Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Downtown
OCTOBER 21, 2007 through February 23, 2008 (Jacobs Building) and through April 13, 2008 (1001 Kettner)
We heard from Robert Irwin quite a bit this year. Last Spring, he sat down with Michael Govan at LACMA to talk about his plans for the Palm Garden that you can see slowly being prepared for the opening of The Broad Contemporary Art Museum in February. Also at LACMA, Irwin’s work features prominently at LACMA’s So Cal
show, tracing the path of Los Angeles art from the early 1960s into the late 1970s. Last year, Irwin’s show at PaceWildenstein in New York was well received, and now the large work from that show, Whose Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue
, is on view and retooled along with a look at both the past and future of Irwin at the downtown branch of Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.
The place of art history becomes a central point of the show. Irwin’s early work seemed indebted to Abstract Expressionism, aligned with it in way that it feels second generation and muddy. Irwin really came into his own when he started leaving those ideas and began reducing his paintings to pale scrims of colors with lines hovering like multiple horizon lines across the sky. At this time, Irwin’s thinking was moving far a field from the art world proper as many were doing at that time. Artists were leaving the gallery and traditional materials behind – they moved to desert, to remote mountain tops, out of cities entirely. As for Irwin, he admitted in his discussion with Govan that in the 60s, he was moving into areas with his work better suited to philosophy and science, and felt more comfortable conferring with people like Richard Feynman and philosophers than visual artists. Irwin even worked with NASA briefly.
However, Irwin’s line and dot pieces from the 60s do not feel mathematical or precise in the way that say Donald Judds wall works stack and configure according to a schema or maybe Mel Bochner’s use of mathematical sequences. Irwin’s work feels intuitive, and quite unattached to rulers and measures. In this respect, you could think of Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko, Irwin indulging color and divisions of light and space according to, in Rothko’s case, mood, or in Newman’s case, a quest for a sublime landscape. Maybe both mood and the sublime might be pushing the language too far into melodrama for Irwin’s purposes and spirit. We might instead say he was playing off the phenomenology that Merleau-Ponty described, or that he was manipulating and studying human experience.
Irwin’s earlier work is well documented and discussed, but I was fascinated by the new work especially Whose Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue
and the large new work Light and Space
. Both of the works are objects, granted objects writ large in language of installation, and, more interesting to me, both seem to be rooted in recent Art History, drawing on direct references and precedents.
The reference to Newman in Whose Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue
is present in the title (referring to Newman’s many paintings of the same title). The direct reference is the large Newman work from 1969/70, the one that was famously vandalized in 1982 in Berlin. Newman’s arrangement of color from left to right in his paintings did not match the flow of Red, Yellow, and Blue in his title. He switched the colors around, not retaining that sequence. That was typical of Newman – it wasn’t about rigor, it was about perception and the sublime permeability of one’s sense of self in regards to landscape.
Irwin, however, uses the schema of the title in his work, letting those colors exists in order in the gallery, Red, Yellow, then Blue in a group of three large panels above and matching below on the floor. Irwin’s work seems mindful, however, of human involvement in an architectural space, fully opening up inquiry of perception in a full 3D and lived in realm. You might say his homage to Newman comes post Richard Serra. I could not help but think of the works other direct precedent Serra’s Delineator
1974/75, a work which induces a dizzying effect of weight and mass on the gallery goer.
Of course, Irwin did not need Serra to come to any conclusion about perception. He was doing exquisitely on his own out west. Unlike Serra, Irwin’s work does not focus on weight and mass, it is instead a play of soft hues in gentle transition, a sensitive attunement to how perception works. Ultimately, Irwin’s work is less austere than Newman or Serra, more comfortable, more about color and subtle gradations and mixing of light across the gallery. As Holland Cotter said, the installation feels “like a country teahouse, companionable, dimly lighted, very quiet even when busy, offering spirit-soothing visual fare in an overstimulated world.”
Where in Whose Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue,
you felt Serra and Newman, you feel Dan Flavin and perhaps less obviously Jasper Johns in Light and Space
, 2007. The Flavin reference is obvious, neon lights make an optical wonderland across an entire wall. But how to account for Irwin’s arrangement of those lights, not at all ordered or arranged into an architecture like Flavin but more open to improvisation?
I thought of Johns' cross-hatch paintings from the 1970s, including his famous Corpse and Mirror
which hangs in The Art Institute of Chicago. The formalist grid of painting, that high minded center of modern art, is deconstructed, taken apart, and manipulated in a way that tempts order without ever finding it. Irwin’s line and dot paintings accomplished this feat in the 1960s, and this new work, in my mind, does a similar thing. The piece exists simply as Irwin’s negotiation of light for our benefit, his ability to create an experience that surprises you and does not allow your experiential expectations. Johns’ painting does a similar thing – the things you think you know are not as clear cut as you thought. However, Johns’ work never bursts into soft light. We go to Irwin for that.Images courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, San DiegoTop Image: Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue³ (installation view), 2006–07
polyurethane paint over lacquer on aircraft honeycomb aluminum24 panels: 132 1/2 x 96 1/2 inches (3.4 x 2.4 m) each; 12 panels: 132 1/2 x 48 1/4 inches (3.4 x 1.2 m) each; overall installation dimensions variable
Photography by Philipp Scholz RittermanBottom Image: Light and Space (installation view), 2007
115 fluorescent lightsone wall: overall dimensions 271 1/4 x 620 inches (6.9 x 15.7 m)
Photography by Philipp Scholz Rittermann