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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Time for Irwin, Part V

posted by on April 9 at 12:18 PM

Last Thursday, a show opened at Greg Kucera Gallery, of nine new paintings and a print by Seattle artist Jeffrey Simmons. It’s hard to see why when looking at the flattened JPEGs online, but Simmons’s paintings have historically caused disbelief. According to Kucera, viewers often think they’re lit from within. Sometimes, it’s hard convincing people otherwise, he says, and it’s easy to see why: they glow.

I’ve been writing about Robert Irwin’s work for the last week. Irwin, unlike Simmons, a painter’s painter, has been all over the place in his career, as his current show at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diegoówith architectural drawings and models, installation, sculpture, and paintingódemonstrates. (The show closes April 13, and doesn’t travel.)

But Irwin has his roots in the “light and space” art of Southern California. Imagine the opposite of Tony Smith’s six-foot, black, minimalist cube, “Die,” and you have the work of the light and space artists. Their objects melted into the light around them, or their planes of colored light, as in James Turrell’s work, seemed to solidify.

The typical lighting schemes of artólight created in paint, from “within,” as Simmons’s work plays with (Simmons also plays with the conventions of photography, despite the fact that he only ever uses paint), or applied from without, in gallery spotlightsówere either toyed with or thrown out entirely.

The “dot” paintings were the last paintings Irwin made, his last stop on the line of traditional depiction. They are white canvases marked by hundreds of tiny, hand-placed, almost indiscernible colored dots. The dots are like swarms of insects, gathering most tightly in the center of the canvas and dissipating out toward the edges. In them, you can see the coming of the curved discs, which did not depict disappearing edges but had disappearing edges.

The single dot painting in the San Diego show was dimly lit and hung just outside the elevator, so you saw it out of chronological order, as both an introduction and a farewell to his early period, which is laid out on the museum’s upper floor. The piece functioned less as itself than as a prop in the story about Irwin’s career. Considering that Irwin directed this museum’s installation, the way the works were installed functions the same way as the selection of words in an autobiography. In one sense, the artist was having his say about this work: Like the columns, Irwin considered the dots, ultimately, to be failures. But there’s another reason, too, why the fact that this one was hard to make out seems right, even if it looked wrong. Irwin has spent his career making objects that exhibit a marked ambivalence about being seen, about being the center of attention. Instead, they want to direct attention. The way the dot painting was displayed in uncertain shadow meant that this central crisisóshared by many artists, not just experienced by Irwinóhad its moment in the show.*

Coming up: What’s happening with Irwin in Seattle right now.

* There’s no image with this post because the museum hasn’t provided one. The PR office, typically helpful, hasn’t responded at all to two requests for an image of the dot painting. Nobody, apparently, wants it spotlit.

UPDATE: The poor press agent is home sick, but they may not have an installation shot. I suppose I’ll post a slide of a dot from another collection (MOCA), findable here:


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Thanks for the series on Irwin. I've been fascinated with his work ever since I saw his documentary in architecture school.

Has the 9-Square installation by the Henry been altered?

Posted by sam_iv | April 9, 2008 12:41 PM

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