PRINT November 1981


All paths meet in the eye, where they are converted into form, and produce a synthesis of external looking and internal seeing. Starting from this meeting-point, manually-made structures are formed, which, though completely divergent from the optical impression of an object, are not inconsistent with its total reality. The student transforms his various experiences into work, by means of which he displays the degree he has reached in his dialogue with the natural object. His progress in the contemplation and study of nature, and towards a mature philosophy of life gives him the power to produce free abstract forms which achieve a new naturalness in his work, transcending any deliberately schematic forms. Thus he creates a work (or is involved in the creation of works) which are analogous to the works of God.
——Paul Klee, “Paths of Nature Study”1

ROBERT IRWIN UNDERSTANDS ART AS existing on a line between metaphor and presence. Metaphor evokes comparison with something else, and through comparison reveals aspects both of accordance and dissimilarity to the idea or image to which it refers. Presence, on the other hand, emanates a self-coherence so powerful and complete that it resonates. When we recognize presence we understand it as unique. We can know presence in the person of Georgia O’Keeffe, say, or in the structure of a Gothic cathedral.

The content of Irwin’s art derives from the presence of the site where the artist works. Presence for Irwin includes much more than just visual phenomena—it is the impression the site presents to all of the senses of the body and mind. The physical structure expressed in response to this presence acts as a metaphor for the location it occupies. The art’s content is both autonomous in its presence, and wholly integrated with its context. In the end, the work assumes a symbolic power, in the true meaning of the word “symbol.” Unlike the traditional symbols, Irwin’s work does not refer to the presence of some other thing, but to what is immediately “here.”

Lately Irwin has integrated his work so completely into the site that it hovers at the edge of invisibility. He has evolved this approach, which he calls “site determined,” gradually over the past 12 years. Previously Irwin adjusted the light, color, or even space in which a given object was placed, to create an idealized and controlled perceptual experience. Examples of this are the convex Plexiglas or aluminum discs of 1968–70, installed on a white wall and activated by two lights on the ceiling and two on the floor. After some time of looking at these objects in their controlled installations, they seemed to dissolve into the empty space surrounding them. Consequently it then became visually impossible to distinguish figure from ground. The discs enabled us to perceive the complete simultaneity of form and emptiness, or of substance and void, which is the goal of meditative practice.

Whether these works are perceived in relation to the language and structure of art, science, metaphysics, or some other dimension, depends, of course, on the individual viewer. Response to the work of art may or may not be related to the artist’s intention, and Irwin’s intent is, in fact, far from metaphysical. He describes the process of his work as an objective scrutiny of the nature of perception, whose mystery he finds so fascinating, both conceptually and physiologically, that its exploration has become the major mode of his artistic inquiry. His extensive writings in recent years have considered the various steps in the artmaking process, from the initial perception through its transformation into an abstract thought, and finally to the production of a physical object.

The perceptual dissolution of figure and ground or object and space has remained an esthetic constant in Irwin’s work since the disc series of the late 1960s. It challenges traditional categories used to differentiate painting and sculpture, breaking through conceptual and physical boundaries and, further, demonstrating their relations—and by extension our relations—with the environment. Over the past decade, and particularly in the last year, Irwin has moved progressively toward relating the object to a full environment, rather than just to the immediate space around it. This reflects his increasing willingness to relinquish the dramatic and theatrical control that characterized the earlier disc series. Instead of working from a desire to dominate a situation, he now attempts to surrender to the presence of a place. As much as possible he approaches each situation without expectations or preconceived value judgments as to the beauty, ugliness, prestige, accessibility, or economic considerations of a particular opportunity.

