Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"ROBERT IRWIN, IN THE HERE AND NOW" By Leah Ollman, Christopher Knight & Robert L. Pincus


The mind is his playground. That's where his use
of light and space becomes in-the- moment

By Leah Ollman, Special to The Times

November 25, 2007

San Diego -- Dashes of white light flicked on one
by one as the installation crew at the Museum of
Contemporary Art San Diego worked its way across
an expansive wall, mounting custom-built
fluorescent fixtures in a syncopated, fragmented
diagonal grid. On the eve of the museum's Robert
Irwin exhibition, the largest since MoCA's
retrospective in 1993, the 79-year-old artist, in
trademark baseball cap and jeans, paced the space
with barely tempered eagerness. A birth was

When the last of the lights on the 20-by-50-foot
wall went on and the work was complete, Irwin's
smile added at least another thousand kilowatts
to the room. The wall had come alive in a
calligraphic dance of brisk luminosity and
shadowy echo, an homage to both spontaneity and
order. "You just get swallowed up in it," Irwin

"Light and Space" was, for Irwin, the riskiest
piece, the cutting edge in a show tracing his
50-year evolution from Abstract Expressionist
painter to choreographer of ephemeral experience.
He had mocked up a small version of the
installation in the museum's residency studio
(which he is the first to occupy), but conditions
in that modest space differed dramatically from
those in the large gallery. He wasn't at all sure
what he would get when the work went full-scale.

Conditionality has been, ironically, the one
unchanging characteristic of Irwin's work since
the early 1970s. The L.A. born-and-bred artist
had spent the '60s reducing the vocabulary of his
work on canvas. He distilled fields of active,
multicolored gestures to monochrome canvases with
austere pairs of raised lines. The line paintings
gave way to slightly curved canvases across which
thousands of fine green and red dots appear to
dissolve. His push toward pure presence advanced
further with the disk paintings of 1967-69.
Mounted more than a foot away from the wall, the
convex disks seem to merge intangibly with it.

In 1971, Irwin gave up his Venice studio and
turned away from making self-contained objects.
He began creating "site-generated" installations,
many using translucent white scrim, that
responded to the scale, shape, surface, light and
shadows of a particular space. Irwin's aims at
the time have since remained central to his work:
to heighten attention to the processes of
perception, expand sensory awareness, reawaken

The San Diego exhibition, "Robert Irwin:
Primaries and Secondaries," fills both of the
museum's downtown venues with work drawn almost
entirely from its own holdings as well as five
new installations. Each of the new works extends
lines of inquiry that Irwin, based in San Diego,
launched in earlier work. But each is also
startlingly new, devised for a specific space and
set of circumstances. "When you're working with
the conditional, it's always an experiment," he

"Square the Room" does what its title states, a
wall of scrim quietly trimming an irregular wedge
off an upstairs gallery. Another new piece sets
five floor-to-ceiling black scrim panels at a
right angle to five white panels of the same
size. The clean angularity of the structures
generates something far more ephemeral, a dynamic
dialogue in translucency and recession.

"Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue," an
expanded version of a work Irwin debuted this
year at Pace Wildenstein in New York, sets three
immense painted honeycomb aluminum planes side by
side on the floor. Suspended high above each is
another of the same size and color. Like elegant,
elemental reflecting pools, the glossy surfaces
catch the shifting natural light and mirror each
other. As you walk around the piece, looking up,
down and across, the hues intensify but also mix,
the primary colors yielding secondaries --
orange, green, violet. "Primaries and
Secondaries," a separate installation of 13
wall-mounted panels (including black and white),
engages similar phenomena in a different format.

These are but his latest staged surprises.
Touring the exhibition, Irwin philosophized on
the new works, the unique role of art and the big
ideas that intrigue him the most.

On breaking the frame

"At one point, I looked around and I realized
that there are no frames in the world. That's not
how we see at all. We're like in an envelope,
stuff happening on every dimension -- visual,
auditory, tactile, smell. Our dialogue with the
frame is part of a highly stylized, learned
logic. It's a way we've learned to see, but it's
not how we actually see. In terms of how human
beings see and understand and order the world for
themselves, it seemed we had to address that. I
had to paint a painting that broke the frame.
That's what the disks were. Once you break the
frame, all of a sudden you are in space. You're
dealing with energy as opposed to matter. [The
disks] really do get lost. They become light and

On being and thinking about being

"There are basically two realms, two kinds of
consciousness. They're mutually dependent and
mutually exclusive, and that's what makes them
work. A little story I tell to try to illustrate
that point: When you open your eyes in the
morning, you're laying in bed, the world is
completely formed. You sit up, swing your legs
around, you take the world with you and you don't
ask yourself how you did that. You just go off
and take a shower.

