Robert Irwin: De-objectifications
for Philosophic and Actual Bodies
from Sculpture Magazine,
by Carolee Thea
Part I: Prologue: X 183, 1998. View of mixed-media installation
Robert Irwin’s new work, "Prologue: X 183", is
the first of a two-part installation on the third floor of the
for the Arts in New York City. The entire space is divided into
18 chambers by fine white mesh scrim, a material that Irwin first
being used as window coverings in Amsterdam in 1970. At Dia, the
scrims are stapled to their supports like stretched canvases and
soar to the ceiling to define the open, cubed areas. As in most
works of this kind, the forms are determined by the artist, but
it is the
viewer who activates the paths.
Irwin’s precision, attention to minute detail, and passionate
concern for the consistency of the whole are evidenced in this
work. The measure of the empty spaces between chambers suggests
of a wall or a body, or the light emanating through the north-south
windows orienting the viewer. Near the center, the natural light
dims while shadows flatten to allow something else to emerge. Here,
vertical fluorescent lights affixed to the ceiling above emit an
eerie artificiality, while the meditative nature of the repetitions
combines with a sense of inside-outside play to help viewers create
their own contemplative space.
When Kasimir Malevich did a white-on-white painting and was accused
of nihilism, he looked his public in the eye and said, "Ah,
but we have a world of pure feeling." One viewer told me she
thought that Irwin’s installation was like a device for sensory
deprivation. Her reaction typifies the entertainment orientation
of today’s glutted global art culture. Irwin’s work usually
has a kind of "unthingness," presenting not visual objects,
but an uncanny reflexiveness to the viewer. Irwin says, "The
real beauty of philosophy is the examination of your own moment,
your own being in circumstance." He continues: "When people
walk into a gallery where I’ve installed some of the things
I’ve been doing recently, a lot of them say, "Oh, it’s
an empty room”. The question then, of course, is empty of what?" The
point of Irwin’s work is to draw people into a place once
considered too incidental to have meaning. For an artist to make
a critical player by inscribing his or her specific experience
into the work is a humanistic goal. Irwin defines a phenomenological
mystical path that may allow him and the viewer to escape from
Modernism or the dictates of a critical guru.
Irwin was first an illustrator and then an abstract painter who
became disaffected with the gestural element of abstraction, which,
him, denied the viewer a direct perceptive experience. Rooted in
the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, Irwin’s belief is consonant
with the effort to understand the way people think and to redefine
their relations with themselves and the world - to stand back,
suspend judgment, and grasp things and ideas.
Untitled", 19667. Sprayed acrylic lacquer on shaped aluminum,
48 in. diameter.
The history of modern art can be read as a progressive reduction
of imagery and of gesture. Malevich wrote in 1915, "Over the
past millennia, the artist has striven to approach the depiction
of an object as closely as possible, to transmit meaning, essence
and purpose. Now objects have vanished like smoke, for the sake of
a new culture of art, a new art with metaphysical implication." From
1920 to 1923 a Malevich’s colleague, El Lissitzky, installed
his works, titled Prouns, in Berlin. They were considered interchange
stations between painting and architecture. Such Suprematist ideas,
among the antecedents to Irwin’s work, were derailed by the
political situation. The De Stijl artists (Piet Mondrian and Theo
van Doesburg), also attempted to make an integrative art. Salon
De Madame B. Dresden, an environment created by Mondrian in 19226
not exhibited until 1970 at the Pace Gallery in New York City.
In the early 60’s the breaking down of rigid artistic classifications
began again in the New York studios of Robert Rauschenberg and
Jasper Johns. Irwin and a group of California artists also aimed
the boundaries between painting, sculpture and architecture, but
made use of new materials like plastics, light, space, and color
to do it.
Irwin shared ideas with some Minimalists, although the California
artists were not, strictly speaking, part of that movement, because
of their use of dissolving and seductive materials and surfaces.
For Irwin and James Turrell, these materials were necessary components
in dealing with light and space even while the ultimate goal was
to seek the elimination of the object. At first, light, dark, sun,
and shadow; time and space; sound and silence; and fire, smoke, scrim,
and string were the materials. Over the years, becoming more complex
in method and mediums, they began to use dielectricoated glass, luminescent
and phosphorescent agents, Plexiglas, polyester resin, cast acrylic,
Fiberglas, neon, fluorescent lights, and hi-intensity and xenon projectors.
