New York

Robert Irwin

Pace Gallery

If Davis’s powers are concerted on a re-conceptualization of the pictorial as an experience of color which is both supported and wall-related, and a re-definition of the conditions under which the viewer comes to understand this relationship, Robert Irwin’s are not. Irwin, in his latest work at Pace Gallery, continues to take the picture’s relationship to the wall as one which automatically guarantees illusion. Therefore, although his work is no longer physically framed nor portable in the old sense, it settles itself comfortably within the traditional notion of the easel painting. Nowhere in the experience of the ephemera of color and shadow in Irwin’s work is one confronted with the slightest hint that the artist has anything like critical distance from the illusionistic effect he has staged.

Like the objects Irwin was making earlier in the year, these paintings consist of cast acrylic, convex discs (54 inches in diameter) held approximately three feet off from the wall by a cylinder which is invisible as one looks at the work from the front. Except for a narrow band that passes like an equator across its middle, the disc is frosted with translucent white acrylic pigment, and lighted so that a clover-leaf of overlapping shadows fan out on the wall behind it—their tonal thickening and thinning remaining legible through the smoky haze of the disc’s own surface. The band which girdles the disc at its diameter appears as the only tactile element of the work; for it seems to be a strip of silver which is darkest at the center of the disc and then, as it progressively stretches around toward the circumference, reads more and more as a dense, colorless reflectivity.

The fact that this band, which is not in fact silvered but clear plastic sprayed at its center with violet-tinged grey, appears so convincingly palpable while the rest of the experience seems so intangible, is presumably supposed to strike the viewer as a kind of modernist irony. Yet there is no reason why it should any more than the brushwork of Hals should move one toward a position of critical disjunction from one’s conviction about the rendering of velvet or fur or skin, no matter how apparent the viscosities of pigment become. In Hals there are simply no grounds for disbelief suggested by the picture as a whole. Nor are there in Irwin’s work, which takes as given that the picture space is box-like, with a leading surface and a background and the illusion happening somewhere in between the two.

I find these pictorial displays both thoughtless and effete. And my sense of distaste is not softened by the awareness of the elaborate machinery needed to stage Irwin’s work. It is like a reprise of the confrontation with Nevelson’s walls, complete with darkened chapel-like atmosphere, carefully focused lighting from invisible sources, and an aura of hushed mystery which comes across as a particularly inert kind of sentimentality.

––Rosalind Krauss