PRINT March 1979

Robert Irwin’s Bar Paintings

IN THE SEMITROPICAL MICROCOSM THAT the West Coast art community might seem to be, compared with the mundus patris of Paris/New York, I imagine Robert Irwin to occupy an historical position analogous to Hans Hofmann.The native German lived through and participated in the major artheavals of his immediate world: Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism (of a sort), and Abstract Expressionism. He made a substantial contribution to his last affiliation, Abstract Expressionism, and expanded it toward another mode, the color painting of the 1960s on. Irwin experienced and labored within the styles of his surroundings—Lebrunesque figuration, Abstract Expressionism, color painting, the “L.A. Look,” and environmental/installation art, pushing those last two developments toward their respective frontiers.

But Irwin, in a strategic sense, occupies a larger territory: his work has helped, for better or worse, to effect an epochal change in the entire notion of art—that is, from art with a limited repertoire of automatically art-type objects like paintings and Modernist-traditional sculpture, to whatever situating of whatever materials yields the esthetic experience desired by the artist. The pivotal works in Irwin’s esthetic “leap”—which was actually a gradual, incremental metamorphosis from work of art to work of art, something like Jackson Pollock’s development from a Thomas Hart Benton tyro into the “action painter” of legend—are the “color bar” paintings of 1962–64. Four of the original eight paintings were recently the subject of a lean and succinct exhibition in the Matrix Gallery of Berkeley’s University Art Museum.

Like his peers at the Ferus Gallery (that bellwether Los Angeles emporium founded jointly by Ed Keinholz, Walter Hopps and Irving Blum), Irwin had a real facility for nonobjective painting. But Craig Kauffman, Ed Moses and Billy Al Bengston, as each of their subsequent bodies of work has borne out, were more at home in the mode. Irwin began to take a more analytical tack toward painting. “In those days,” he says in the show’s catalogue text, “you just got yourself in a good Zen mood and emoted. But six months after the ‘emotions’ of my involvement with those paintings, much of what I had done just didn’t seem necessary.” Increasingly dubious about “gesture,” Irwin painted a series of hand-held canvases in order to exorcise the wrist-bone bullshit and develop an anti-gestural control. For gesture irritated Irwin the same way it did Frank Stella when he registered his famous complaint about brushiness leading to “nursemaid painting” and the preciousness of “passages.”

When he returned to a more normal painterly expanse, the result was the first bar or “line” paintings, of about 1960, in which the influence of Irwin’s favorite AbEx’ers, Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning, was distilled, as he puts it, to “a painterly game of pick-up sticks.” Still, these pictures, which are good ‘n chewy paintings in their own right, could be “read” in the Renaissance-halfway-transformed-by-Cubism convention: pictorial depth through overlapping planes and lines. From this residual and typical dissatisfaction (Irwin’s creative process has always involved a rather merciless self-criticism of his previous work), came the color bar paintings.

At this point I want to make it clear that I make no specific chronological claims for Irwin’s particular manifestation of “overall,” “stripe,” “color-field,” or “color bar” painting. By 1962, as we all know, Ad Reinhardt had fully developed his almost monochrome, metronomic progression of paintings; Frank Stella had moved on from the “black paintings” to further reaches of a-painterliness; Kenneth Noland had gotten as far as the “targets”; Robert Morris had made some large, iconic paintings involving horizontal bars; and Andy Warhol (who had his first gallery solo in Los Angeles in that year) had sucked the handiwork from his canvases. But Reinhardt’s thrust, as his writings suggest, involved a metaphysic of stasis; Stella’s, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get reincarnation of Cedar Bar toughness; Noland’s, an ongoing search for a workable graphic; Morris’s, the embryo of Minimalism’s knock-on-the-wall version of esthetic reality, and Warhol’s a religion of tackiness. Irwin’s thrust, on the other hand, pointed toward an investigation of visual perception itself, at once laboratorical and poetic. Besides, six-month calibrations of who-got-there-first are rightfully the province of forgettable doctoral dissertations. I will say, however, that the 1962–64 color bar paintings are noticeably early works that, with slightly less than a generation’s retrospect, stand up remarkably well both as solid, beautiful, and concise pictures, and as harbingers of Irwin’s later art. They constitute (along with the work of several others) the most important accomplishment of postwar art on the West Coast.

But back to the nitty. Irwin reportedly sequestered himself in his studio, commencing in 1962, for hourly days running to double-digits, and for unbroken strings of days running to weeks and months, to produce these pictures. (Interestingly, John McLaughlin, the granddaddy of California reductivism, said that he painted seven hours a day, seven days a week, taking time out only for a round of golf. What this means, I think, is that to paint paintings whose overriding message is, “See what happens when you look,” you have to stay in the studio and look at them a lot.) Irwin says the color bar paintings required, all told, ten paintings to get one survivor; he destroyed the rest. But he admits much of that percentage is due to his trashing almost all the work from that first year.

The paintings are of two sorts. The first, earlier and smaller than the others, carry cutesy titles alluding to the existence of serious artists in Los Angeles and possibly a different perceptual “set” lurking among them (A Way Out West), or the visual mechanics of the paintings themselves (Bands in Boston), which Irwin (“I was always at a loss for titles”) eventually gave up. The second type comprises more direct, even less painterly, pictures that Irwin says more successfully embody his ongoing esthetic concerns—as followed through in the concave dot paintings, the aluminum discs, the plexiglass discs, the acrylic columns, the scrim-modified rooms and the completely nonmaterial headwork of recent days.

