, he would have to make work that was even less evident in terms of its material presence, and at the same time so arresting that people would stop and give it their attention.

After the LACMA exhibition, Irwin tried many forms and formats of painting before abandoning it altogether to experiment with light. He covered the walls, floors and ceiling of his studio with plaster, rounding the comers so that there were no angles or sharp edges, then bought, borrowed or rented every kind of light fixture available, testing their properties one at a time. "I never did get the right light piece," Irwin says now, "because I could never separate the phenomenon, which is subtle and transient, from the mechanics. We [as a species] are so object-oriented, that you put a light in there and your eye goes right to the [fixture]."[2] He liked the idea of fluorescent fixtures because "they are so dumb, so obvious, you tend to discount them" and accordingly thought he might have something in common with Dan Flavin--until he realized that Flavin was mainly interested in the configuration of the fluorescent tubes themselves, considering the atmosphere and the qualities of the room in which they were placed to be of secondary importance. Eventually, Irwin found that daylight best suited his needs, because it is the least obtrusive form of light; no one considers or questions its source.

Later, while he was visiting the Netherlands, Irwin's eye was caught by a particular kind of window curtain, widely used by the Dutch, that "did beautiful stuff with light." The white, semi-transparent fabric was similar to scrim, which is used extensively in the theater because it is opaque when lit from the front but transparent when lit from behind. Irwin found that it came in 14-foot widths, and he began to experiment with it in his studio. He soon discovered that when lit from both front and back, the fabric becomes almost immaterial, taking on the quality of pure light.

The first public showing of a scrim piece was at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 1970-71 and is well-documented in Lawrence Weschler's 1982 book about Irwin titled Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. Like an early "project room," the work was a kind of guerrilla installation in an unused gallery, undertaken by curator Jennifer Licht after the museum turned down her request to sponsor an exhibition of Irwin's work. At first Irwin intended to import a piece from his studio; when he saw the space, however, he had second thoughts and decided to create something on the spot. Because he was prohibited from painting or installing fixtures in the space, he was forced to deal with it as he found it: an unattractive room with somewhat bowed, bloated walls and standard fluorescent lighting diffused by a plastic grid. Working at night after the museum guards had left, Irwin started by replacing the fluorescent tubes, alternating cool and warm tones. Normally the differences in hue are not so obvious, but when Irwin put the lights next to each other, their green and pink qualities became more pronounced, creating a faint rainbow effect. In front of the far wall he stretched a wire that would be seen at eye level if one were standing across the room. He then painted this wire white at the ends and at various places along its length so that, as Irwin remembers, "you couldn't focus on it but you couldn't focus on the wall, either." He then stretched a piece of scrim below the lights like a second ceiling, beginning at the entrance and continuing halfway to where the wire was so that, in Irwin's words, "it was over you, then it wasn't. And because the entrance was as high as the ceiling, when you came in you could see above and below it. That, basically, was it."

The piece, titled "Fractured Light--Partial Scrim--Eye Level Wire," was little documented or written about at the time. "It was like throwing a rock in a pond, and there were no ripples," Irwin says. While MOMA refused, once aware of the exhibition, to legitimize or promote it, the museum did insist on an identifying label. Determined to avoid diluting the viewing experience, Irwin hired someone to take the label down each day. "So when you walked into this thing you had to go through the process of asking yourself `Is this an empty room? Is this intended?'"

Being forced to deal with the unexpected properties of the MOMA situation led Irwin to take his inspiration increasingly from the space he was assigned, and he began to call his pieces "site-conditioned installations." He was also reacting to the art work that was then emerging from the NEA's Art in Public Places program, whose priorities frequently resulted in an arbitrary mix of site and art ("the turd in the plaza," as he calls it). "What I realized," Irwin says, "was that [the problem of public art] has nothing to do with [questions of] object or non-object. It has to do with the object existing not in a vacuum of its own meaning, but in the real world, affected by the real world." He doesn't, however, view the self-contained object as inadmissable, since every situation calls for its own solution. "There may be places," he adds, "where a cannon on the front lawn might be just the fight thing."

