New York

Robert Irwin

Pace Wildenstein

Grand, stately, and a little static—that is the magisterial phase that Robert Irwin’s work is going through, judging from his last two installations in PaceWildenstein’s Twenty-second Street space: the recent Red Drawing White Drawing Black Painting and, in 2006–2007, Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue3. Both involved homogenous treatments of large fields: In the earlier one, twenty-two-foot aluminum-honeycomb panels were painted with the primary colors; in the later one, two walls running nearly the length and height of the large space each got an arrangement of fluorescent light tubes. The recent show also featured three paintings, two square, one vertical, each a flawlessly slick black surface reflecting the room it faced in a dark mirror.

Irwin has used fluorescent light tubes before, not only in recent installations in Indianapolis and San Diego, to which this show directly related, but also in, for example, Prologue: x 183, 1998, and Excursus: Homage to the Square3, a memorable pair of site-specific works shown in the old Dia Center for the Arts, across the street from this gallery, from 1998 to 2000. Here as at Dia, Irwin strategically but simply altered the light tubes with transparent gels to control their brightness and color. Viewers entered a space full of white light, then passed beyond it to find a similar setup in a new chromatic register. The light in both rooms came from the same type of fluorescent tubes, mainly short, though with occasional double lengths, set in groups of one, two, and three at either 90 or 180 degrees to each other. The eye looked for pattern, looked for the arrangement to repeat—but if it did, I for one didn’t find where. This absence of a pattern’s imposed order, of course, was certainly as deliberately established as a pattern would have been.

Like the work of Walter De Maria but with ordinary materials—and that is part of Irwin’s idea, surely, the extraordinary perceptual possibilities hidden in the ordinary—the installation invited viewers to spontaneously trace the permutations of this ungeometric geometry. That and the quality of its light were the rational and sensual experiences the work produced. This light was quite rigorously controlled: A length of tape ran along the surface of each tube in the first room, cutting the light it cast outward but leaving it bare to the sides; in the second room, the tubes likewise showed outward-facing tape but were also wrapped tightly in a gel or plastic that gave them a deep red glow and made the room as a whole much darker than the previous one. In both rooms Irwin also controlled ambient light, selectively blocking the skylights but allowing the white light in the first room to merge with the daylight from the front windows while adding a couple of subtle spotlights in the dim back space. All this was reflected in the surfaces of the paintings, as if Irwin had tried to duplicate the effects of Gerhard Richter’s glass works by using glossy paint.

And so? Here and in Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue3, I missed the Irwin of, for example, the two-part Dia installation, or the garden at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. In those works, layered semitransparent scrims, or constantly changing views, make us motivated agents; with every step our sense of ourselves—and, crucially, of each other—changes, and we are constantly moving on to see what happens next. It is a participatory experience to which the presence of other people contributes vitally. While Irwin’s mirrorlike paintings gesture in this direction, he now seems more engaged by sights that the eye and mind seem to grasp instantly but must linger in stillness to absorb. For me this is a loss, but he is a terrific artist and I have faith.

David Frankel