The group of works that marks this transition from control to connectedness is a series of acrylic triangular columns produced in the early 1970s. A column was commissioned for a large shopping mall in Northridge, California. The commission offered a unique opportunity for Irwin to have some control of the site, as he was able to interact with the developer before the mall was constructed. He requested a location in a skylit atrium that extends through three levels of the shopping mall. Unfortunately, the developer of the shopping center died before the project was completed, and those who saw it through did not understand Irwin’s sculpture. They complained that it “didn’t do anything” and installed artificial blinking lights near the sculpture, in complete violation of the artist’s esthetic intentions. Despite this unsought-for intervention, as the daylight changes, the acrylic column sometimes reflects a single color of the spectrum on the surrounding walls; occasionally the full spectrum becomes visible, and at other times only silvery gray shadows project onto the walls. From certain angles the column’s transparency dominates, and the piece becomes virtually invisible. Or, as with the disc, matter becomes visually interchangeable with energy in the form of reflected light.

To a certain degree the acrylic column Irwin conceived for Northridge was adjusted—the scale, for example—in accordance with his considerations of the site (and vice versa). It is not site specific, however, for it could be moved to another location. Nor is the content of the work as fully determined by site as it is in later work.

(It is interesting to note that the change in Irwin’s work toward less control of and more interaction with the environment coincided with his participation in the Art and Technology program initiated by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Irwin participated in various experimental situations dealing with perceptual awareness, including UCLA’s anechoic chamber and biofeedback training.)

It is useful to consider the four methods Irwin has conceived for suggesting the relationship of the art work to its context: site-dominant, site-adjusted, site-specific, and site-determined. In the first case, the artist simply produces a work in the studio with no consideration of site. Most noncommissioned, portable paintings and sculpture, including Irwin’s early work, such as the line paintings, would fall into the site-dominant category. Many commissioned works of art, however—such as those in churches or temples—are site-adjusted, though not necessarily by choice. Although created for particular situations, they have often been removed from their original sites, ending up in museums, where they function autonomously as art. Irwin’s acrylic column, which could theoretically be transposed this way, is an example of this type.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is a traditional example of a site-specific work, where content and compositional format respond directly to the architecture. There are subtle differences between site-specific and site-determined works. While Christo’s fence incorporated the California legal system and patterns of social interaction as well as the terrain of Sonoma and Marin counties, it is not impossible to imagine that piece working successfully in another location. And while Jonathan Borofsky’s or Judy Pfaff’s specific installations certainly cannot be exactly transported from one place to another, their imagery and methodology remain consistent in widely differing locations.

Irwin has defined site-determined work as that which allows the site itself to generate the appropriate parameters of medium, scale, and content, and which thereby creates an intrinsic (nontransferable) identity within each particular site. Using fluorescent tubing, stainless steel, scrim, Cor-ten steel, green security screening, aluminum painted black, and grass, Irwin’s site-determined works of the last three years show a great degree of stylistic variation. Behind the stylistic diversity of Irwin’s site-determined works is an esthetic consistency based on his commitment to integrating the work with its setting in a beautiful form. This desire to focus on the relationship of the object to space, of the figure to ground, or of form to formlessness, represents a break with the esthetic tradition of the West, where so much work has received attention because it is at radical odds with its context, rather than being part and parcel of life’s flow. By now there are many examples of contemporary sculpture that depend for their success upon self-conscious interaction with their surrounds. But the particular nature of the surrounds has not so fully determined the format of work executed by artists such as Richard Serra or Christo as it has in Irwin’s recent pieces. Daniel Buren’s work proceeds from considerations similar to Irwin’s,2 but his focus is more purely theoretical and less sensual than is Irwin’s. Consequently Buren’s method is predetermined, rather than wholly generated by the site, although the context of the site absolutely dictates considerations of placement and scale.

To put it simply, Irwin’s recent methodology is an extension of the modern tendency to broaden the boundaries of art by breaking its frame, both physically and conceptually: “Breaking the frame was easy” Irwin said recently. “But then where is the frame of reference, Art or not? Can you establish an alternative frame of reference which would encompass all? Understanding through historical context is what most people do. What is the larger frame of reference? Being and circumstance.”3 The artist’s dilemma in working outside the frame of reference of art is that the work may become invisible as art. It is fortunate that Irwin is willing to risk invisibility. “Expertise in serving tea consists in doing it so there is nothing to notice” (Tea Maxim of Matsudami Fumei).

