Robert Irwin holds a particular place in the California annals of contemporary art, and he holds a particular place for me personally. He figured larger than life during my formative years as an artist coming of age on the west coast. I watched as he worked his way through an intense exploration into painting and as he ended up being more interested in the nature of perception than in objects themselves. By the late 60’s he didn’t even want his work to be photographed: Art should only be accessed through direct experience. You have to see an Irwin to “see” it.
“Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change” is currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. It is the first exhibit to focus on his evolution as an artist during that period of intensity “when, in full experimental mode, he was shifting the emphasis of his own art from psychic encounters to physical ones, from precious objects to environments, places of contemplation” (Holland Cotter, in the New York Times.) “Images, he soon realized, were a problem. They implied messages to be deciphered, narratives to be read, and he wanted to get away from all that. He wanted to stay abstract, but also to grow more expansive.”
In 1970, Irwin stopped making objects altogether. He closed his studio and engaged in site-specific installations only, ones that were perception-altering. In an interview recorded at LACMA in 1973 (it runs in a loop at the exhibit), Irwin talks about the new “beyond painting” projects that were compelling him at that point in time, from working with NASA to urban environmental design. Many know him for his iconic work in conceptualizing the Dia:Beacon facility and in developing the extraordinary gardens that encompass the Getty Center.
For example, this passage from Seeing Is Forgetting: The Name of the Thing One Sees, A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, by Lawrence Weschler, speaks to that search for the essential:
“The big challenge for me,” he recalls, “starting around then, the ‘less is more’ challenge, was simply always to try to maximize the energy, the physicality of the painting, and to minimize the imagery. It could all be looked at essentially as turning the entire question upside down: moving away from the literate, conceptual rationale and really reestablishing the inquiry on the perceptual, tactile level. Nobody quite understood that at the time, because they were still thinking in image terms and in terms of literate connotations. When they talked about a painting, they translated it into subject matter, in a way, but it’s not only about that. It’s about presence, phenomenal presence. And it’s hard: if you don’t see it, you just don’t see it; it just ain’t there. You can talk yourself blue in the face to somebody, and if they don’t see it, they just don’t see it. But once you start seeing it, it has a level of reality exactly the same as the imagery—no more, no less. And basically, that’s what I’m still after today. All my work since then has been an exploration of phenomenal presence.
While my work takes a very different form and may not appear to be in alignment with Irwin’s aesthetic, I resonate deeply with his point of view and the way he languages his art making. His phrase, “phenomenal presence” is one I come back to again and again. (At the bottom of this post is a list of links to earlier Slow Muse posts that focused on Irwin’s writings and point of view.)
The Hirschhorn show is an extraordinary walk through Irwin’s intensely considered journey, one that brings the viewer closer to how he evolved his intention and his gifts. The show is well curated and memorable. It runs through September 5.
More from Cotter’s review:
In 1970 he did something ultra-discreet [at the Museum of Modern Art]: He changed the dimensions of a small gallery by partly lowering the ceiling with a stretch of white scrim. Other, far grander commissions followed over the next 45 years, for site-specific installations in museums, government buildings, airports and parks. When [curator] Ms. Hankins requested a new piece to conclude this show, which will not travel, he returned to the simplicity of the 1970 model. He left the last large gallery in the Hirshhorn’s circling sequence empty but for one element: a floor-to-ceiling white scrim that stretches the length of one wall and gives the illusion of straightening its curve.
The change is both so subtle and so fundamental that it can take even an observant eye time to see it, the way rules can be hard to recognize until long after they’re broken. We accept as a given that art — “great” art — is permanent, precious, the product of personal power, to which Mr. Irwin says: No. He proposes, instead, that art is mutable and conditional. Its materials are ordinary (fabrics, space, light). Its power lies neither in the hand of the maker nor in the eye of the perceiver, but in the meeting, on springy, shifting, flowering ground, between the two.
Slow Muse and Robert Irwin: