For the majority of the attendees, the genius of Robert Irwin was a bit too much to grasp.
Notice that no one is looking at the prismatic sculpture, not even the Ace employee standing to guard it. Curatorial fail.
Perhaps it’s because Super Bowl buzz is in the air, but while looking at the sculpture, I fantasized that a burly, football player would enter the space and run directly towards the column, knocking over the Ace gallery attendant and also sending the art object crashing over…. that would have been AWESOME!
Copy + Paste from Ace Gallery:
“The column was an indication of my wanting to get out and treat the environment itself, I don’t mean in the sense of building buildings or being an architect, but rather of dealing with the quality of a particular space in terms of its weight, its temperature, its tactileness, its density, its feel – all those semi-intangible things that we don’t normally deal with.”
– Robert Irwin1
In 1970, Robert Irwin simplified his Venice, California studio, transforming it into a pristine space where he installed one work: a twelve-foot, clear acrylic column near the center of the room. With all distractions removed, Irwin’s spacious studio and solitary sculpture presented a viewer with a visual silence, a pure situational experience.
ACE Gallery Beverly Hills installs a similar yet taller column, over 19 feet in height, in its main exhibition space, once again the only artwork in the space. Irwin’s experiments in light and space have dominated his artistic practice since he switched to a more proto-installation type of art. Irwin’s investigations go beyond the properties of light and space and into the intrapersonal, a psychological examination on the part of the viewer into what it means to be present. The viewer’s experience is paramount; beyond creating an environment, Irwin invites the individual to confront his or her perceptions on space. As MOMA’s former chief curator Kirk Varnedoe referenced in his lectures on abstract art: “Irwin has controlled and composed the act of perception itself.”2 Irwin is regarded as one of the preeminent pioneers of California Minimalism and the Los Angeles Light and Space movement, yet also his attention to location and viewer’s affect establishes him as a forefather of site-specificity and relational aesthetics.
Irwin’s Untitled (1970) column is simultaneously present yet seemingly absent. The sculpture is so limpid that even while looking directly at it, the column or anything behind it could disappear with one movement of the visitor. Irwin has accomplished a monumental feat with his column by creating an object that could perceivably exist one moment and not the next. Yves Klein’s piece The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void (April 1958), and John Cage’s musical composition 4’33” (1952) presented their audiences with a setting to experience art but gave nothing concrete to focus on but the immediate surround. Irwin employs the same gesture in a very different manner by creating a “whole room situation,” where the perceptual phenomenological experience is activated by the position of the viewer in relation to the sculpture.3 To look at the piece is to look through the piece and thus at the architecture and other viewers in the space with the column. Where one viewer has a singular experience with the sculpture, additional individuals compound the experience further. Not only is the prismatic column reflective and transparent, but also refractive, ultimately splitting the individual(s) and surrounding architecture into fragmented planes, creating an ever-changing situational experience. Not intended as the focal point of any room, the column can sit off center, or in the periphery. The artwork acts as a structure from which the viewer may build upon his or her own presumptions about optics and what it means to view objects and spaces.
Later in 1970, Irwin took his spatial studies further with an exhibition at ACE Gallery in Westwood, California entitled Experimental Situation (1970), where he emptied the gallery entirely and made daily visits for a period of a month filling the space only with his artistic contemplation. The process of Irwin’s creative thought became the final product; this conceptual and spiritual gesture became almost palpable. The following year he created a work where ACEÕs exhibition space was distorted slightly with the use of a sheer scrim in almost a ghostly fashion. Of separate historical note, that same year Irwin ceased making artworks in the studio and shifted his focus to site-specific installations, at which point ACE Gallery moved its location to what became Irwin’s former studio in Venice, California.
Robert Irwin is one of California’s most pivotal and influential artists from the post-war era, who contributed immensely to put Los Angeles on the map at a time when New York dominated the global art scene. At a time when West Coast Light and Space artists were exploring the facets of light, space, and finish – three things distinct to the sprawling, sunshine-filled, and car heavy Los Angeles – a group of artists on the East Coast were reducing the languages of sculpture and painting to their most basic elements creating Minimalism. Irwin has had numerous international museum exhibitions as well as two major site-specific commissions of note: The Central Garden, an artwork in the form of a garden at the Getty Museum, and The Palm Garden at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Born in 1928 in Long Beach, California, Robert Irwin currently lives and works in San Diego, CA.
1 Lawrence Weschler and Robert Irwin. Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: a Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin. Berkeley: University of California, 1982. 114.
2 Varnedoe, Kirk. Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock (A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts). Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2006.
3 Weschler and Irwin. 112.