Critics’ Picks

Robert Irwin, Arrowhead, 2018, shadow, color, reflection, 84 x 106 x 4".

Robert Irwin, Arrowhead, 2018, shadow, color, reflection, 84 x 106 x 4".

New York

Robert Irwin

540 West 25th Street
January 17–February 22, 2020

Having rejected painting’s insistence on viewing reality through a two-dimensional plane with four corners nearly fifty years ago, Robert Irwin opted to forgo the medium’s frame—and the medium itself—in favor of creating “site-conditioned” interventions that responded to the inherent qualities of existing locations. Natural and artificial light as well as scrims (a kind of translucent curtain commonly employed in theater productions) became part of his repertoire and were implemented within architectural surroundings to heighten one’s understanding of perceptual phenomena that might otherwise go unnoticed: the scale of a room, for instance, or the way in which exterior light permeates an interior space.

Each of the eight wall-mounted sculptures here feature a sequence of six-foot-tall fluorescent lights, wrapped in colored gels and attached to rectilinear fixtures. Unlike a group of similar (and Flavinesque) sculptures Irwin produced from 2014 to 2015, these glass tubes will never glow—thus foregrounding this exhibition’s title: “Unlights.” Fastidiously arranged, irresistibly seductive, and seemingly buoyant, the works feel teleported in from another dimension.

For every sculpture, sections of the exposed wall—which form equidistant gaps among the bulbs—are painted varying shades of cool gray, invoking trompe l’oeil shadows and thereby softening the distinction between the object and its environment, or that which is seen versus that which is physically present. From afar, the eight gray rectangles of Arrowhead (all works 2018) also appear to be opaque tubes. However, as one approaches them, the eye registers the erect shapes as belonging to the painted wall in an acute moment of revelation. Such optical sleight of hand is quintessential Irwin, a storied Minimalist able to cultivate a deeper awareness of our own embodied perception while maintaining an unwavering devotion to philosophical inquiry and artistic invention.