In 1979, Mark Rosenthal, curator at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, conceived a series of site-determined exhibitions entitled “Space as Support,” including works by Daniel Buren, Robert Irwin, Carl Andre, and Maria Nordman. That museum’s architecture is a typical example of an architect making a strong esthetic statement of his own rather than considering the nature and function of a museum. It is a poured concrete structure, composed of aggressive ramps and balconies jutting on several different levels into a central open space. As in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, it is difficult for works of art to compete with the dynamic scale and form of this building. Rosenthal’s concept was to change the physical domination of the building and to produce installations in response to the museum’s structure.

Irwin’s solution was to install continuous horizontal, parallel banks of fluorescent light fixtures, 16 feet apart, some as long as 100 feet, on three different levels of the museum. Since this installation called attention to itself, many viewers looked primarily at its material—the fluorescent lights—and associated it with Dan Flavin’s work. However, Irwin’s use of fluorescents here is quite different from Flavin’s. Whereas Flavin typically uses fluorescent lights to alter or dissolve the architectural structure in which they are installed, Irwin employed the fixtures here to point the viewers toward a fuller awareness of the architectural structure they occupied. Although each bank of fluorescent tubes extended the architectural lines of the ceilings of the galleries into the central atrium, this order was apparent only when looking down at the whole complex—both the museum and the installation. From the highest gallery it became evident that the placement of the fluorescent lights followed the structural characteristics of the museum and that the installation formed a coherent structure of its own. From this perspective the three banks of lights coalesced into a series of triangular configurations, forming an equilateral triangle in the negative space of the museum’s center. Irwin’s work seemed literally to break through the museum’s walls—that is, the boundaries of support implied in the exhibition’s title.

Like all of Irwin’s work, and installation work in general, this piece demanded the viewer’s extended participation. The installation’s complexity could be fully grasped only by walking up, down, in, and out of the museum. In exploring the work, individual viewers could discover the order of what appeared, from lower levels, to be relatively chaotic. In a very real sense, they were also given the opportunity to create the work with the artist, a role that Irwin has frequently encouraged. “In time,” he has written, “this responsibility [of determining what is art] is carried over to likewise implicate the observer as a direct participant.”4 This piece focused attention on the museum itself—its scale, texture, space, and light—and the phenomenological richness of qualities that usually go unnoticed in more conventional exhibitions. Curious viewers discovered that the crisscrossing lines of light expressed a structural relationship to the museum, but the fluorescent tubes could be viewed in isolation from the museum as well. Consequently it was not an entirely site-determined work, so thoroughly integrated into its context that it could not be perceived except in relationship to its site. Since the structure was not preconceived, but derived from the museum, it should be understood as transitional between Irwin’s site-specific work and that which is more fully site-determined.

The long, low wall Irwin completed at Wellesley College in 1980 is the first permanent installation of his work in the United States. (Ironically, until the Wellesley commission, the only permanent installations of Irwin’s work were in Count Panza di Biumo’s villa in Varese, Italy. Still no permanent installations can be seen in California, the artist’s home state.) The Wellesley piece is located on a gently rolling wooded hillside on the shore of a secluded lake. Removed from the cluster of dormitories and classrooms at the center of the campus, this section of the lakeshore serves as a quiet, romantic retreat. A more idyllic location, or one more difficult for a work of art to compete with, would be difficult to imagine. The phrase “compete with” is key—we have come to expect art to be something that can compete with—that is, announce itself as separate from—its environment. Is there a way, Irwin asks through his new work, for art to act in a symbiotic relationship with its ground of being? We forget that we do, in fact, exist in just such a relationship, in coexistence with nature. The carbon dioxide we expel with each breath provides fuel for photosynthesis, just as oxygen, the product of photosynthesis, sustains our breath. Every hydrogen atom in our bodies has been cycled at least once through the sun.

