The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., has just opened a major exhibition that celebrates one of America’s most influential postwar artists. Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change is the first American museum survey of Irwin’s work outside of California, where he was a leader of the Light and Space art movement in the 1960s.
Exhibition curator Evelyn Hankins, in her catalogue essay “Experiencing the Ineffable: Robert Irwin in the 1960s,” explains that capturing the arc of Irwin’s pioneering and ever-changing artistic trajectory has been a daunting task. Irwin’s evolving artistic work doesn’t fit into convenient art theory pigeon holes. His path unfolds in its own particular way and is totally devoted to the experience of seeing. xxxxx
Like many young artists in postwar America, Irwin was enthralled with Abstract Expressionism. He began painting in that style at his Los Angeles studio, but realized by the late 1950s that his involvement lacked any real connection or emotion. To discover his own artistic calling, Irwin writes in the exhibition catalogue that he “began considering how I might discipline my approach as well as extend my sensibilities.” From 1959 until 1970, he followed a step-by-step process in which he created a successive series of works that acted “in direct response to those questions raised by the previous series.” He began by questioning the image “as meaning and then even as focus.” Then he questioned “the frame as containment, the edge as the beginning and end of what I see.” In this way, he “slowly dismantled the act of painting to consider the possibility that no-thing ever really transcends its immediate environment” (Irwin, “Notes Toward a Model,” catalogue, p.139).
Right: Untitled (c. 1960-1), oil on canvas, 64 x 64″. Collection: Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, CA.
Curator Hankins has organized the exhibition of twenty-nine works chronologically, beginning with Irwin’s “Hand-Held Paintings (1958-1960),” which were the artist’s initial post-AbEx response to achieving greater control over his compositions and the materials he was using. These works were done in a small scale so that he could focus on every detail: “It was a discipline…I had much to learn.” He spent much effort exploiting the properties of oil paint to “produce heavily textured works that beguile the viewer with exacting arrangements of intricate, interlocking brushstrokes.” Each of the hand-held paintings was executed “spontaneously and in a single setting.” (122-123)
Irwin’s next series was a group of larger “pick-up stick paintings” that were totally different from the meticulous hand-helds: in this series, the artist experimented with a straight line as a means to reduce painting to its essential; he also worked with various paints and different sized brushes.
Left: Crazy Otto (1962), oil on canvas, 66 x 65″. Glimcher Family Collection.
These led to his even more austere “Line Paintings,” in which he hand-painted straight lines onto monochromatic canvases. He became highly intrigued with the idea of breaking through any kind of “edge” or artistic containment, and a white plastic frame is the only “frame” he used for these line paintings (125-26). As the catalogue points out, “Only with extended looking do subtle difference emerge as a result of contrasts of thickness, texture, and gloss. Using traditional painting materials, tools, and techniques, Irwin created in the line paintings works of great subtlety.” There are minute variations in brushwork, color and placement, but all within the context of the whole: “Each line painting is an exploration of Irwin’s conception of what paint can do” (128).
Irwin’s next series was the “Dot Paintings,” which he created “as a means to further activate the painting surface and relate that surface to the space beyond it.” He also experimented with pushing out the center of the canvas to slightly increase the painting’s physical presence “and decrease the prominence of the edges” (129).
Right: Untitled (detail), c. 1963-65, oil on canvas.
The idea of eliminating the frame/edge/boundary associated with paintings next led Irwin to experiment with his sculptural “Discs” (1966-69), first in aluminum and then in acrylic. Both kinds of discs are circular convex shapes that project from the wall and rely on lighting “to convey ethereality.” They seem to float. Irwin’s essential question at this point was, “Can I paint a painting that doesn’t begin and end at the edge,” but instead takes in and becomes involved with “the space or the environment around it?” (132)
Ultimately, Irwin’s determination to “slowly dismantle the act of painting” led him to get rid of his studio and archives in 1970. From then on, his artistic self has ventured out only “in response” to specific site projects such as the Getty Museum, where his perception has been “allowed to wander and indulge without the demands to function” (139).
Left: Untitled (1971), 145 x 9 x 3 1/2″. The Panza Collection, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
The final gallery in the exhibition is a giant declamation of perceptual experience: the viewer walks into a large empty white space. One wall is the giant curve that defines the signature circular Hirshhorn architecture designed by Gordon Bunshaft. On my exhibition tour with curator Evelyn Hankins, we were joined by Robert Irwin himself: both urged me into this big space and asked, “Well, what do you see?” I wasn’t seeing anything, and as I turned around to convey my ignorance, I suddenly felt it. Irwin had strung a giant white skrim extending floor-to-ceiling and running approximately 120 feet across one wall to “square the circle.” The effect was staggering, and my vertigo was a literal “perceptual experience” in motion.
As Evelyn Hankins concludes in her carefully-considered catalogue essay, this site-conditioned conclusion is the perfect finale to Irwin’s artistic trajectory, reminding us that “we all have an innate capacity to alter the ways we perceive and engage the world around us.”
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change will be at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through Sept. 5th. The catalogue, edited by Evelyn C. Hankins, is published by Delmonico Books/Prestel: Munich, London, NY.
Amy Henderson is Curator Emerita, National Portrait Gallery