New York

Robert Irwin

The Pace Gallery | 508 W 25th Street

This exhibition contained drawings, photographs, and maquettes of Robert Irwin’s site-specific installations from 1977 to 1985. Fourteen projects were documented, of which eight have been realized (two of these were temporary works), three are in limbo, and three have been abandoned. There was also a chain-link construction that surrounded the gallery’s winding staircase and an adjoining area in which Irwin planted, under Gro-Lites, a patch of the decorative shrub called lobelia.

Works in the Light and Space tradition—perhaps the outdoor works especially—are notoriously difficult to approach other than in person. This art has been called “phenomenological,” in that it directs as much attention to the viewer’s perception as to the work itself. The necessity for direct sensory experience of these works would seem even more than usually incumbent. What one could gain from the exhibition was a convenient overview of Irwin’s work, of the types of problems involved in producing it, and of what it looks like once removed from its context of experiential immediacy.

The exhibition was accompanied by the publication of a book, Being and Circumstance Notes Toward a Conditional Art (Lapis Press, 1985), written by Irwin, in which he suggests a theoretical underpinning for his work, an attempt to control its future interpretation (or at least to make his active intentions known). Irwin’s great concern in the outdoor works has been the problem of the pedestal, or, rather, a true transition from the pedestal to the site. His aim has been a derivation of form and function not from preconceived studio-generated ideas but from the imperatives of the site itself. The admirable gentleness of his approach to the site is obvious in some works, such as the installation in the atrium of the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C.; the piece not only follows the architectonic suggestions of the site but almost disappears into it, yet without effacing itself. Still, it is often obvious that Irwin, like any artist, has his riffs and numbers that he tends to rely on in a variety of situations. The Wellesley College and Dallas pieces, for example, are very similar conceptions supposedly determined by radically different sites.

The book contains valuable photographs and small essays on each of the projects, in addition to Irwin’s long theoretical essay, which suggests that the critical problems of phenomenological art have not changed much in the last decade. Its central concept is that of the “site conditioned,” or “site determined,” work, which “draws all of its cues (reasons for being) from its surroundings’ This self-effacement of the artist’s creative impulse expresses a certain desire to serve rather than to master. But it is a difficult concept, however noble. The ”site determined" idea seems at least in part a remnant of the early Modernist theory of a completely pure art that arises from nonsubjective sources such as universal esthetic principles—in Irwin’s case, principles supposedly inherent in the site rather than in the sensibility of the artist.

Light and Space art seems to have transcended the art of the ’50s but not its criticism. It is burdened with various metaphysical notions that identify it as the latest (and therefore the most anachronistic?) branch of the tradition of the Sublime. For example, the label “phenomenological” (as opposed to the more moderate “phenomenalist”) implies that the work offers a shortcut to the Husserlian reduction. The idea (not expressed by Irwin but common in the discourse surrounding the Light and Space artists) that this type of work duplicates mystical or meditative experiences is similarly overwrought. It is questionable if Irwin’s work actually needs claims of this kind, or whether it is well served by the myth of a purely site-determinate art—which, it seems obvious, would simply be the site itself.

Thomas McEvilley