Chicago

Robert Irwin

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)

Robert Irwin’s two new pieces do, respectively, more with less and a hell of a lot with nothing. The first is encountered at the museum entrance, and the viewer boggles at an apparently endless path, which traverses the gallery length, 80 feet, and divides the whole main space into three sections: left area, middle volume scrim, and right area. The right area is impossible to get to, without jumping a stair rail, and the view of its real-world white walls, tile floor, and square grate light-fixtures seems “lower,” “basic,” or “ordinary,” in contrast to the central volume. Like Irwin’s previous scrim works, this one looks translucent or opaque, depending on the viewer’s angle to the light fixtures; and it seems to “contain” an inviting, though impenetrable, rosy-to-bluish mist. Specific to this space, the long, triangular scrim spans two structural beams near the entrance and narrows to a line-point stapled at the far wall, where a shadow (from what source?) helps the illusion of distance and decreasing size. The fuzzy persistence of the volume scrim is traced by “real” straight lines, the parallel ceiling-grate tracks and (already there?) floor paths. The left side of the museum has no fixed walls to weight the scrim visually, and it thus appears to be some kind of weightless area, the benches about to float up, and people walking around on a slant. Thus: matter-of-fact, real space at the right, illusionistic scrim in the middle, and optically magical, real space at the left.

All this prepares the viewer for Irwin’s other work, black tape across the smaller, east gallery floor. Before experiencing that scrim, I might have thought this second work was just that, tape along the gallery floor. But newly sensualized and free from conventional perceptions, I imagined an area alive, transferring my vision of the scrim’s damp light and dispersed shadows into illusions of air particles and movement in the “empty” space. Most viewers wouldn’t enter, but I went “in,” and “saw” reflections on the blank walls, “felt” far away from the nearby gallery, and seemed to note the structural pole in the space rotate slowly as I walked around it. Moving back past the black tape was to reenter the nonmagical world. I needed a hotdog to recover, lest I walk through the glass entry door and crash into a black, parked Pontiac.

Irwin’s work is a fascinating contrast to objects. Without them, he loses significance. A world full of volume scrims would be as boring as a world full of Pontiacs. But Irwin’s enormously sophisticated illusions can create a “beautiful altogether,” precisely as a foil to the dross around us.

C. L. Morrison