Light Makes Right

A striking retrospective in san diego of light and space artist robert irwin flaunts the artist’s exploratory, ethereal grandeur.

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“Light and Space” (detail view), 2007, Robert Irwin, 115 fluorescent lights, one wall, 271” x 620”
Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Museum purchase with funds from the Annenberg Foundation, 2007.47, ©Robert Irwin 2007, Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD)

Robert Irwin’s ambitions for his art-and for art in general-have an epic reach. He has long subscribed to Mondrian’s point, which he has frequently quoted, that “Nonfigurative art brings to an end the ancient culture of art.” Irwin believes that the implications of the introduction of abstraction by the likes of Mondrian and Malevich, are still being assimilated. “What I’m trying to find out is if this new aesthetic works, and if so, what kind of world would this be,” he explained in a 2003 interview focusing on his design for the then-new Dia: Beacon. “In another 200 years, we’ll find out whether it was a great idea or not.”

Seeing his recent retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, “Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries”-a large portion of which remains on view through April 13-one must conclude that this intense exploration of “an art of pure inquiry,” as he calls it, has been a great catalyst for Irwin’s own art. Forget about the next 200 years; in his case, the past fifty have yielded a remarkable procession of work.

Irwin’s career pivots on the emergence of his now-iconic acrylic disks from 1969, which, in essence, ended Irwin’s life as a painter. The surfaces of these wall-mounted objects are vaporous; their edges appear to be virtually non-existent. The effect is particularly dramatic in this exhibition, for which Irwin installed the museum’s disk under a skylight. Usually these works have been seen by artificial light, simply because natural light isn’t generally available. In this exhibition, the disk becomes matter turned into pure visual sensation. Focusing on the untitled disk as a turning point, we can look back and see how Irwin, who emerged as an Abstract Expressionist painter in the late 1950s, gradually became discontent with gestural painting, eliminating everything except lines and monochrome fields of color. Even the notion of the canvas became superfluous to Irwin’s vision by the end of the sixties. Of course, the end of Irwin the painter marked the emergence of Irwin as the progenitor of the Light and Space school. Starting in the seventies, he was no longer creating objects but installations in response to the spaces offered him. Thus, it only follows that no Irwin retrospective can be a conventional retrospective.

In “Primaries and Secondaries,” Irwin hasn’t resurrected his earlier works in a literal way. Rather, he has simply adapted his established approach of transforming places to settings. Squaring the Room is quintessential Irwin, a subtle transformation of a portion of one gallery. He’s created a temporary white wall with his trademark scrim, to cut off a triangular corner of an oddly shaped gallery, literally squaring the space. Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue 3, enlarged from its late 2006 debut in New York, is as enveloping as Squaring the Room is subtle. This striking work features six immaculately polished aluminum panels in primary colors-three positioned high above the viewers heads and three on the floor (with red above red, and so forth). These panels never appear the same twice; once again, the light in the room is the variable.

By contrast, the light in Light and Space, the newest work, is carefully controlled and artificial, consisting of numerous white fluorescent tubes. Created during an extended residency at the museum, the work is part of an extraordinary commitment made to Irwin: the MCASD has acquired all five new works on view, as well as a 1992 work specific to its La Jolla location, entitled 1°, 2°, 3° 4°. For Light and Space, Irwin has filled a towering wall with V-shaped configurations and single tubes. They create an intricate field of light and shadows, while the white wall on which the lights sit ends up looking as if it’s grey. While Irwin’s chosen medium clearly evokes Dan Flavin’s sculptures, the end result does not. Just as Irwin’s Getty Garden isn’t centrally preoccupied with horticulture, this installation isn’t literally about using electrical light as a sculptural medium. Like all of Irwin’s work in this landmark exhibition-museum director Hugh Davies served as curator-Light and Space, despite its monumental scale, keeps the focus on the viewer, as the perceiver of its myriad effects.

-Robert L. Pincus