Seattle/Washington D.C.

Robert Irwin

Public Safety Building Plaza, Old Post Office

Two pieces erected last year by Robert Irwin will probably come to be regarded as among his best work. The piece in Seattle, Nine Spaces, Nine Trees, is located on a small, previously empty plaza on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Cherry Street; it interferes, though mildly, with access from the street to one of the main entrances of the nearby Public Safety Building. Irwin subdivided the approximately square plaza into nine smaller squares, each 22 by 22 feet, and placed at the center of each a square concrete planter which also provides seating. In each planter is a flowering purple plum tree—small, delicate, with one-lobed, dark red leaves. Each “room” is surrounded by a fence of small-mesh chain link, coated with blue vinyl; the fence rises to a height of 16 feet, where it is topped with lights, one pointed at each of the nine trees. The rooms open into one another through large doorways in the fence.

The interface of cold industrial materials with delicate living things creates an odd and sharp ambiguity. The place seems familiar: approaching it, one thinks of a tennis court; entering, of a labyrinth; remaining inside, of a cage or prison. The blue haze of chain link does of course function as an outdoor version of the white scrim of Irwin’s classic indoor installations, but it is not experienced as soft and wispy unless one deliberately perceives it that way so as to reawaken the sense of the earlier work. Despite the 18-inch gap at the bottom, it remains a fence, with natural associations of enclosure and separation.

The work is unusually aggressive for Irwin, regardless of whether or not he intended it to be so; it takes over anyone who enters it, in specialized ways that many who pass through it daily may not appreciate or understand. In keeping with the site, the piece was supposed to provide a place for office workers to sit, talk, eat lunch, and so on, but few use it thus; some whom I asked did not like it, and some even walked around it on their way to and from work, though the distance is longer.

Nine Spaces, Nine Trees may not be the best place for lunch, but it is surely one of the best places to appreciate Irwin’s art. The structure acts on the viewer in a variety of ways, again, for an Irwin piece, rather aggressively. To begin with, it provides an extremely active moiré environment, and a viewer naturally plays with these ornamental hallucinations while walking inside it. But the piece becomes really interesting only when one has become desensitized to the temporarily enchanting moiré play and begins to look not at the surface of the collage of overlapping meshes but at its depths. An object seen as one moves through the space undergoes a remarkable series of visual transformations, dissolving, powdering, softening, disappearing in a blue flare, regaining solidity, losing it in cloudlike drifts, disappearing totally into blue, then emerging as solid sense data in the clear air outside. Ambient architecture and traffic are similarly brushed with Irwin’s ambiguous haze, appropriated into it and rendered somewhat hypothetical to the eye.

Irwin’s recent piece in Washington, D.C., like the one in Seattle, is associated with a government building—the Old Post Office, at the corner of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. This historic and beautiful structure has recently been renovated and now houses the offices of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in its upper seven floors; in the bottom two floors restaurants and commercial spaces have recently been opened, and on weekends the place is filled with people.

The Irwin piece occupies the central longitudinal axis of the huge inner cortile, a rectangular space which extends from bottom to top of the building and around which a cloisterlike ambulatory runs on each floor. The work consists of 48 panels of stretched scrim, each 9 feet high by 8 feet wide, suspended high in the air from stainless steel wires in a regular grid with intervening empty spaces. The size and placement of the panels answer, though not precisely or mechanically, to the surrounding “windows” or openings into the ambulatories. From any of these windows the piece is seen to powerful effect, but despite the fact that it is always before one’s eyes, it is not in the least aggressive; its presence in the huge space is soft and gentle to the point of self-effacement—until one begins to watch it closely. Then it becomes an enticing presence, producing a wide range of effects: perspectival shifts as one walks around it; dimming and occluding of one’s view of the facing architecture seen through the scrim; the almost total disappearance of the scrim from certain vantage points; its interaction with light from the (new) skylight, and so on.

It is interesting, in terms of Irwin’s repeated claim that his work is purely experiential, that both the Seattle and the Washington, D.C. pieces are far more powerful in presence than in description (this is not true of all artworks). Through a continuing refinement of his intentions over the decades, Irwin seems at last to be finding solutions that fulfill them impeccably in several ways at once. All the things that his pieces are supposed to do—focus on perception, alter their modes in participatory ways, simultaneously veil and clarify, overcome through submission, become crystalline through softness—in fact, the whole range of semiparadoxical properties that critics have long discussed in connection with his work are here woven in extraordinarily strong unities.

Thomas McEvilley