Visual Art Time for Irwin, Part II
posted by April 3 at 10:30 AMon
Yesterday, I wrote about Robert Irwin’s almost 50 years of art as a social project devoted to rearranging the hierarchy of what we pay attention to in the world (and what we either thoughtlessly or willfully ignore).
His breakthrough moment, his great contribution to the history of art, is this:
Photograph by Philipp Scholz Rittermann
Maybe it doesn’t look like much. But it’s a solid, convex disc attached to the wall by a thick arm and sticking out several feet into the room. And yet even when you’re right there seeing its heft, it can disappear.
This installation is the best I’ve seen of a Robert Irwin disc. Irwin, who lives in San Diego, arranged it so that the museum would open up a skylight in its roof for the piece. The light is natural, and it falls down like a shower. (In the absence of natural light at many venues, Irwin was induced to devise a way of showing the discs that involves spotlights and a field of shadows on the wall behind the disc, which is how you often see the discs presented; the closest one to Seattle on public view, as far as I know, is at the Portland Art Museum.)
This installation isn’t up anymore. It was at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, where I saw it, until the end of February; the other, newer half of the Irwin retrospective is still up at the museum’s second building until April 13. (The show is not traveling; it will soon exist only in a very nice hardback catalog.)
Every time Irwin got bored, he moved on to something else, and he got bored early and often. For that reason, his career is defined by a constantly shifting, almost aggressive chronological narrative (gestural abstraction to line paintings to dot paintings to discs to scrims to installations to public works and gardens).
These days, Irwin doesn’t make freestanding objects. Eleven years ago, he made a piece that was like a eulogy for the whole basic premise of art objects, like a tribute to the empty space they leave behind when they go. Asked to complete a commission for the La Jolla branch of the MCASD, which sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and may have the best view of any museum in the country (anybody care to differ?), Irwin selected the room with the panoramic view of the water.
Instead of hanging art on the walls of the room, he cut three 24-by-26-inch holes out of its windows. He cut absences out of a material designed already not to be seen. It takes a few minutes to discover that there’s even art in the room at all, and then you smell the sea air.
Photo by Pablo Mason
(Like the discs, I consider this work to be one of Irwin’s best. But it wasn’t installed during the Irwin retrospective. The La Jolla branch had other, unrelated shows on display, and the “view” room was set up as a reading area. It was confounding.)
Coming up: The blatant but largely unobserved flaw in the show’s centerpiece, why the bad lighting on one of Irwin’s paintings is perfect, why I’m glad the glass column in the show was knocked over and broken during the first weeks of the show, and what’s up with Irwin in Seattle right now.