Irwin sees critical differences between "site-specific" art and his own "site-conditioned" art, which he explicates in his book 1985 Being and Circumstance. In the former the art is still keyed to the oeuvre of the artist. As Irwin puts it, "a Richard Serra is always recognizable as first and foremost a Richard Serra," so that while the specific work produced by the artist is in part a response to the site, the work remains bound by styles, materials and techniques that are already particular to the artist. By contrast, Irwin wants his art to draw all of its cues from its surroundings, so that the response may be "monumental or ephemeral, aggressive or gentle, useful or useless, sculptural, architectural or simply the planting of a tree or maybe doing nothing at all."

The MOMA "exhibition" was followed in 1972 by similar projects at Ace Gallery in Los Angeles, Galerie Sonnabend in Paris and Harvard's Fogg Museum. In 1975 Arnold Glimcher, who had seen the original MOMA piece, asked Irwin to create an installation at Pace Gallery on New York's 57th Street. The piece was titled "Soft Wall" and consisted of a length of scrim stretched floor to ceiling about 12 inches in front of the far wall of the gallery. Glimcher, who now calls Irwin "the most important influence on my esthetic," remembers it fondly. He says, "The room was lit in an even way, and the scrim only infinitesimally more. When you walked into the space and gave it the time required--the way an Ad Reinhardt requires time--suddenly you noticed one of the walls was out of focus, almost as if it were snowing in front of it.[3] Irwin recalls that "ninety per cent of the people who walked in thought it was an empty room. But there was a presence there, nothing you could put your finger on, yet if you gave it enough time you could figure it out. In that way it could have been the definitive scrim, and it was done a long time ago."

I first encountered Irwin and his work in 1975 when he installed a midcareer survey of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and gave a memorable lecture. One of the two installation pieces, "Scrim V," looked like a giant elongated wedge of shimmering white light that dominated the gallery in which it was centered. Irwin made the triangular enclosure, which measured 15 by 10 by 78 feet, by stretching scrim from floor to ceiling and then lighting it from within.

I was enthralled and came back to see the piece again and again. It reminded me of once seeing, near the Chicago lakefront, a tennis court over which the early morning mist had settled in a perfect rectangular volume, a box of fog having the same width and length as the court. Irwin's piece was of a similar nature--a geometric shape that seemed to have no substance other than the magical quality of diffused light.

"At the very best," Irwin says, talking about the experience he wants his work to engender, "a few people will walk in and it will change their lives." While this statement may sound a bit grandiose, I can say with certainty that seeing that triangular piece and hearing Irwin speak about his work so early in my life as an artist had a singular impact; I cannot recall being so affected by a work of art before or since. What struck me was not his method--although I'm always impressed when art is wrested from such basic materials--but rather the realization that all the art I'd seen till then seemed based on the same artistic concepts, while here was an approach to problem-solving that began not with the known but with the unknown.

Critic Jerry Saltz, then recently out of art school and working at the museum, recalls a similar epiphany. "I never met an artist," he says, "more maniacal or who had more faith in the visible and the invisible. I was on the crew for that installation, and he had us painting places that you couldn't see, even if you had CIA equipment. At first I hated him, and then I came to realize, for the first time, that every thing does matter. That's what I finally got: the integrity of the physical object."[4]

A second installation, in another gallery of the Chicago show, consisted solely of a single length of 4 1/2-inch-wide black tape that Irwin placed across the floor to form a rectangle with an existing black border at the bottom of the other three walls. Sculptor Nancy Davidson, who was also in Chicago at the time, says now: "The scrim was, of course, an enlightenment about a way of bringing together sensuality and intellect. The tape piece, however, was absolutely mind-boggling; I was familiar with the space, having seen it in the context of other exhibitions, and it allowed me to experience it in a completely different way. It was an event that was basic to my explorations as an artist."[5]

