April 1 – 30, 2022
Robert Irwin has been focusing on light and space for the larger part of his career. It began in the mid-1950s in Southern California, where he continues to live and work today. At the time, he was deeply influenced by Abstract Expressionism. As Irwin’s work began to develop in new and original ways, he thought about painting less as an object than as a continuum for perception. By the 1960s, he had visited New York where he met Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery, who first showed his work in 1966. Three years later, despite Irwin’s success with the exhibition, he gave up working in his studio and devoted himself entirely to installation-based art, otherwise known (by the artist himself) as Conditional Art. Given the radical edge of his work, he chose to continue his career in Los Angeles as opposed to moving to New York.
In his current exhibition at Pace (540 West 25th Street), Irwin’s focus on light and space has once again coalesced in seemingly unexpected ways. There is a sense of virtual objecthood in the current work that generates an embodied presence. Here I am reminded of the writer Vladimir Nabokov’s modestly controversial definition of art as “precision” in contrast to science, which he described as “intuition.” In the case of Irwin, however, the perceptual aspect found in recent works holds a certain balance between the two: here precision and intuition come together.
The “Unlight” series displayed on the first floor of the gallery is precisely laid out, meaning that the audience can easily focus on a single large-scale work, more or less on its own wall, or pull back and see one work in relation to another. While each of the “Unlight” works reads horizontally, the various components are assembled vertically, altogether six feet high. The most noteworthy elements in these works are delicate fluorescent tubes (minus the light) accompanied by related fixtures, including translucent gels, glass bulbs, precisely cut strips of electrical tape, and anodized aluminum in various colors. In essence, the “Unlight” works are reliefs meant to be assembled on the wall. Apparently the installations were done piece by piece, section by section. Clearly none of these works came together as a single piece ready to be hung. According to the gallery staff, the process of installing this show was a major event involving many well-trained workers over a considerable length of time.
The question continually raised in this current work is: why are the “Unlights” unlit?
As I understand Irwin’s work, there is a certain indirectness in how he comes to terms with his intentions. Rather than confront an issue directly, his tendency is to go for the opposite or to shift the context in a way that heightens or enlarges the problem he is grappling with. For example, in the “Unlights” he has spoken about his materials as being “Shadow + Reflection + Color.” This suggests that his notion of the materials themselves is without physicality—and, by alluding to physicality, these “materials” are transformed into a working conceptual paradigm. In lieu of actually seeing light within the construct of the work itself, the unlit presence of the work suggests a contingency on sources of light emanating from the outside. Perhaps this is where the paradox of concept and form are felt most directly. The immediate absence of light intensifies our awareness of accepting its material (conceptual) absence.
On the seventh floor of the Pace multi-purpose building, Irwin’s exhibition continues with an installation of three-dimensional “columnar sculptures” constructed in thick geometric sheets of acrylic. Each of these complex, relatively slender forms rise up from a two-level floor with a balcony above. The colors include gray, green, and red—the latter a color that Irwin rarely uses. These works have a different presence from the “Unlight” constructions in that they function more uniformly in their acrylic materiality and appear more familiar as sculpture.
Despite the three-dimensional familiarity of these constructions, the two-dimensional “Unlight” reliefs are the works that would bring me back to the gallery a second or third time. These are a visual counterpart to some kind of hypnotic noise, opening a door to the unknown present.
Irwin’s ability to open such unfamiliar perceptual doors coincides with his ability to expand our notion of art and our relationship to it. In an exhibition from July 2013 commissioned by the Secession in Vienna, Irwin agreed to join a colleague, Jennifer Winkworth, for a public conversation that covered many topics, including his interest in architecture and rethinking some of the important installation works he had done earlier. Many believe that Irwin shares art with theory, which is undoubtedly true. This is ineluctably part of how he works and thinks in relation to his work. One extraordinary comment that came out of that session gets at the heart of what Irwin is proposing in his exhibition at Pace: “To be an artist is not a matter of making paintings at all. What we are dealing with is the state of our consciousness and the shape of our perception.”