A Way Out West, 1962, is a light beige painting, approximately 5 1/2 feet square (a favorite format of reductive painters, e.g. Reinhardt). It looks as if two coats of ground color have been applied, with “holes” of the first, and darker, coat peeking through the second. But Irwin doesn’t recall deliberately layering two slightly different colors. I must admit, even poking my fleshy nose right up to the duck and staring, under museum lighting, I can’t quite tell whether the slight undulation results from ever-so-subtle different coats of paint, or from the unrelenting, uniform, seasicky brushwork. The number and disposition of the color bars are, however, important. About ten inches down from the top and terminating about four inches in from the vertical edges (as do all the color bars), is the first, in a beige identical to the composite ground. Approximately 14 inches below it lies the second—a citron job that seems to bleed or halate into the ground. Two feet further down is the third, an aged white or light gray, which seems a little thicker than its upper brothers (it casts a stronger shadow in raking light). Finally, a foot below number 3, is a second lime-green’er. The total effect is of that perceptual duality so intriguing to Irwin: a pictorial balancing of visceral elements and an intimation of something more gaseous, pure and universal.

Bands in Boston, 1962, the other small painting in the show, operates in the same manner, with a Detention Center green ground rendered in an even more oceanic brushiness, and with similar white/gray and chartreuse color bars that seem to vary somewhat in height (cherishing my doubt, I refused to measure), between, say 5/16 inch and 1/4 inch, and in paint thickness. The incredible thing is that the bars were made by hand and freehand—no ruler, no snap-line, no masking tape—and that the paintings are better for it. The bars have a softness of exactitude unavailable, in my experience, with the surgical boundaries wrought with masking tape; occasionally they display that wonderful “bleed” obtainable only through straight-edgeless application. Irwin, by the way, is not boastful about his manual dexterity: he says only that “the human eye is an incredible instrument,” and that he just pushed himself to do what he felt he had to do. The final nuance of the bars is their beveled ends, an elegant solution to a thorny problem: stumbling the termini into the ground would smack of too literal a “floating” and invoke a Surrealist vision, while a blunt, vertical crop would be simply too visually disjunctive.

The two bigger paintings, both untitled and both about seven feet square, one dated 1962 and the other 1964, boil down the color bars to two. The earlier picture is a nasty orange, a difficult color that recalls, for me, both Barnett Newman and an early, possibly graduate-student, work by Larry Bell in which the seeds of an illusory box are planted. Irwin says that if the color wasn’t right from the tube, it was close. The color bars—one two feet down from the top and ending six inches in from the sides, and the other, of the same length, 24 inches up from the bottom edge—are the identical color as the ground. The later painting is much the same layout (save that the lower color bar is closer to the bottom) in a buttery yellow.

It is with the larger color bar paintings, incidentally, that Irwin commenced his well-known prohibition against the photographic reproduction of his work. The reasons were two. First, if the alleged virtue of an abstract painting was that it did not pretend to represent (i.e. depict) something it wasn’t, how then could a serious abstract artist allow a photograph to represent the painting? Second, and more germane to Irwin’s work (although perhaps less interesting for the sociology of modern art), the important visual information in the paintings was simply not transferable to a reproduction. That information, most saliently, is, as Irwin puts it, how “the eye becomes suspended between the color bars.” Such a suspension—and the consequent self-awareness of the viewer (“What am I seeing?” leads to “How does my consciousness see?” leads to “What is this state I call consciousness?”)—is manifest only in the later, larger, and more austere paintings, with ground and bars the same color, bars down from four to two, and less evident brushwork in the ground. Thus is Irwin able to say that, while the earlier, smaller color bar pictures “are among my first mature work,” the larger pictures “contain the essence of everything I’ve been involved with since.”

All the extant color bar paintings are, however, magnificently fashioned. The stretchers are of finely carpentered mahogany. Some of the paintings have translucent white plastic stripping fastened with countersunk screws; other are embellished with a mahogany border, flush with the sides, on the back. None of this is decorator’s superfluousness. Irwin’s incipient “fetish finish” emanates from the same perceptual discipline conceiving the paintings and the mechanical rigor executing them.

The public fate of the color bar paintings was, alas, unfortunate, considering their internalized success. They were shown once at the Ferus Gallery, and they made an appearance in the glamorous-sounding but ultimately inconsequential São Paolo Bienniale (several of the pictures were destroyed in shipping, and their texture obviated repainting). They were left out of “Post-Painterly Abstraction” (although whether by Clement Greenberg’s taste or Irwin’s own recalcitrance, the artist does not remember). Irwin, as his subsequent work and intellectual demeanor attest, is not one to carp over short-circuited career opportunities. The spare public life of the color bar paintings is regrettable not because some future Parke-Bernet auction will be deprived of a couple of record West-Coast prices, but because, in Irwin’s words, “the qualified people who make recent art-historical judgments simply didn’t get a look at these paintings, which could have been part of a more valuable dialogue.”

Irwin left painting per se behind with the color bar paintings (the dot pictures and the sprayed discs have always struck me as some species of retinally provocative art object, but without the conventional earnestness of old-fashioned, within-the-rectangle painting on canvas). Yet he does not disown the medium, or patronize it with I-was-the-same-way-myself-when-I-was-your-age commendations of quaint prettiness. “The paintings of any given time,” he says, “contain performances on the questions raised in the previous period, or raise questions to be performed upon by subsequent periods. . . . You always give up something when you move away from an established method of working. I’m not against painting. There’s hardly anything so wonderfully organized, from inside to out, as a painting.”

With seminal early work by an artist who, over a period of time, has radically altered his morphology, we must sometimes be told about the intrinsic quality. In Robert Irwin’s color bar paintings, we can see it.

Peter Plagens