Los Angeles

Robert Irwin

Mizuno Gallery

If Dill’s work is a challenge thrown in the teeth of prevailing taste, Robert Irwin’s most recent installation can be seen, oxymoronically, as the bodiless incarnation of that taste. Eschewing the beleaguered object, he chooses instead to control a corner of the environment, and thereby to invite the viewer’s perception of disembodied space and light. Mizuno’s relatively small exhibition space, a spare, high-ceilinged room with parquet flooring and, most notably, two very long, very narrow skylights, is Irwin’s prim stage; his ascetic materials are a roll of three-quarter-inch width black tape, a narrow black room-length metal bar, and a nylon scrim about two-thirds the height of the gallery. The bar spans the room at approximately five and a half feet from the ground; it also grips the scrim, which extends from the bar to the ceiling and is there fastened by staples midway between the skylights, thus splitting the two main sources of light and dividing in half the room’s cubic space. Below the bar, down the wall and continuing along the floor, black tape zones the remaining area, dividing the unscreened floor and space, but permitting free access to any part of the room. As for the viewer’s awareness of these materials, that too is divided in parts, and is best described as experienced.

Let it be said at once that the spatial décalage effected by these minimal means is startling. Thus, the Mizuno-goer is immediately disoriented, and enters this newly defamiliarized setting uneasily. The delineated space under the scrim, its nature impossible to determine visually, is the first challenge. Hand extended, anticipating an obstacle, one walks warily under the black bar. Empty! Is it a conjuror’s illusion or Alice’s glass? For a moment, one expects other vexing tricks. But this initial and unwarranted period of distrust, mysteriously awakened by Irwin’s reorganization of space, is, in fact, quite brief.

After suspicion comes science. Now, the viewer perceives the coercive effect of the black frame—its capacity to make empty space grow solid and divided space seem nonexistent. One further investigates Irwin’s meager materials and notes the nature and intensity of the light source. Dismissing the delusion that there were ontic differences between vacancy on one side of the scrim and emptiness on the other, the viewer accepts the revelation that transparency, translucency, and emptiness are bloodless brothers. Then, comparing the room in its current condition of chaste deprivation to past experiences of it as plenitude, one adjusts one’s expectation level.

Now follows part three: this is the correct moment to heed James’s famous admonition—“Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” It is apparent that one’s attention is meant to focus upward, that is, on a segment of the room’s space usually not explored and in this instance divided against itself. The main centers of interest are the scrim (which acts as wall, screen, and veil), the skylights above, and, primarily, the accomplice sunlight. The latter pours unstintingly through the glass and, gently filtered by the diaphanous divider, plays, imagelike, on the wall beyond. If Irwin has enlisted the structural features of the room and natural sunlight as allies in creating a desired environment, his most important confederate is a susceptible and willing viewer. For that viewer, mutable factors such as his momentary state of mind and the noise level in the room assume decisive importance in this art. Furthermore, very much also hinges on changes in weather and time. One senses that ideally Irwin’s room requires an impossible whole day’s watch—that the installation is designed to be observed solo, in quiet concentration, and over an extended period of time from dawn to dark, during which the viewer (transformed into Emerson’s “transparent eyeball”) may chart the slow changes in his perception of space as this perception is altered by small shifts in the light source. Brightness falls from the air no matter the weather, but presumably under a low fog the best effects would be dampened. On the other hand, the sunbeam trapped on the gallery walls during the early afternoon of the brilliant day I saw Irwin’s installation was palpable enough to transport the Christ child to the womb of some waiting Mary. Indeed, the entire setting, with its emphasis on nimbed upper air, with its insistence on space and light as esthetic phenomena entirely separable from the material object, seemed more than anything else designed to placate the most virulent of anti-terrestrial longings for purity.

Nancy Marmer