Before I saw Irwin’s piece at Wellesley, I knew what I was looking for. He had described it to me as a long, low wall, about 40 yards long, constructed of stainless steel. I arrived on an October morning that was not quite rainy but definitely wet. I walked along the lakeshore in the quiet morning mist. The sky, the lake, and Irwin’s wall were all gray. Had I not been told how the sculpture might look, I would have missed it altogether. I was looking for a “wall,” and what subliminally entered my awareness was a rippling, grayish presence. It was very low—only two feet at its highest, where the gentle hills dipped—and it disappeared at either end into the rising earth. There was nearly nothing to notice.

Irwin perforated the thin band of stainless steel with abstract leaf patterns. Reminiscent of the decorative cutout patterns of Henri Matisse, these abstract figurations are certainly unlike anything Irwin had previously produced. They arose out of his response to what he felt to be the most compelling presence of the secluded woods and lake: the flickering light filtered through leaves and branches and the moving surface of the water. This lambent movement is always present, throughout all the seasons and hours of the day. As Judith Fox, the Wellesley curator who commissioned this permanent installation as part of a 1980 exhibition entitled “Sitework” says, “its [the work’s] straight line and undulating height move through time and the seasons extremely gracefully, reflecting the subtle and changing colors of the trees, the shore of the lake and the rising and falling of land.”

The wall’s brushed surface is especially sensitive to the movement of light in the landscape, stirring in the viewer a sense of the continuum of nature’s processes. Irwin’s articulation of the hedonistic pleasure to be enjoyed in the sight of light flickering outdoors recalls the French Impressionists.

Looking through the cutout leaf forms at the actual leaves on the ground or the moving surface of the lake, we experience figure/ground shifts. The perforated shapes, which are actually empty space, appear alternately as solid form against the background, and as void. If we look back at the trees themselves, silhouetted against the lake, their leaves seem to be holes in space, rather than matter. In an almost imperceptible way Irwin’s piece alters perception of the landscape, heightening our experience of a naturally beautiful place—and this is no small feat. Rather than calling attention to itself as art, the work returns us to the land. This site is not far from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau’s experiences of nature must have been similar to those that Irwin’s wall provokes.

Robert Irwin’s untitled installation at a California gallery in May 1980 was located about a hundred yards from a busy, boardwalk street scene. This Market Street site in Venice is next to both the pop/body culture of the oceanfront and the elitist world of opaque storefronts that conceal the studios and galleries of internationally acclaimed producers, artists, and dealers. Along the boardwalk at the end of the street is an outdoor roller disco, whose music competes with the sound of the waves. Next to the roller disco is Muscle Beach, training ground of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sidewalk stalls sell designed airbrushed underwear or “etheric paintings of your aura” only a few feet away from the newest Robert Rauschenbergs and Roy Lichtensteins. For the most part, the two worlds never meet: the galleries don’t allow skaters inside, and not too many patrons walk on the beach. Ten years ago neither the roller discos nor the jet set were here, only the transients and the addicts. It is largely because artists moved into and improved the neighborhood that Venice property values have escalated to such an extent that those who originally upgraded the area are being forced out.

This installation’s seeming opacity, combined with its openness to the street—its quality of both enclosing and exposing its environment—contributed to its site-determined quality. More than any of Irwin’s previous scrim installations, this one fully incorporated and referred to the entirety of its context. It succeeded, unobtrusively, in integrating the pop culture of the street scene with the sophisticated world of avant-garde art. Too many “works of art in public places” conspicuously differ from their surroundings. With Irwin’s characteristic skill at using the fewest elements possible, he simply removed the storefront of the gallery and replaced it with a scrim of very finely woven nylon fabric that was virtually imperceptible, even at close range. It was approximately 28 feet long and 14 feet high and served as a divider between the “empty” space of the street and sidewalk “outside,” and the “empty” “inside” space of the gallery behind it. The interior space visible through the scrim is 29 feet wide by 40 feet deep, and has two deep skylights side by side toward the back of the room. About half way into the space it seemed as if Irwin had placed a black line, as he did in earlier scrim installations. But I was told, and only reluctantly perceived, that the “black line” was in fact a white molding on the walls and across the ceiling and floor. The scene that Irwin created, or, perhaps more accurately, revealed, in juxtaposition to the boardwalk, is one of light, space, and most of all, emptiness. An empty, light-filled space could hardly be expected to grab the attention of people saturated by the continuous action, color, sound, and smell of the scantily-clad bodies of the beach scene, not to mention the changing drama of the seashore environment. Irwin engaged in a nearly impossible challenge, yet virtually every person who walked down the street stopped and did a double take.

