PRINT December 1977

Robert Irwin’s Recent Work

FOR SOME 300 YEARS ART has been rooted in the Cartesian separation of mind from matter. The emphasis on the object, on the noun rather than the verb, and the critical language which supports this position, stems from a philosophical tradition which divides the world into two circumscribed arenas of self and the physical world, art and the object. This separation constitutes one of the central issues of contemporary art. Nowhere do we discern its effect more clearly than in Robert Irwin’s work.

Though Irwin has not consciously placed himself in opposition to this prevailing ideology, his artistic concerns force a confrontation with the schemas that have guided much analysis of art in this century. According to Irwin, “To be an artist is not a matter of making paintings at all. What we are really dealing with is our state of consciousness and the shape of our perception.”1 The artist is thus someone involved in an activity which alters our awareness.

For Irwin art involves a specific act of intention: “The one thing unique to art is the intention of art. To measure it by any other means is to mistake what it is.”2 The prevailing view of art confuses methodology with intention, defining acts by their methodology alone rather than by their explorative nature. In Irwin’s art the act of exploration is an inquiry into the premises surrounding the nature of perception and the perceptual process itself. Art for him has become theoretical; as an act of inquiry it is a “non-thing.” Its form becomes the thinking process itself, and its methodology is determined by the context in which the investigation is carried out; it is not art’s main defining characteristic.

Previously, the distinction between art and science would be made solely on the basis of its methodology. But for Irwin, this distinction is too narrow. Just because two people paint does not define them as artists. A person whose intention is to use paint as a method of changing one’s political ideology would be in Irwin’s sense a politician. The intention is not to investigate the premises and underlying assumptions of the discipline, but to act politically. Where the methodology is at the service of the specific act of examining assumptions we cannot make a distinction between the artist as scientist except through the manner of the inquiry. In other words, the context of the thinking process must always be related to the type of thinking that is taking place.

Irwin’s view of art raises several interesting questions. How can states of awareness be talked about? Can language be used to transmit the rich, complex experiences initiated by the artist? Or, even more problematically, how can experiences that are not manifested in physical objects best be treated within current critical constructs? Irwin’s work suggests that these questions will not, indeed cannot, be answered, because they do not arise within the art world’s current parameters of discourse. These questions are not just speculative (although they are epistomologically very interesting); they are pragmatic, since they are precisely the ones raised by Irwin’s work and by the experiences it evokes.

Art, for Irwin, is a special act of inquiry; the area of investigation of the visual arts is perception. Irwin’s view of this domain has expanded in recent years. At first he used the word “perception” to mean visual experience alone, thus confining art to the investigation of its own territory. But he found that this view was too limiting; it seemed to exclude too much of the investigation that was going on in the art world, as well as in other disciplines, such as psychology and philosophy. More recently his concept of consciousness, the ultimate abstraction, has taken the place of perception. This concept is crucial to an understanding of Irwin’s explorations. For him it is the prime element. The moment we become aware of ourselves we begin to posit the Cartesian separation between the res cogitan and the res extensa. In order to reintegrate ourselves into the world, this sense of consciousness must be reexamined.

The term “consciousness” can hardly convey the complexity of shifting experiences contained within it. Consciousness really includes all experience—memory, feeling, the senses, reasoning, ideas and conceptions. Consciousness, for Irwin, is a heuristic concept; it does not imply any transcendental overtones. Nor does his inquiry presuppose any absolute hierarchies. Since we have no way of dealing with consciousness as a whole, we have developed points of view—disciplines—which frame a part of our experience and provide modes by which we can experience it. The mistake that is often made is to substitute such a methodology (and the constructs we draw from it) for the essence of reality. As Wittgenstein put it, “One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we looked at it.”3