In retrospect, Irwin is not entirely satisfied with the way the Chicago scrim piece turned out: "too manufactured and arbitrary in the space," he says, "still too much sculptural form." The tape piece, however, remains in his mind as a major breakthrough. "I couldn't make any decisions until literally two days before the opening," he says, "because the room was filled with boxes from the last show. It was a very precarious situation. I was looking at it, having no idea what to do--there was a square column in the middle but otherwise it was just white floor, white walls, a white ceiling--when suddenly I became very conscious of that black line, something that was put there so the janitors wouldn't get the walls dirty. When I put down the tape, suddenly the whole room was energized. I added lights in the ceiling to fill the room up with a bit more light, which gave the room a volume of its own. The funniest thing was that about half of the museum employees asked me why I'd put the column in the middle of the room. And people would stick a hand out before stepping over the line, as if there were a scrim there or something."

Roberta Smith, writing in Art in America at the time, described it thus:

[The black rectangle] was not what you "looked at," but soon it brought the room into focus with a distinct visual snap. From inside, the light in the area seemed different, more substantial, and the wall color began to shift ambiguously. From outside the area the tape seemed to lift the floor upward in your field of vision, and it also made the room seem wider and shallower than it really was. Consequently a person moving toward the back wall was soon out of whack perspectivally, because the figure receded faster than the room. The room was transformed into a separate volume.[6]

"The equation that a certain amount of effort yields the same amount of results doesn't always work," Irwin says. "Sometimes you put in 20 pounds of effort and you get 100 pounds of result. If the means are too obvious or if the effort is too ponderously complex, if one of your first responses is, `Gee, this is a lot of work,' then you have completely lost it."

In 1980, at 78 Market Street in Venice, Calif., Irwin created another remarkable scrim piece, as simple as the wall at Pace. Here the entire front wall of a storefront building had been removed, and Irwin merely replaced it with the sheer fabric. The natural glow from two skylights provided the only interior light. One Wall Removed is the only exterior piece Irwin has done with scrim, and it took full advantage of the variable light conditions that occur outdoors. Of it Irwin wrote: "the building went unmarked and the work unlabeled, thus allowing the casual passerby the full excitement of discovering this uncluttered experience. Perhaps it takes only one such `personal' art experience to alert you to the latent potential for beauty in pure phenomena, as well as in worldly, things."[7]

Beauty? It's a word the contemporary art world has until recently assiduously avoided. Yet Irwin is emphatic when he talks about beauty being "absolute and primary" to the experience he is creating, as opposed to much contemporary art, which he describes as concerned with "an acceptable, abstract rationale to which one can apply meaning." That's why, Irwin says, when people look at Abstract-Expressionist paintings, they try to "Rorschach them, psychoanalyze them or infuse them with content, because they're still unable to deal with the issues of experience and beauty." Much art, as he sees it, is the result of the artist's lack of faith in the viewer's capacity to have the art experience without a lot of direction. "What I'm trying to do is make the thing as beautiful as I can, working with my own ability to know and understand what it is I'm doing. As soon as you have ambitions other than just knowing, you alter how decisions are made. The key is to focus on your own understanding."

Irwin cites as an example of this process his 1998-99 scrim-and-light installation that was exhibited in two versions or "parts" at the Dia Center for the Arts in Manhattan's Chelsea district. After talking for many years about the concept of a nonhierarchical art, he realized only in hindsight that he had achieved it with this piece. "The thing is not frontal," he says, "not linear, not sequential, there's no beginning, middle or end. You could, essentially, enter anywhere." Irwin's achievement of his long-sought goal, therefore, arose not out of a direct intention to actualize the concept, but rather through an organic, intuitive process in which he thought only about how to make the best use of a situation.