"But if you laid there, for even an instant, a
couple of amazing things would be revealed. One
is that the world is not a given; you actually
form it. But we do it in a time frame that is
nonexistent, intellectually. Not only that, but
if we did wait a moment, that is, [cogitate] on
the act of perceiving, we wouldn't be able to
move, because at every moment we'd still be
forming [the world].

"The human being is spectacular. The cognitive
mind is never conscious of the process itself,
and it can't be. We wouldn't be able to move if
it was. When you start looking at what human
beings are, from that point of view, what is the
one thing that art does that nothing else does?
What is the unique role of art? I would propose
that art is a continual examination of the human
being's potential to perceive, know, understand
and act in the world."

On Modern art, abstraction and why the new isn't easy

"Most of our ideas are homogeneous. We maintain
the basic structures, the basic ideas, the basic
concepts. We build on them. But once in a while,
something comes along that actually challenges
those most basic assumptions. Modern art is doing
that, or has done that. People used to ask
abstractionists, 'What is it?' That's a literate
question that says, 'Take this, in front of me,
and let me understand it, not by participating in
it directly, but by referencing it in the world.'

"And [the abstractionists] would say, 'It is.'
That's a whole different way of looking at the
thing. It's not about something, it is something.
When you make that kind of shift, it throws
people off. It challenges the basic structures
we've built. So people have a great degree of
difficulty, because that's asking too much, in a
way, to give up this structure and cut yourself
loose, to float in this other realm. It's going
to take a long time to see if we really want to
play the game in this new realm.

"The history of Modern art, in my mind, is at
least a couple hundred years old. It will be
another couple hundred years before we're going
to know if it works and what kind of idea it is.
I pursue it because my questions feel right, they
hold water and I like the beauty of it."

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Video @ <>

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times



A San Diego exhibition traces his development from 1959.

By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

November 13, 2007

San Diego -- Lots of artists extend established
traditions in their work, adding to what came
before. Some artists overturn them. A few begin
new ones, starting from scratch.

Then there's the rarest artist of all -- the one
who manages to extend, overturn and radically
innovate simultaneously. These are artists who
set the culture on its ear. Their art conjures
previously unsuspected possibilities, energizing
other artists by changing art's terms.

Robert Irwin is such an artist. Light and Space,
the sensual art of perceptual discovery he
pioneered in the 1960s, is now synonymous with
Los Angeles' emergence over the last half-century
as a distinctive cultural powerhouse. With human
perception as his inexhaustible subject, Irwin
is, at 79, an eminence of postwar American art.

Now he is the subject of an eloquent, tightly
focused and sometimes startlingly beautiful
career survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art
San Diego. (It's the first since his 1993
retrospective in Los Angeles.) The show occupies
both buildings of the museum's downtown outpost.
Nearly two-thirds of the works are from the
museum's permanent collection or they're promised
gifts; that's an extraordinary, enviable
institutional commitment to a major artist.

One building houses 16 works that together trace
Irwin's development since 1959. It begins with
brushy, gestural abstract paintings and concludes
with a new, room-size installation made from
stretched fabric scrim.

In between is the most gorgeous installation I've
yet seen of a classic 1969 Irwin disk. A
horizontal stripe of dark acrylic lacquer is
spray-painted at eye level across the center of a
roughly 4-foot circle of clear acrylic, which
stands away from the wall on a post. It's
illuminated only by natural light from an
overhead skylight, reflected and diffused off a
bright white wall in the light well. The disk
virtually disappears.

What remains in full view is an inexplicable
stripe of horizontal darkness, opening in space
before your puzzled eyes. This wide, shadowy line
inscrutably appears to recede into a deep void at
the center. In reality, the convex curve of the
disk means that the dark line is projected at
you, but visually it seems to withdraw into

Irwin's disks always make me think of the famous
scene in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's short
1929 film, "An Andalusian Dog," in which a
straight razor slices across a woman's eyeball
just as a thin cloud passes before a full moon.
(Coincidentally, the movie is included at the Los
Angeles County Museum of Art in the current
exhibition "Dalí: Painting and Film.") The
difference is that Irwin's work is not an
illustration, and the grim violence and dread of
that cinematic bad dream is absent here.

Instead, when Irwin tears a gash in the fabric of
perceptual space, it resonates with the perfect
exhilaration of Emerson's "transparent eyeball."
You plunge into bracing currents of hyper-acuity.

