New York

Robert Irwin

PACE | 534 West 25th Street

I often thought of Robert Irwin as the Bobby Fisher of the art world—brilliant artist, at the peak of his professional career, gets a MacArthur grant and is last seen driving his Cadillac into the desert with a volume of Kant on the passenger seat. In fact, Irwin never quite disappeared: with only a handful of installations in the ’80s, however, and a complete exhibition hiatus in the last five years, we just saw too little of him. Maybe that was remedied by his recent installation of three sets of see-through scrim walls that divided the gallery into a series of separate rooms illuminated by subtle spectral variations of colored fluorescent light. Painted on the taut scrims and on the back wall of the gallery were large black “frames” that read as both painting and cinematic screen. Initially quite disorienting, the scrims themselves appeared to be tinted and solid; space became fluid, undefined, and from the entrance of the gallery it was impossible to see that the black panel floating on the first scrim formed part of a series, or that the installation consisted of several chambers.

With other viewers present, the dark, silhouetted figures’ shadowy features and gestures suggested a continuously unfolding narrative. The result was theatrical, as though we were not only observing actors on a stage but, in walking further and further into their space, were discovering the sensation of being inside art. The scopophilic quality of this event was simultaneously fostered and denied. The opportunity for voyeurism abounded—indeed it could not be avoided while observing the artlike figural compositions within the borders of the frame—yet narcissistic identification never occurred, for while we could see everyone else in this soft-focus, slow-motion scenario of viewers at an exhibition, we never saw our own image reproduced. It’s as though, unwittingly, we had plunged through Orphée’s mirror or into Alice’s Wonderland to find ourselves in the midst of Georges Seurat’s crowd on the banks of la Grande Jatte, or of Thomas Struth’s visitors at the Louvre. Instead it was Robert Irwin’s interactive, three-dimensional picture of a SoHo gallery exhibition in the fall of 1992, a time machine that distanced us from the present, and played back the ostensibly simple activity of looking as inextricably webbed in complex social relations, positioning us as performers with perfectly interchangeable roles, enacting rituals of display.

Since the ’70s, Irwin has minimized the importance of art as object in favor of an awareness of place and the behavioral patterns distinct to that place, manipulating the phenomenological properties of light and space to provoke a heightened sensitivity to perceptual processes. It’s interesting that Irwin is reemerging as contextual thematics are again prominent in the work of younger artists. One might have expected Irwin’s site-specific work to consist entirely of an elegant, esthetic treatment of space similar to Dan Flavin’s approach to the Guggenheim’s rotunda. Yet Irwin isn’t the old formalist relentlessly recomposing the idioms of his youth, rather, he has managed a coup of sorts, articulating his ideas in such a way that the meaning of contextual investigation and site-specificity is pliant, as related to ’70s formalism as to ’80s commodity critiques and ’90s social science. Though the word “timeless” is so hackneyed I hesitate to use it, it seems appropriate to Irwin’s installation. Sometimes ideas are presented in such a way that art engages the prevailing discourse of any given time, disrupting the linear construction of history and its subdivision into movements that are often defined in reaction, if not wholly antithetically, to one another, which is a long way of saying, “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.”

Jan Avgikos