Visual Art Time for Irwin, Part III
posted by April 4 at 11:34 AMon
Back in the day, a handful of California artists were accused, often not so subtly by New Yorkers (a la Woody Allen’s depiction of skin-deep LA in “Annie Hall”), of being too finicky about their works. They had to be installed exactly the right way, exactly according to specifications, right down to the smallest details. They were accused of being “finish fetishists.”
Robert Irwin was a major target for the criticism (which later became more of a benign descriptive term, “finish fetish”), and he was, in fact, extremely particular about the way his works were installed and the purity of their surfaces according to his intentions. But those critics largely missed the point that, for Irwin, the places where the art met the world were not surfaces, they were thresholds, and if they were misapplied, all was lost.
I’ve written here and here about the social aspect of Irwin’s project, his determination to alter the visual weight of things in order to change the importance they’re assigned in the world. For instance, his discs are artworks whose edges seem to disappear into the room, sending the eye seamlessly from artwork to environment and back again.
After the discs, Irwin made clear, thin columns. They were designed to do the same thing, but even more extremely. Irwin wanted the column to act as a centering device, something that centered a room, something that attention bounced off of to reflect the rest of the room.
Instead, they were often presented like jewels, with ropes around them, and treated as centers of attention. (There’s still one shown this way in a Southern California mall, I believe.) Because of this, Irwin considered them failures.
But in Irwin’s show at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (half of which is closed, half of which remains open through April 13), he forbade ropes—or any other marking devices around the column. And his column succeeded: It was knocked over and broken. Meaning: It disappeared enough for somebody to miss seeing it entirely and to walk right into it.
When I was at the show in February, the room where the column had been was empty. It was a tribute.
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, and what’s up with Irwin in Seattle right now.