Irwin once remarked that if artists could heighten people’s sensory awareness of the richness that is always present, then art would not be seen as something separate from everything else. “What would happen,” he asked in 1971

if that state of consciousness that I keep talking about became, in a sense, the consciousness of society as a whole, that we really thought in those terms, that we were really that aware, that conscious or sensitive to our own selves. . . . If we were really that sophisticated then our art would be an integral part of our society and the artist as a separate discipline or art as a separate event, in a way, would not exist.5

In the Venice situation, Irwin’s work was perceived as something worthy of attention, wonder, and involvement, but not necessarily as art. For me, the work allowed as close an experience of pure seeing, without my structuring the experience by memory or other conceptual overlays, as is possible—in part because its stillness and emptiness were in such contrast to the bustling movement of the street. The space behind the scrim looked like fog, although there obviously could be no fog there. Eventually, the translucent fabric in front of the space became apparent. This, however, did not help explain why the very same space looked and felt so different from the inside and from the outside of the scrim. Were the illusions produced by this work—the perception of space as material substance—any more or less real than their opposite—the perception of objects as solid mass? It is difficult to understand what it means just to see, or just to hear.

The elimination of the gallery’s facade called attention to the architecture framing it. The classical references of the columns and arches were dramatized by Irwin’s simply gesture, which connected the present with a Californian stylization of the past. (The space exactly next door was Irwin’s studio ten years ago. So the current piece incorporated not only historical references but autobiography.6) This work synthesized presence and metaphor.

The approximately 700-foot-long and 7/8-inch wide Cor-ten steel wall that Irwin completed for the city of Dallas in December 1980 jogs in starts and stops through a congested intersection beneath a freeway interchange. As Irwin’s use of Cor-ten steel in a massive scale here is often glibly compared to the work of Richard Serra, it is important to note the differences in the artists’ esthetics. Whereas Serra uses monumental planes of Cor-ten to express force, power, and energy, Irwin chose it for its ability to fuse with, rather than stand out from, its environment.

The Dallas site is the most problematic Irwin has grappled with to date. It has no museum context, seductive natural beauty, or recreational appeal. It is centered in a jumble of empty lots, construction sites, freeway overpasses, and unremarkable multistoried buildings, whose dreariness is emphasized by the spectacular urban renewal taking place around the Hyatt Regency’s glass-castle hotel only a few blocks away. Because of the traffic confusion created by a series of intersections, passing motorists can get at best only a momentary glimpse of the wall. The situation is better for pedestrians, who can view different perspectives of the wall as they cross the intersection—but few people seem to walk through this part of town.

The project was conceived by the city of Dallas in conjunction with a small park intended to humanize the area beneath and contiguous to the freeway. After the city of Dallas was selected to receive an Art in Public Places grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Irwin was chosen to do a work on this site. He worked with the landscape architects and the developers as well as city officials. The project was a long and arduous one, and ultimately fell short of the funds needed for full realization. A circular red brick path that would echo both the configuration and the color of the freeway and the walls remains unconstructed. The site itself is enormously complex, and its overall configuration cannot be perceived from the street level. The site is not visually engaging, and it is conceivable that a monumental abstract sculpture here might improve it. But this is not Irwin’s mode of operation. Rather, he engaged in a focused concentration on the place in order to feel its presence. He was particularly sensitive to the confluence of the freeway’s hard geometry of concrete and Cor-ten steel, and the park’s soft geometry of small hills planted with grass and trees.