"The Dia" piece (part two of which remains on view there through June 18, 2000) is Irwin's most complex scrim installation to date, a series of translucent "rooms" almost mystical in their hushed beauty. For the first version of this work, "Prologue: x [18.sup.3]", Irwin partitioned the entire third floor of the huge ex-warehouse into 18 square sections, with "walls" of scrim extending to the ceiling and door-size entrances allowing passage at each interior corner. Also stretched floor-to-ceiling in front of the gallery's windows and masonry walls, the scrim fogged the exit lights and the view from the windows, creating a dreamlike sense of irreality. Irwin utilized the generous natural light from the windows banking either end of the gallery, while fluorescent ceiling fixtures in the centers of the rooms lit them with an eerie glow. The visitors themselves provided random but essential visual components. Seen through varying layers of scrim, their dark silhouettes floated behind the walls in fluctuating degrees of focus, suddenly metamorphosing into real humans in the doorways. Everything seemed muffled by the whiteness, like the city during a snowfall, and people reacted by moving slowly and speaking in muted tones. The effect was like walking through a maze, yet it was as calming as it was disorienting. I thought the piece might make a good fun house for Buddhists, as it was simultaneously contemplative and experiential.

This initial stage of the exhibition ran for several months, then, while the museum was closed for the summer, Irwin embellished the work further. With paint he added a horizontal stripe to the scrim, a very faint gray. The stripe corresponded to the length of the vertical fluorescent tubes, now wrapped in up to 15 layers of theatrical gel, so that they delicately illuminated each room with a different hue, like the afterglow of a sunset. The title of this version of the piece, "Excursus: Homage to the [Square.sup.3]" refers to, in Irwin's words, "approaching color as a kind of infinite possibility, as Albers did," except that Irwin worked in three dimensions, using a cube instead of a square.

When I told Irwin I found his installation "unabashedly sensual," he heartily agreed and said it was the reason he made it in two parts. "I've experienced on a number of occasions before," he said, "that when one puts something `unabashedly sensual' in New York, everyone gags. So I gave them a more formal and more disciplined [situation] first, to kind of ease them into it." Thus his concept of a site-conditioned installation expands beyond the physical properties of the venue to take into account the psychological predisposition of its constituency.

By its very nature, Irwin's work cannot be confined to a single discipline, and there seems to be little his wide-ranging imagination could not encompass (which is, no doubt, why the Getty Museum commissioned him to create its garden). The reason for this could well be that Irwin has given as much of his life over to the study of philosophy as art, and along the way he has developed what I call "artist's intuition" and he calls "practiced experience." "My strength," Irwin says, "is that I've spent a lot of time working with my own perceptual understanding." As he observed in 1972, "To be an artist is not a matter of making paintings or objects. What we are really dealing with is the state of our consciousness, and the shape of our perception."[8]

-Carol Diehl

[1.] Phillip Leider, Robert Irwin / Kenneth Price, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1966, unpaginated.

[2.] All quotes from Robert Irwin, unless otherwise noted, are from interviews with the author conducted between July 1998 and July 1999.

[3.] Arnold Glimcher in conversation with the author, August 1999.

[4.] Jerry Saltz in conversation with the author, April 1999.

[5.] Nancy Davidson in conversation with the author, April 1999.

[6.] Roberta Smith, "Robert Irwin: The Subject is Sight," Art in America, March 1976, pp. 69-70.

[7.] Robert Irwin, Being and Circumstance: Notes Toward a Conditional Art, Larkspur Landing, Calif., Lapis Press, 1985, p. 90.

[8.] Robert Irwin, "The State of the Real, Part 1," conversation with Jan Butterfield,Arts, June 1972, p. 48.

The author is grateful to Rend Smith, her student at Bennington College, for pointing out the affinities between Martin Buber's writings and the work of Robert Irwin.

Robert Irwin's Prologue: x [18.sup.3] appeared at Dia Center for the Arts, New York, Apr. 17-June 14, 1998. Excursus: Homage to the [Square.sup.3] opened there Sept. 13, 1998, and remains on view through June 18, 2000.


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