Irwin's public projects

The other building compiles 20 drawings,
photo-collages and plans for public projects at
airports, parks and other sites in Arizona,
Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas -- none of
them realized. Hence, such celebrated works as
Irwin's magnificent 1997 Getty Center garden are
not included.

Also here are three new large-scale installations
made especially for the survey, and one offers a
surprising twist on Irwin's previous work.
Arguably the show's best piece -- no mean feat,
given the high level of quality overall -- it
suggests that we have much more left to see from
this robust artist.

This installation, fittingly titled "Light and
Space," is composed of scores of colorless
fluorescent lights, arrayed across a very large
wall in an otherwise unlighted room. Steel
structural braces that hold up the ceiling high
overhead seem the obvious source for the work's
composition: 2- and 4-foot lights, set at
45-degree angles.

No immediately discernible rhyme or reason guides
the pattern, however. The placement of lights,
the arrangement of different lengths and the
considered interplay of light and shadow all
appear intuitive -- not capricious, but playfully
attuned. The effect is spellbinding.

The syncopation provides visual interest. The
composition yields a smooth, even illumination,
which takes into account natural light variations
in the room's large volume of space. And the
experience recalls encountering stained glass
windows in a Gothic church -- Sainte-Chapelle,
say, or Chartres -- but without the slightest
trace of grandiosity or intimation of
supernatural spirit. This is a wholly modern
secular chapel, erected to exalt perception as
the experiential creator of our universe.

Almost equally fine is "Who's Afraid of Red,
Yellow and Blue3," which represents Irwin's
fullest engagement with color since he planted
the Getty garden. Big panels of honeycomb
aluminum are suspended from the ceiling and laid
directly beneath on the floor in a large gallery.
The pristine panels are lacquered to a mirror
finish in vivid primary hues. (Jack Brogan, who
has been solving technical problems for Irwin's
art since the 1960s, fabricated them.) You can't
look at these colored panels the way you would a
painting; instead, they make you look into and
through them.

I could find no place to stand in the room where
it was possible to visually isolate one
primary-colored panel from the rest. Whether
you're on the periphery of the work, at a
distance from it or even within the spaces that
separate the three pairs, no segment remains
autonomous. See any part of any one of them and
other fragments are inevitably reflected,
flipping the room and shattering the space.

Look up and you see yourself reflected standing
upright on the ceiling; look down and you see the
reverse. View the work from afar and you might
glimpse the sky through a window. The primary
colors mix in the reflected layers trapped within
your eye, unraveling the spectrum.

The scale of this piece was surely calibrated to
the size of the room. One result is that the
space defined by the paired panels seems
logically carved from the larger volume of the
gallery -- much the way a traditional sculptor
would carve a figurative composition from the
given contours of a block of stone. Irwin always
articulates a formal fusion between the object he
makes and the space in which it is encountered.

So, because it isn't clear just where this work
begins and where it ends, you carry it with you
when you leave. Art, which we habitually regard
as a physical object, dematerializes into
heightened, ineffable experience.

Making a statement

"Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue3" was
inspired by a famous group of four similarly
titled Color Field paintings (1966-70) by Barnett
Newman, a philosopher king among the heroic
generation of Abstract Expressionist painters
that Irwin greatly admires. Newman's title toyed
with the 1962 Edward Albee play, "Who's Afraid of
Virginia Woolf?" The playwright stumbled on the
title as graffiti scrawled on a barroom mirror,
and he once said it means, "Who's afraid of
living without false illusions?"

Like Newman, Irwin changed the question into a
statement -- a declaration of fearlessness. His
site-determined art poses an aesthetic question,
and the answer lies in the experience of it.
Sometimes that encounter leaves you gasping.

Take "Five x Five," a new installation composed
of five tall panels of black fabric scrim and
five tall panels of white fabric scrim. Each
group of five is installed in layers, with
separations between them that are large enough to
walk through. The black panels stand at a right
angle to the white panels.

When you look through them, the black scrim is
transparent and the white scrim is opaque -- a
complete reversal of expectations. Surely a
simple scientific explanation stands behind the
preternatural phenomenon. But knowing it wouldn't
come close to the thrilling perceptual experience
of seeing through the darkness and being blinded
by the light.