According to Irwin, we have entered the arena of formalization where these heuristic concepts are redefined and given strict boundaries that are held to be real and limit any further investigation. They govern what we will be looking for and, consequently, determine what we will find. We have developed these disciplines in order to cope with the plethora of information supplied to us by our minds and senses. They become the contexts through which we gain comprehension of that information. But for Irwin the important point to remember is that the questions determine the answers and the context conditions the type of information that is allowed to enter the frame of consciousness. Irwin has come to understand the distinction that Wittgenstein made between our ability to talk in certain terms about the world and the fact that our world is actually constituted in the way we describe it. The substitution of one for the other is the basis of our metaphysics, of our philosophical, as well as our artistic, tradition. This often results in conceptual and perceptual confusion. At this point the artist/inquirer reopens the questions and loosens up the contexts.

The series of projects that Irwin did at the Whitney Museum in the spring of 1977 explores these themes and the compounding abstractions which tend to move us away from his view of the “phenomenal world.” Entering the museum’s fourth-floor gallery the viewer confronted a black line painted on the wall at eye level which ran around the entire room. In the center of the space, also at eye level, a black frame (the same width as the painted line) demarcated the bottom of a scrim which descended from the ceiling and stretched the length of the gallery. Its juxtaposition with the line on the wall made it difficult for the eye to fix the location of the scrim in the space. Thus the positions of the line and the scrim in relation to each other—and to the viewer himself—are brought into immediate ambiguity.

Walking around the room compounded the ambiguities and illusions. The extension of the lines to the window engaged the window’s black frame in the perceptual interplay. Each movement by the observer presented another contradictory aspect of the relationship between the room and the window. Viewpoint and context become the frame through which the work achieves cohesion. No one reading is “correct”; a view of the frame as a floating line was contradicted by an image of it as solid, stabilizing and holding the scrim. The complexity was augmented by the way in which the scrim functioned. From one vantage point it appeared transparent, from another opaque. Finally we must consider the sum of all our viewpoints if we are to “understand” the work. Memory plays an important part in the consciousness of the experience.

One key to the work lies in the catalogue itself, which Irwin designed to complement the installation. In the beginning of the book, over a plan of the fourth floor in which the gallery itself is represented as a solid black rectangle, he has placed two overlays, one of the museum’s ceiling grid, the other a black rectangular diagram of the floor. Each overlay is a rectangular shape in itself as well as an abstraction from the actual site. The overlays do not create as coherent a system as one would expect. Each represents a part of the gallery seen from a different viewpoint. For example, the ceiling grid is seen as if the observer were looking up from the floor, but it can also be comprehended as a separate object, viewed as perpendicular to the viewer/reader. And the black plane representing the floor oscillates between two possible readings—the floor itself or a suspended rectangle. In a sense, the overlays re-create the ambiguities of the actual piece. Written descriptions help to resolve that ambiguity, at least temporarily. The words become a “frame” which organizes one’s perception, while the rectangular frame itself becomes a compounded abstraction.

It is evident that the context in which the overlays can be seen is altered by the experience of the actual piece. They lose much of their initial ambiguity because of the knowledge gained from the installation; the understanding of how it works provides a new context which in turn alters our perception. For example, the grid overlay could be seen ironically as a classic Minimal device. When framed by the black rectangle showing through from the overlay beneath it, it takes on the appearance of a hanging painting—a natural assumption for those who habitually experience art from looking at pictures of it in books and magazines. Irwin’s work addresses precisely these assumptions. His creation of complex visual contradictions and instability throws the viewer into a state of perplexity, a condition necessary for orthodoxies to be questioned and for inquiry to begin.

Irwin’s intention becomes even clearer when his work is compared to Kenneth Noland’s (which happened to be exhibited concurrently at the Guggenheim Museum). Noland’s lines function as edge and boundary. The paintings accept the limitation of the frame, although in many of them the lines have the potential of extending beyond the frame without destroying the composition. The sense of infinite extension is circumscribed by the abstraction of the frame, which transforms paint into object and separates work from observer.

