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Friday, April 4, 2008

Time for Irwin, Part III

posted by on April 4 at 11:34 AM

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.

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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.
That is fucking hilarious. I'm sorry if I don't understand art but come on. Can you even parody that?
Posted by elenchos | April 4, 2008 11:41 AM

I've cleared out the spare bedroom enough for the column to fit in it. I mentally imagined it being there yesterday; today, yes, it is not there. Wanna come over and check out my art?

Oh yes the Philistines will laugh but the new absence-of-art-is-art art is provocative.

And more: all 6 billion people in the world have the same columnar vacuity in their houses, apartments, mansions, rooms, hovels and favelas.

The new absence-of-art-is-art art: giving "vacuous" a new meaning !

Posted by unPC | April 4, 2008 1:01 PM

I saw some of Irwin's works at a southern California artists retrospective during the 1960s and 70s a few months ago at the LACMA. Your analysis of his work has really put him in a new light for me, but I think my favorite Southern Californian artist is still Turrell.

Posted by Cook | April 4, 2008 1:17 PM

I don't think they're supposed to "disappear" so much as open up another space by refracting light, kind of like what Judd's milled aluminum boxes do by reflecting light...

...I'm glad that Bob Irwin's museum-oriented work is still getting shown, even though he's moved on to public art. His work during the transition from painting to landscape architecture is some of the most interesting work I've ever seen. His writings are more straightforward, relevant, and insightful than any critic's writing I've ever read. His bio has helped sustain a lot of people's studio practices outside of academia. Unlike most other artists who were successful at the same point in history, he has avoided becoming a self-parody, cranking out different versions of a trademark piece or style. He's an innovator and a risk-taker in his own studio practice. Sometimes that puts the actual physical objects in peril.

I imagine he might be pleased to hear about the destruction of one of the columns. Not because of any press it might generate, not because it might historically echo Duchamp's Large Glass, but because he seems to be quite alright with leaving his old work behind.

And have you seen how the Portland Art Museum has installed their disc? Ugh.

Posted by tdb | April 5, 2008 12:07 PM

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