Out of the Studio, Into the Light

The long journey of Robert Irwin

<em>Untitled, 1969</em>: After Robert Irwin gave up painting on canvas, he turned to larger, sculptural installations that masterfully play with light and shadow. (Cathy Carver)
Untitled, 1969: After Robert Irwin gave up painting on canvas, he turned to larger, sculptural installations that masterfully play with light and shadow. (Cathy Carver)


Robert Irwin is not the art-world star that some of his contemporaries from the 1960s have become—think Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, Ed Ruscha, Nam June Paik, Vito Acconci—but in most respects he is as important as they were in revolutionizing the very definition of visual art. Before the ’60s, contemporary art consisted primarily of painting, with sculpture a distant second. Afterward, contemporary art seemed to be everything but painting: performance, installation, body art, earth art, conceptual art, video art, artists’ books, photography, sound, and music. And though painting and sculpture have never truly gone away, today they compete within a carnival of forms and fashions that can seem chaotic to the uninitiated.

Critic Lucy Lippard famously explained the shift away from painting and sculpture in the phrase “the dematerialization of art.” That is, artists in the 1960s no longer wanted to supply collectable objects to a well-heeled collector class, thus relocating art’s aesthetic center from the object to the artist. Artists did things, and those things were the art; what got sold were the artifacts of this activity, in the form of photographs, videotapes, sets of instructions (such as those for LeWitt’s wall drawings), and books (like Ruscha’s landmark 1963 paperback Twentysix Gasoline Stations).

Irwin’s career supplies a different narrative: a move from paint to light, from materiality to immateriality, from object to perception. Rather than leave painting behind in search of fresh alternatives, or because the medium seemed to lack social currency, Irwin found himself finished with painting through his own devotion to it. In essence, when his art no longer fit on canvas or even a wall, he painted himself not into a corner but out a door.

Born in 1928, Irwin began his career in Southern California at a time when the ruling models for painting were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline. But as curator Evelyn C. Hankins notes in her catalog essay for “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change,” a richly rewarding, recent exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, “Irwin, like so many artists of his generation, was driven by a fierce determination to work his way out of Abstract Expressionism.” In his paintings from 1958–60, however, he had not yet broken free. Irwin painted heavily impastoed surfaces using smears of oil paint that partly disguise passages of pure color and quasi-figurative forms. What distinguishes them from other paintings of the time is their diminutive size (about eight inches by eight inches) and their frames, which Irwin built, choosing wood that complemented the colors of the paintings. He wanted these “hand-held paintings” to be picked up and inspected, like a photo album.

Irwin’s next series consisted of larger pieces, a bit more than five feet by five feet. Now known as his pick-up stick paintings because of their overlapping horizontal lines of colors against nearly monochromatic grounds, these works still hewed to the vocabulary of abstract expressionism, yet Irwin was not trying to express himself or put his feelings on the table. Rather, he was refining his thinking about what painting could be. As Hankins puts it, these works reflect the development of the artist’s “signature method of homing in on particular elements in order to reduce painting to its very essentials.”

In the suite of paintings that followed, in 1962, the sticklike slashes were further reduced to a few carefully spaced straight lines that cross the canvas horizontally, as narrow as if made by a fingernail. At first, Irwin chose colors that make the lines stand out against their buff- and ecru-colored backgrounds, but in the later paintings the lines nearly disappear into brighter, more uniformly painted fields. This virtual trompe l’oeil effect marks a major divide not only in Irwin’s work but also in the ontological basis of modern art: the artwork begins to depend for its existence on the perceptual skills of the viewer. If one speeds past these line paintings, one sees just a blank surface; only the patient, perceptive viewer receives the reward of recognition.