Philosophical questions of the nature of ones being in the world
merged with light phenomena for these artists through their study
of both Oriental mysticism and aerospace scientist explorations
in brain probes and sensory deprivation. The aerospace industry
attempted to specify and to quantify mystical phenomena, enabling
them to experience subtle introspective states during which one’s
perceptual system could become more acute.
In 1971, the Experiments in Art and Technology Project (E.A.T.)
matched artists with scientists, mathematicians, technicians, and
from major corporations and industries. One project, led by Jane
Livingston, an associate curator at the Los Angeles County Museum
of Art, teamed Irwin, Turrell, and Edward Wortz, an experimental
psychologist from Garrett Aerospace. For several months the three
pursued whatever interested them: they sat in anechoic chambers;
they played with light; they discussed ideas. Neither the art hardware
nor the fascination with spectacle of the E.A.T. projects coincided
with the true focus of Irwin’s interest however. He took
a more physiological approach in which perception precedes conception.
He was interested in dissolving the object in the subject.
Born in 1928 in Long Beach, California, Irwin studied art at the
Otis Institute in California. He became a hot-rod enthusiast, ballroom
dancer, handicapper at the track, and Abstract Expressionist. His
paintings, influenced by Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford
Still, and Ad Reinhardt, were exhibited at the L.A. Ferus Gallery
when Irving Blum became the director, he hung out with artists
who dabbled in Zen and Oriental philosophies, like Alan Lynch and
Kauffman. Other Ferus friends were Ed Kienholz, Billy Al Bengston,
and Ed Moses. Irwin’s interest in abstraction waned, and
he followed a reductive path influenced by the work of Giorgio
He began to explore human perception.
His first breakthrough was with a group of handheld paintings (1959-60).
Reduced in scale, they were meant to be experienced privately,
breaking down the barrier between the artist’s gesture and his audience.
Four of these were exhibited at the Pace-Wildenstein mini-retrospective
this past spring. The paintings of the next period, Pier Series (1959)
and "Crazy Otto" (1962), had the muted background colors
of Morandi but with a few thin fluorescent-like lines painted as
if light were streaking the surface. In Untitled (1963-4), the
painted cadmium yellow background was streaked with two thin fluorescent-bright
yellow horizontal lines--like a light trying to break through a
Irwin was concerned here not with the color itself but with illumination.
In Untitled (1966), he suspended an 82-by-82-inch canvas six inches
from the wall. This one was filled with a gnomic rendering of pink
and green dots, more intense in the center and disintegrating nine
inches before the edge, making the edge seem to dematerialize.
The work cast a shadow that activated the surrounding space.
By using round or oval shapes, Irwin then sought to eliminate the
dilemma of the edge. Two of Irwin’s disc paintings, originally
exhibited in Sao Paolo VIII in 1965, were also shown at Pace Gallery
last spring. One, made of spun aluminum, is projected 18 inches
from the wall. In order to diffuse the light within the surface,
sprayed 50 to 100 transparent, thin, grainy, matte-finished layers
of automotive paint onto the work. Illuminated from four different
sources above and below the disc, the form loses its identity in
a tight, luminous quatrefoil. The halation, merged with the environment,
creates a kind of virtual objecthood. The second disc, made of
formed acrylic plastic, juts from the wall by means of a 24-inch
cylinder. The acrylic surface material followed the aluminum in
a natural progression toward the dematerialized object. These works
were exhibited in a small show at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1968.
For Irwin, these works posed further questions rather than answers.
From 1969 - 70 he made the last of his portable objects: a number
of nearly visible, prism-like cast acrylic columns.
In 1970, Jenny Licht, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in
New York, invited Irwin to create an installation. Using the entire
space, Irwin suspended a white scrim 10 feet from the ground and
attached shimmering stainless steel wires to the wall. Painted
white only at the wall connections, the wires appeared to float
and the scrim divided the room. The environment was lit with alternating
warm and cool lights. This work was followed by others using scrims.
In Prologue: X 183, the new work at the Dia Foundation, Irwin heightens
and refines the viewer’s apprehension of a situation, through
his understanding of the specifics of the site, its context, its
space, and its formal qualities.
The second part of the Dia installation, Excursus: Homage to the
Square (after Josef Albers) is scheduled to open in the fall of
1998 and remain on view until June 1999. Irwin will introduce colored
gels into the existing cubes which will
bleed one color into the other and will modify the fluorescent
Though many of Irwin’s projects have been realized, many
exist only in drawings and plans. Many of his site works use landscape
design as a form of sculpture and as a container for both viewer
and architecture (such as the Central Garden), extending his interest
in perception into a larger arena.
Carolee Thea is a writer and curator.