This separation is the sine qua non of the Cartesian esthetic. The line as frame, once innovative, has become a hidden cultural persuader that influences the way the eye perceives a set of relationships as well as their mode of existence. This cultural context is so powerful that questions about its existence are rarely asked. Noland, with his line/stripes and strangely ambiguous spatial systems, never made it an issue; Stella touched upon it slightly when he violated the rectangular format. But the nature of their exploration was still literally circumscribed by the frame. In this respect their logic is that of Cubism rather than of Mondrian and Malevich. This does not imply any value judgment. The exploration and extension of the logic of any system is important for the understanding of that system, of its limitations as well as its utility.

At this point it is important to correct the erroneous categorization of Irwin as a Minimalist. The mistake is the result of the structuralist fallacy of substituting means for ends, form for content. Judd, Stella and Noland did move away from the Cubist esthetic, presenting a new sense of order and composition. But they still operate within the boundaries and frames imposed by the object. The Minimalists’ reductive tendencies are rooted in their interest in shape and structure. The concern was for opaqueness of the art object. Morris’ statement about Johns is crucial to Minimalism: “More even than in Pollock’s case the work was looked at rather than into and painting had not done this before.”4

On the other hand, Irwin’s art is predicated on the complexity of phenomena and the transparency of experience. His simplicity of means is an effort to move away from the denotator to the denoted, to find a language and a context within which experience can become central. His desire to reduce the means results from his concern for the fullness of experience. Hence, whatever form the means takes, it must not call attention to itself. To the extent that it does so, it proves a distraction from the content of his art. Consequently, Irwin’s search is for transparency rather than opaqueness. His work seems to require a seeing through rather than a looking at. This is particularly evident in the Line Rectangle which he installed at the World Trade Center as part of the Whitney exhibition. There the focus was centered on what we perceived through the rectangle.

Composition is simply not an issue for Irwin. His interest is in phenomena, not in the edges which contain it. The issue of reductivism, so integral to Minimalism, is irrelevant to Irwin. His problem is the multidimensional nature of experience, which he finds limited by any overlay that we may place upon it. The artist’s response to those who question the emptiness of some of his gallery installations is to ask, “Empty of what?” The question presupposes the Cartesian paradigm and the logic of the object. It is quite evident that any room is full—full not only of its own structural relationships, but of waves, sounds, etc. Our senses have been operating within the controlling paradigms of the modernist definition of physicality and tactility. The consequences of this conception have been an atrophying of the conception of vision and a limitation on the possibilities of experience. Irwin’s interest is on the other side of the frame. He begins where Minimalism stops—at the edge.

The history of line in art itself shows how abstraction can be extended and developed once its premises have been fully absorbed. It clearly exemplifies how the schemas which we overlay on the world are invested with a phenomenological reality. Line, an invention of man, had come to be seen as a property inherent in nature. Historians such as Wölfflin went so far as to distinguish styles on the basis of the emphasis placed on line. Entire systems were developed on the basis of the extended logic of this concept, or, as Irwin calls it, a compounded abstraction. (Just what is abstract about this is not entirely clear vis-à-vis any other type of experience. What is an experience without an abstraction of some type?)

In a sense the Black Plane on Fifth Avenue (painted on the intersection at Forty-Second Street) and the Line Rectangle, as well as the photographs of the different grids and rectangular patterns of New York which he included in the Whitney catalogue, are extensions of the perceptual/conceptual issues inherent in the Whitney piece; all are examples of a compounded abstraction. We become aware of the larger and larger contexts as we move from one work to another. Irwin’s constructs are not idiosyncratic conceptions. The schema as well as the phenomena are found throughout the world, both natural and man-made. They are extensions of the operations of the mind both within the artist and the culture itself. Unlike the Whitney piece the Black Plane and the Line Rectangle “disappear” in the sense Irwin intends his work to. By focusing our attention on the phenomena already present and not any specific object, the work’s function is completed by the observer’s consciousness of his own perceptual possibilities and the presence of the existing phenomena that the works make us aware of.