At the same time that he made these paintings, Irwin decided to prohibit the photographing of his work, on the grounds that photographs did not and could not represent what the work was. He then proceeded to make paintings that were and remain unphotographable. His untitled paintings of 1963–65, consisting of thousands of tiny dots of red and green, initially read as blank canvases. Only on prolonged inspection does one notice an outward bulge in the center, a disk that is both literal (the rectangular canvas is convex) and painterly (the dots are denser in the center than at the edges). This “aura,” as Hankins calls it, simultaneously distinguishes the painting as a painting and mystifies the relationship between the canvas and the wall, or between what she terms “object and field.”

In the 50 years since, mystery of a perceptual sort has been at the heart of Irwin’s art (and, I might argue, has become one of the essential markers by which we now distinguish any work of visual art from its surroundings). This is certainly true of the work that Irwin became most known for after he abandoned painting on canvas in 1965. He turned instead to fabricated industrial materials like aluminum and acrylic as his supports and to employing a paint sprayer to achieve a luminous, matte surface on circular disks that jut out from the wall. Insisting that each disk have its own space, he customized the lighting in situ so that the difference between wall and work almost disappears. In one case, the lighting produces circular shadows that overlap, further disguising a disk’s edges. Later he made acrylic columns that stand like conventional sculpture, except that their polished surfaces shift tantalizingly between mirror and window as the viewer’s body moves, transparent one minute, reflective the next.

These discrete objects were only way stations to Irwin’s final destination, which since 1970 has involved the subtle alteration of light and space in site-specific environments, primarily using scrim fabrics. His first attempt at such an installation happened at an impromptu show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. By changing the gallery’s light bulbs, hanging a scrim across half the room, and installing a wire along one wall, Irwin not only toyed with the edge of invisibility but also challenged the museum’s abiding idea of art as something rooted in objects.

At the Hirshhorn, the Irwin show ended with a large gallery that seemed entirely empty at first. In fact, the whole inner wall was veiled by a floor-to-ceiling diaphanous scrim that seemed to bend the edges of the room inward in all four directions. Once a viewer noticed its existence (and according to the museum guards, many visitors breezed through in blissful ignorance), the scrim wall appeared to be curved, though it was the gallery wall of the famously round museum that held the curve—the scrim wall was absolutely flat, unblemished except where a door opening breached its surface near its center. Any nonbelievers in the perceptual magic of Irwin’s art had to surrender in the face of such a startling yet intangible visual experience.

Irwin’s move away from objects to environments and from pigments to light put him at the forefront of a California-based movement in the ’70s called Light and Space. He now appeared in group shows that melded elements of minimalism, conceptual art, op art, and installation. Although Irwin was not alone in journeying away from abstract painting to less familiar and sometimes unrecognizable forms of art, there is an irony in the form and timing of his departure. The erasure of difference between an object and its field that the artist assiduously courted flew in the face of critic Michael Fried’s contemporaneous assertion, in the much-anthologized essay “Art and Objecthood” (1967), that art should exist as a self-contained, self-sufficient entity. Anything that required the participation of the viewer to achieve its full aesthetic effect was “theater,” and theater Fried considered the enemy of art.

To the extent that Irwin’s environments, starting with the painted disks, depend for their success on the tenacity and perceptual skills of a sophisticated viewer, they are undoubtedly theatrical, and as installations doubly so. But so is most of the work we consider contemporary art, nowhere more so than in current practices dubbed “relational” because they engage the artists directly with the audience. By turning the experience of art away from the object and toward the audience, Irwin placed himself in the vanguard of his time, and ours.

Irwin’s mature installation art is unmediated—evanescent, beautiful, and distinctive, relying on the viewer to perceive its immediacy, to become an equal participant in the experience. And as the otherwise excellent exhibition catalog demonstrates, Irwin’s best work is unmediatable. It resists any form of reproduction. This is an aesthetic strength and, in one sense, a practical weakness. More so than with any other artist, you have to be present to get it—which may explain why Irwin has yet to become the household name he ought to be.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Andy Grundberg is an art critic and the author, most recently, of How Photography Became Contemporary Art.


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