New York

Robert Irwin

Wave Hill

Of the many public art projects conceived and/or executed during the last ten years, Robert Irwin has created some of the best. His exhibition at Wave Hill, organized by Jean Feinberg, marked the first time that he has made an outdoor sculpture in New York. Here in this public garden and cultural center on a 28-acre site overlooking the Hudson River north of Manhattan, Irwin constructed three installations—two of them (WAVE HILL WOOD and WAVE HILL GREEN) on the grounds, and one (DOOR LIGHT WINDOW) in Glyndor House, which serves as the administrative center and exhibition space for this facility. He employed the same type of materials and ideas that have generated his previous public work, conveying the impression that a successful and intelligent formula is in operation. This insured a certain level of satisfaction, but there were no surprises, for fresh work cannot be produced indefinitely by sure systems. Robert Irwin’s work is about perception—about the perceptual processes common to all of us and the perceptual experiences that make each of us unique. Through this duality, perception bridges the domains of public, collective values and private, personal visions. It is a simple and eloquent notion, and it keeps Irwin’s work remarkably direct and unburdened by the various social and political agendas that many public artists strive to communicate.

For DOOR LIGHT WINDOW Irwin transformed the interior of Glyndor House, changing the spatial character and light of four rooms on the ground floor by painting them flat white, removing doors and window coverings, and constructing a system of temporary partition walls using his signature white scrims. The rooms had originally been the dining, parlor, living, and sun rooms of the house when it was a private residence. By removing the door leading from the entrance hall to the second (parlor) room and replacing it with a fixed sheet of clear glass, Irwin opened a vista through the house to the gardens and river beyond, and changed visitors’ circulation patterns. In the first and third rooms, which remained accessible from the entrance hall, he constructed his wood-frame scrim walls, complete with their own doorways. Irwin achieved remarkably different effects using the same materials in each room. In the first room, the scrim appeared luminous, changing the quality of midday light to a dusklike glow. In the third room, where two parallel scrim walls created their own narrow corridor within the larger space, the barriers altered the configuration of space and blocked and diffused the light. Irwin’s walls have a powerful sculptural presence that changes the spaces into which they are inserted, but their enduring effect is the way in which they enrich perception, making us more conscious of the qualities of those spaces. While we move through them, thought is reorganized and sight is reoriented, bringing the perceptual process to a more conscious level.

Outside, Irwin dealt with the horizontality of landscape. In WAVE HILL WOOD he set six granite tablets into the lawns and nature trails. This system of pedestrian markers seemed functionally useless and esthetically vacant. His more aggressive landscape intervention, WAVE HILL GREEN, was far more engaging. Here, he had a large, rectangular section of the lawn lowered 18 inches and then lined the edge with a Cor-Ten steel rim, which served as a retaining wall and a way of articulating the spatial alteration. Two sets of four granite slabs with inscriptions acted as steps down to the lowered area. Irwin expanded the notion of place by creating a new context that is as subtle and memorable as the many markings on the landscape that remain from archaic civilizations. Like Celtic megaliths or Peruvian Nazca lines, Irwin’s installation seeks a level of communication that reaches beyond time and place. The new space is very much a garden, drawing people in and stimulating involvement through contemplation.

The great irony of Irwin’s work is that the pieces suggest stillness and permanence whereas the perceptual experiences they provoke are changing, mutable, and subject to doubt. He combines in his work a minimalist vocabulary with a phenomenological approach to perception. His work is a very rich offering for any public site even if the ingredients and the recipe are no longer a mystery.

Reviewed by Patricia C. Phillips.