Irwin decided to construct a Cor-ten steel wall in three sections (three because of street interruptions), that would run the entire length of the park, rising in places to a height of ten feet, and in others disappearing from view (because of the rise of the hills that it cut through), but continuing in a narrow slot embedded below the surface of the turf. The wall’s disappearing act echoes the movement of cars through the streets, behind hills, around corners, under overpasses. Portals cut out of the wall where it crosses sidewalks create variations on the theme of movement and disappearance, as pedestrians pass through and beyond these framing devices. As viewers we can remain outside it as passive observers, or enter into it. The more we walk around the sculpture the more integral to its environment it becomes, its appearance continually shifting. At times the Cor-ten steel merges visually with the freeway structure behind it, or, seen from the other side, with buildings. From other angles, a flat, earth-colored plane juts out dramatically against the sky. As with the site itself, there is no vantage point from which the entire work can be seen. Consequently, the piece as a whole builds cumulatively over time, through movement in space, and by comparison of scale and distance; it is never about just one thing. It incessantly shapes and reshapes our perception of its context, as it in turn is defined by multiple relationships to its surroundings.

What does this bit-by-bit, forward and backward, gradual accumulation-through-time esthetic express? That it is impossible to separate experience or events from what conditions them; that they are in constant flux. Efforts to control and master are illusory. A traditional monumental gesture would have failed to dominate the scale and congestion of this site. Irwin’s approach of entering into rapport with what is present, rather than inserting a foreign presence, provides a model for full conscious participation.

A friend of mine reported that Irwin’s work in Dallas suffered because of its location, which presented too much visual competition to the piece. He missed the point—that the art was intended to point toward its location, with all of the congestion and confusion, and the work reveals an inherent, if fleetingly glimpsed order in the midst of this chaos.

In evaluating or even perceiving Irwin’s recent work we must be willing to understand and accept his criteria. The context must be allowed to enter fully into the esthetic expression. Picking up the gauntlet thrown by Marcel Duchamp, Irwin challenges us to enter into esthetic, experiential dialogue with the world.

Irwin’s newest work is at P.S. 1, a former schoolhouse recycled into an alternative space.7 Fragile neighborhood security and the building’s institutional and architectural character were among the qualities that immediately struck Irwin as salient presences of the place. Irwin’s response was to install security fencing indoors, at the entrance to the building, and between the stairwell and two corridors on each of four floors. He also replaced the ordinary glass panes in the stairwell’s windows with dense glass bricks. These bricks are nearly impervious to vandalism, and are more esthetically intriguing, in their articulation of light in changing patterns of transparency and opacity, than were the original window panes.

The fencing Irwin used to construct doors that extend from floor to ceiling is green in color, and soft and flexible in texture, unlike chain link fencing. The aluminum door frames are painted black. Design and detailing are elegant. The doors move on their hinges silently and gracefully. From some angles on the staircase or in the corridors the screen doors look like floating planes of opaque color. The clean lines and bright color of these enclosing but translucent utilitarian structures are visually distinct from the chipped and peeling surfaces of the school’s floors and walls. They look and function more like architecture than art.

This work goes one step beyond the contextual integration that has characterized Irwin’s site-determined works so far. In addition to metaphorically incarnating the presence of the place, the work actually improves the safety of the building for its inhabitants. It also enhances the building’s structure, accentuating the long, tall shafts of enclosed halls, already layered with planes of color and shifting patterns. Observers/participants can effect changes of enclosure and openness, opacity and continuation, by passing through, opening, and closing doors, all referential actions. As with the Dallas wall, it is impossible to grasp the entirety of the P.S. 1 piece at one time. Its presence is cumulative. This quality of being unable to see the whole work links these two recent pieces to the earlier discs, whose forms also could not be fully grasped, since they were continually dissolving. Thus Irwin’s work demands the surrender of the viewer to an experience that cannot be fully known in a singular moment, just as his methodology requires his own surrender to the site.

Can the architectural details of the P.S. 1 installation be classified as architecture? As architecture, would they be subject to different criteria, and a different perception than as art? These questions indicate the discomfort incurred in confronting an art form that does not conform to traditional categorizations. But Irwin’s piece suggests the possibility of a “both/and” inclusion of art and architecture, as opposed to an “either/or” dichotomy—an issue complicated by the proliferation of “architectural sculpture” in recent years. These new forms call for new modes of understanding and perception.

