New York

Robert Irwin

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

What is deterministic in the artistic processes of Robert Irwin and what is optional in the viewing of his work, mesh chimerically in the consciousness. For there is something minatory in one’s helplessness in sorting out the boundaries of color tones that are known to be quite discrete, as they are applied in dotted screens. Overlappings, therefore, occur only in an imagination betrayed by the knowledge that Irwin’s materials are laid down exclusively side by side. This was the Neo-Impressionist ethic, too, to be sure, but the Seurat group emphasized tangibility, and firmly modulated transitions: there was distinct evidence and encouragement for a metaphorical optical mixing. With Irwin, though, one never “knows” where one is, for the reason that modulation and substance are illusory concomitants, rather than the pictorial syntax, of his operations. The whole experience of his pictures, as a result, lies in a fragrant limbo of sensation, hovering by a low grade visibility between blankness and blush. How different this is, also, from optical art, because the sensate tonal perceptions of the eye before an Irwin canvas are volitionally wandering, but we are induced into the belief, always ex post facto, that they were involuntary, whereas with optical art, retinal apprehension is always a passive receptor of “authoritarian,” and hence, extremely coarse stimuli. Of a piece with this natural subterfuge, and deriving great force from it, is the gestalt-free, marginless ambiance of Irwin’s work. It would be hard to find anything as radical as his insistence that pictorial organization (here a species of revolving color arcs), can be discovered freshly and varyingly in the mind. Compared to the excruciating devotion with which this situation is prepared, that of Ad Reinhardt, for instance, seems almost illustrational in its effect. What is more, the light in Irwin’s paintings is altogether new. The tinting salmons and azures (so redolent of California), he uses on a pulverized scale produce cirrus-like ethereal glows, trembling, it seems, almost before the slightly convex picture plane. Moreover, if the original chroma is weak in saturation, giving off a whiteness that tropismically urges itself on to color, its overall impression is of a color that is quietly degrading itself––deteriorating, as it were, before the astonished eye. It is as if Robert Irwin’s whole sensibility contrived to be a kind of celestial litmus, transfusing color-light into a phantom image of itself. In the spotless chapel which is his metamorphosis of the Pace Gallery, its few lights piercing through little blue glazed rectangles, one feels in the presence of a personality who may be partly a monk, and partly a physicist, but is above all, an artist. As for encounters with the pictures themselves, memory, even now in the writing, remains incredulous and ravished.

––Max Kozloff