Pic @ <>

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times



By Robert L. Pincus, Art Critic

October 26, 2007

Robert Irwin's career is epic. Odyssey would
probably be a better word than career. And this
journey, spanning a half century, is richly
presented in "Primaries and Secondaries," an
exhibition that fills both of the downtown spaces
of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Museum director Hugh Davies, who curated the
exhibition, has likened it to a group show
because of its variety. And the phases of Irwin's
life as an artist are many. Yet, as Davies also
says, the thread uniting all of this work is the
artist's unending fascination with the limits of
perception - his and ours.

Chronologically, the selections begin with his
abstract expressionist canvases of the late '50s
and early '60s, which reveal an intensive
devotion to the power of the gestural brush
stroke. Then, in the course of a decade, Irwin
simplified his approach to painting, paring the
canvas down to two lines in the same color as the
canvas as a whole, or creating a field of dots
that fuse into one optical field.

The most remarkable of his wall works are the
untitled acrylic disks from 1969, which marked
the end of his life as a painter. They are
beautifully crafted objects that seem to
dematerialize before your eyes.

These discs ultimately signaled the second phase
of his epic odyssey. In the '70s, he began
creating installations in response to invitations
from galleries and museums to design works on
location. In the '80s, he became interested in
creating works for public sites, and the
exhibition features elaborate and precise
drawings for proposed works, some realized, for
places like New York's Battery Park City and
Phoenix's Desert Botanical Garden. (No drawings
are included for his most famous work in this
vein, The Getty Garden.)

It's fitting that the MCASD would organize his
first major museum retrospective in 14 years,
since Irwin has lived and worked in San Diego for
the past 17 years. Davies, who has followed his
work for decades, curated the show and has also
made the museum the largest repository of the
works by the artist.

To coincide with the show, the museum is adding
the five new installation works currently on view
to its collection, along with a work it has shown
several times in La Jolla since he created it in
1992: "1°, 2°, 3°, 4°." (A substantial share of
those funds comes from a $1.75 million grant
received from the Annenberg Foundation.)

Irwin is a pioneer of the light and space school,
arguably the most important movement that the
West Coast has produced. Like James Turrell - who
is concurrently having an exhibition at the
Pomona College of Art in Claremont - he
introduced new media to heighten the viewer's
experience of space and light, both inside and
outside the museum.

Irwin is an eloquent philosophical-minded speaker
about his work - and an inspiring one, too. But
his line of thinking, as compelling as it is,
isn't necessary to enjoy his art.

The disc paintings defy logic. Their hard
surfaces appear soft to the eye. And in most
settings, they are dramatically lit, creating
multiple shadows. But Irwin prefers them to be
seen by natural light, as the museum's version is
here. It is something of a revelation; the edges
of the disc virtually disappear into the space
around them.

Scrim, a semi-transparent fabric, has become
iconic in Irwin's installations, and he uses it
to sublime effect in "Squaring the Room," a sheer
wall of white that veils a triangular portion of
the room. This new work is closest in spirit to
his "site-conditioned" installations of the '70s.

"Five x Five" uses scrim far more elaborately.
The title refers to its 10 lofty rectangles, half
in white and half in black. They are arranged in
vertical rows, reaching nearly to the ceiling,
and are akin to abstract paintings in three
dimensions. Viewers can stroll between the
panels, too, creating a new set of absorbing
sights. And for those standing on the outside,
the views become kinetic.

This logic of extending painting into three
dimensions gets its fullest treatment in "Who's
Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue3." It consists of
polished aluminum panels in the primary colors,
with groupings of the panels positioned on the
floor and high above our heads: blue above blue,
red above red, and so on. Looking up or down, the
transformation of the room is astonishing. It
looks impossibly deep. And color coats the
surroundings, giving them a fantastical look. The
title - minus the 3 for "in three dimensions" -
is the same as a famous painting by Barnett
Newman, which is clearly a catalyst for Irwin's

The same sort of panels, with secondary colors
added to the mix along with black and white ones,
form a set in another gallery. Thus the title of
this work: "Primaries and Secondaries." These
coax the viewer to see some panels reflected in
others and create new colors in the process. The
newest work of all, "Light and Space," uses pure
white fluorescent lights, spread across a
towering white wall. But when they are lit, the
wall is gray - or, more accurately, many
gradations of gray.

In its sweep, this exhibition confirms Irwin's
standing as one of the greatest living artists.
He has extended the possibilities of what art can
be, in myriad ways. His influence on other
artists has been great, too, larger than most
accounts of contemporary art say. Though many of
his works were intentionally temporary, Irwin's
art, in its entirety, seems sure to become even
more important as the present becomes history.

© Copyright 2007 The San Diego Union-Tribune Publishing Co.


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