With regard to Irwin’s symbolic incorporation of presence in his site-determined work it is useful to recall Suzanne Langer’s discussion on the nature and function of symbols. She distinguishes between discursive and presentational symbols; the former, she argues, are general, and require application to concrete data, while the latter are specific, “the given of itself that invites us to read more general meaning out of the case.”8 Irwin’s site-determined forms belong to the second category, the nondiscursive or presentational. Langer feels a cultural loss of the power of symbolization, resulting from our progressive separation from nature and of work from ritual. Irwin’s site-determined works are actively engaged in breaking down the rigid thought patterns and attitudes toward experience that are responsible for this separation.

His process is also exemplary of John Cobb, Jr.’s understanding of the potential for creative transformation that is inherent in each moment.

There is in every momentary experience the aim to be, and the aim to be in a particular way that is as satisfying as the circumstances allow. That aim is fundamental to the becoming of the experience. In many experiences the aim at satisfaction is the aim to break new ground, to go beyond repetition of the past, in other words to grow by the inclusion of possibilities that have not been actualized in the past. Finally, in some experiences the satisfaction toward which energy is directed is one that has in view a wider future, the welfare of others as well as one’s own [for example, Irwin’s work at P.S. 1 in New York]9 .

Robert Irwin’s art encourages the dissolution of the perceptual dichotomies of figure/ground, observer/artist, form/function, subject/object, and art/life, in an experience of the ongoing process of interrelatedness that is the true nature of our experience.

Melinda Wortz is an art critic and director of the gallery of the University of California, Irvine.



1. Quoted in Eberhard Roters, Painters of the Bauhaus, New York: Praeger, 1969.

2. See Jean-François Lyotard, “The Works and Writings of Daniel Buren: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Contemporary Art,” Artforum, February 1981, pp. 56–64.

3. Conversation with Robert Irwin, January 14, 1981.

4. Robert Irwin, “Some Notes on the Nature of Abstraction,” in Perception and Pictorial Representation, D.F. Fisher and C.F. Nadine, eds., New York: Praeger, 1979.

5. From an interview with Irwin by Frederick Wight in Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space: Four Artists, Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman (exhibition catalogue). Los Angeles: UCLA Art Galleries, 1971, pp. 92–3.

6. Ten years ago, when Venice was still a slum, Irwin’s and Bell’s studios were used as meeting places for participants in the First International Symposium on Habitability. This symposium grew out of the interaction among Irwin, James Turrell and Edward Wortz. The symposium was organized primarily to determine criteria for habitability during long-term occupation of restricted environments like space stations or undersea habitats. Experts in the fields of sociology, psychology, engineering, architecture, and urban planning were invited to participate. Meetings were held at the studios of Irwin, Bell, and DeWain Valentine. Then, as now, one wall of Irwin’s studio was knocked out. This hole in the wall was sometimes open to the street so that transients could come and go, sometimes closed off by architect Frank Gehry with enormous cardboard cylinders used for pouring freeway supports, and sometimes separated from the street by translucent plastic. There was no seating inside except risers. Across the street at Bell’s studio, specially constructed rooms were used for meetings. In one of these the acoustics were so poor that people had to put their chairs close together in order to hear each other. In another, which lacked corners, people had to look at each other in order not to become nauseous. A third room painted black and lit by a single, bare light bulb, was so unpleasant that people did not stay in it but met on the beach instead.

At the end of the conference participants were given questionnaires asking how they felt their environment had affected their behavior. These experts in the field of habitability replied that their behavior had not been affected by their environments! If a case in point were needed to plead for the importance of artists’ input into the design of the spaces where we live and work, surely this is it.

7. Irwin’s piece is one of several semi-permanent installations by California artists that P.S. 1 has commissioned for a project entitled “West/East.” The series is to include works by Eric Orr, DeWain Valentine, James Turrell, and Doug Wheeler, in addition to Irwin.

8. Suzanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, New York: Mentor Books, 1942, p. 232.

9. John R. Cobb, Jr., Christ in a Pluralistic Age, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975, p. 69.