In this respect Irwin’s work also relates to Duchamp, whose intention seems antithetical to the phenomenologically oriented artist. Duchamp made us aware of the artist’s role as pointer, as context-maker. His Fountain, a benchmark in modern art history, points the way toward a reexamination of both the nature of art and the “esthetic sensibility.” Duchamp’s non-retinal interests raise pointed questions about the role of context and conceptual schemas in the nature of art and perception. Duchamp becomes a curious paradox when seen in relation to subsequent American art. Although known for his involvement with objects, his emphasis on non-retinal art was an important move away from object-making. He was concerned with the boundaries of this traditional aspect of art and used the context itself as a mode of questioning the activity. Duchamp’s ironic sense of life played an important part in encouraging the theoretical activities which mark so much of today’s art, including Irwin’s. He pushed the logic of the object to the brink of dissolution, but did not take the final step in his art (although he did so in his life).

These issues have become central for Irwin as well. A shift in methodology was essential to pursuing this intention. By giving up the studio he decided to move to an esthetic of response and interaction rather than imposition; to shift from making objects to finding phenomena. It was a kind of quantum leap which forced him to respond to the givens of each situation. The wall and scrim pieces that followed between 1970 and the present are varying attempts to investigate the relationship between context and experience. The pieces varied from more ephemeral and evanescent scrims which almost solely concern light to the wall pieces such as Pace Wall of 1973 or Mizuno Portal of 1975. Some, such as Scrim Veil of 1974 at Mizuno, combine the scrim with the lines created by or extended from its edges. Each of these works tended to occupy space as does an object. Yet they called attention to the ways in which we encounter experience more than to their formal properties. The Black Line Volume of 1975 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago was in many ways Irwin’s most successful work. By using the existing black baseboards and simply bisecting the space with another black line, Irwin made the viewer aware of the volume that was already there as well as of the narrow column which extended to the ceiling in the center of his marked-off area.

The line here is not a circumscribing element in the traditional sense. It functions to break its own limits. This line has changed, for Irwin, from a mark that exists in a context to an element making a context—or making it apparent, in a Wittgensteinian sense. Where in his early paintings line existed within a boundary, the lines of this piece, as with the Whitney piece, enlarge the context by extending our awareness of the lines, edges and frames that already existed before the artist made his presence felt in the room. It is interesting that even after the work is gone, the observer finds his perception of the existing space altered. A heightened awareness of the light, shape and other phenomena of the space and what occurs within it results in interaction with the work. In other words, it has affected our consciousness by expanding our sense of the art environment to all immediate surroundings. We have become aware of the various frames that shape our perception. The pieces outside in the city and the photographs are examples of how this experiential awareness can be extended. They emphasize how central the role of the individual consciousness is in creating our sense of order—and of art.

The makers rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

—Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”

For Irwin this order can only be found within a context. In the pieces for the Whitney exhibition he challenges the underlying orthodoxy that this context must take the form of an object. This has been the fundamental axiom of art since Descartes, but past methodology does not seem particularly relevant to Irwin’s line of investigation. Through the object we cannot investigate phenomena directly but only by allusion or metaphor. Irwin’s “objects,” like those of Duchamp and Malevich, have a very problematical existence. Each artist attempts in his own way to open up new areas. Their problems were classic: to invent a language or to find a methodology suited to their endeavor. Each innovation is usually framed by the older tradition until it finds its own appropriate language and context. Irwin has attempted to enlarge the context in which the esthetic experience may take place and where it is ultimately grounded.

Edward Levine is chairman of the art department at Wright State University.



1. Jan Butterfield “The State of the Real. Part I,” Arts Magazine, Sunnier 1972, p. 48.

2. Conversations with the author.

3. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, New York, 1958, p. 48.

4. Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part IV,” Artforum, April 1964, p. 50.