Long Beach

Robert Irwin

Aggressive, overbearing and inappropriate for the viewing of most art, the University Art Museum in Berkeley functions in the anti-art architectural tradition of the Guggenheim. The cast concrete, bunkerlike edifice holds six galleries whose bays project over a vast central exhibition hall. Ramps rising upward connect the gallery spaces that surround the central area.

For six consecutive months installations by Daniel Buren, Robert Irwin, Carl Andre and Maria Nordman dominated this museum. Under the direction of Mark Rosenthal, the “Space As Support” program seems very much an attempt at positive transformation of the museum’s public image through artists’ didactic responses to the structure. Conforming to neither the neutral white gallery environment favored by the ’60s Minimalists, nor the slightly raw alternative ’70s space, the University Art Museum poses a unique set of problems, and in turn elicited some provocative solutions.

While “Space As Support” cannot be termed an unqualified success, it does offer provocative insights into the philosophical and logistic problems artists face in a non-neutral environment. The University Art Museum is a seductive space, implicitly theatrical, and Buren, Irwin and Nordman, in coping with this aspect, were forced to extreme positions. Particularly in the case of Buren and Irwin, their installations posited ideological conflicts to their previous works and writings. With Nordman the problem was merely one of scope, the artist working in an environment where less control adversely affected the style of her work. Andre, on the other hand, avoided most of these issues by remaining within sculptural boundaries.

“Space As Support” represents a unique set of circumstances, and in turn generated responses that rather than having signature status, will probably be considered for the qualities that make them atypical in these artists’ works. For viewers, “Space As Support” was a positive and sensitizing experience, a sometimes ironic but intelligent merging of anti-art architecture and space-oriented art.

ROBERT IRWIN’s installation consisted of three banks of white fluorescent lights and fixtures, each suspended from a different point on the ceiling, and hung at different altitudes above the main gallery. Irwin’s piece offers a stimulating alternative to Buren’s work, since he worked within, rather than on the boundaries of the vast, open space. However, Irwin, like Buren, used the architectural interior/exterior illusion of the structure—running his fluorescent lights to the outside, so that they appeared to cut through the wall.

While the Berkeley installation may be compared to the spare, room environments which the artist has been identified with for almost a decade, this particular installation displays a dramatic shift in materials, and a more traditional sculptural inclination. Distinct from previous installations in which Irwin employed string, scrim and tape in conjunction with natural or “given” phenomena for ephemeral effect, this installation is constructed of obtrusive hardware and wire suspension. Indeed, Irwin’s piece held a fascinating ambiguity. Seen from ground level it appeared integral to the museum structure. The fluorescent lights against ambient daylight merged with the angular space: museum context, technological work and natural phenomena interwoven. As the viewer ascended the museum ramps to the upper galleries, however, he found himself within touching distance of the fixtures, and at the top level, above the installation. This change in position, akin to leaving an environment to find oneself on the periphery, forced viewers to consider the piece as a tangible, nonephemeral sculptural form.

The Berkeley installation was a departure from the reductive, temporal environments that Irwin has been creating. Nevertheless, this shift in the artist’s response reflected on the “givens” or conditions of this specific place. Within this space Irwin was forced to exaggerate, to adopt materials that would not be consumed by the space. The result was a dazzling, almost Gothic installation that complemented the dictatorial space.

Hal Fischer