San Diego

Robert Irwin

San Diego State University Art Gallery

If, as many maintain, space is the most salient area of inquiry in 20th-century art, reading space to determine one’s location within it, physically and conceptually, becomes an essential task. In the vernacular, “far out,” “into” and “spaced out” point to the body-centered sensation that determines space and place, and which historically has been manifest most clearly in architecture. Site-specific art and quite a bit of recent architecturally derived sculpture have dealt with this determination of space and place. Central to this form of perception is the haptic sense, that bodily sense which engages feeling and doing simultaneously. It is this form of perception which unfolds in ROBERT IRWIN’s familiar scrim installations.

In the bland, rectangular San Diego State University Art Gallery Irwin has installed a taut, translucent fabric scrim across the middle of the room. The top portion is painted black to correspond with the ceiling. A rectangle of string of the same dimensions as the back wall, and at the same distance in front of the scrim as the wall behind the scrim, is at the gallery entrance. The plane bounded by the string, the white portion of the scrim, and the back wall form a sequence of planes of increasing density. The ceiling lights have been modified slightly to give a fairly even diffusion of light.

I watched for about an hour as people came into the gallery. If they noticed the string rectangle running along the floor, up the walls, and suspended overhead across the room, they invariably stopped, hesitant to cross the line. The string formed a kind of psychological barrier, a nonmaterial planar threshold through which one had to pass in order to proceed with the experience. The scrim also functioned as a barrier, both visual and physical. Made of a closely woven, white synthetic fabric, the scrim is at once light reflective, transparent, and opaque, giving the space behind it an almost tangible, spongy appearance. The desire to enter this space and sort it out is blocked by the physical barrier of the scrim; only by leaving the gallery and going around to the back door—a passage through the seemingly chaotic order of the natural world—is the desire satisfied.

Irwin’s installations are generally discussed in terms of light and space, but while these elements are of fundamental importance they are usually called into critical service in an overly emphasized reliance on visual perception. More than anything, the work evokes a “feeling” of space and of our integration within it, or separation from it. The development of Irwin’s work, from the bar paintings through the luminous disks to the scrim installations, has involved an increasing complexity of perceptual understanding. His emphasis has shifted from passive reception to active detection, from an investigation reliant on the senses as discrete entities to an exploration of sensory systems. As Kandinsky conjured “the scent of a triangle,” so Irwin refocuses the aspects of sensual detection. In this light. perhaps “boundary” is a more appropriate term than “barrier” in reference to the elements of Irwin’s installations: the boundaries of floor, walls, and ceiling; of the invisible plane defined by string; of the scrim as a visually tactile limit. The entire body is placed at the center of the perceptual process, engaging haptic sensation.

The complexity of the haptic response as a physical process eliciting various phenomena invites an analogy from the physical sciences. Irwin’s installation is curiously akin to what is known in subatomic physics as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: the more deeply the viewer probes the psychological, visual, and physical spaces, the more these spaces are altered by the act of probing and the more their meaning depends on the kinds of observations made. The destiny of the viewer is linked to that of the spaces perceived.

Christopher Knight