Artist Profile: ROBERT IRWIN
Since the beginning of the 20th century, a major shift in art has been toward reducing its elements to an essential core. Of course there have been many concurrent approaches, but at least in theoretical terms artists questioned the necessity of traditional components, in an effort to discover the essential nature of art. This tendency, which developed along with abstraction, has influenced many artists since, from post-war American art to Minimalism and Conceptual art. With the early 20th century geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian in Europe and the "white-on-white" paintings of Suprematist Kazimir Malevich in Russia, art proceeded on ideological and aesthetic grounds to rid itself of decorative and literary qualities (literary meaning a narrative or subject matter in the work). In order to avoid associations the viewer would impose on any imagery, many artists used simple, "pure" geometry or other neutral forms in their work. Another thread that began at this time was the work of Marcel Duchamp, who produced "anti-art" in the European dada movement, which started as outrageous slaps-in-art's face and evolved over decades into conceptual work, meaning that the 'idea' of the work is more important than or will replace the actual tangible presence of a work of art. In the 1950's American Abstract Expressionist movement, much of the painting consisted of 'action' and 'gesture,' which resulted in an emotional and painterly display. The late painting of Ad Reinhardt, though associated with this movement, consisted of very close dark hues arranged in geometric compositions. Robert Rauschenberg's work of the early 1950's was in part an homage and a reaction to the Abstract Expressionism then dominant, when he produced all-white paintings in 1951 that were designed to reflect the image of viewers, thus acknowledging (perhaps for the first time) the contribution of the audience to a work of art. During the 1960's artists such as Minimalists Carl Andre, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd began to create work that challenged some of modern art's long-held concepts, such as the notion of figure/ground. (In simple terms, 'figure' refers to the main object in an image; 'ground' refers to what was previously called background.) The new abstraction also tried to remove references to realities outside of the artwork itself. Minimalism preferred an 'anonymous' look, in contrast to a 'handmade' look long held dear. In general, the rebellious climate of the 1960's and '70's contributed to this need for a new approach in art. At this time, many things were seriously questioned, one of which was the idea of the 'art object' being sold as a commodity; many searched for an alternative way of making art, one which would take art out of the gallery, and discourage the notion of art being just another consumer commodity. Conceptual artists picked up the thread started by Marcel Duchamp to produce work that was barely or not at all a tangible presence (the dematerialization of the art object). Another important idea was the breaking down of classifications and labels - between painting and sculpture, between art and music, etc. The influence of Minimalism extended into the post-Minimal period, with artists such as Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Bruce Nauman and Richard Long, who held onto its ideas of dematerialization, importance of the viewer, the experiential nature of art, extreme economy of formal means (color, composition, space and other elements) and the structural properties of light. In the 1960's the Light and Space movement in California included artists such as Irwin, James Turrell and Bruce Nauman, who explored effects of light and landscape on perception. At first, light, dark, sun, shadow, time and space, fire, smoke, scrim and string were the materials of these artists. Later they progressed to plexiglass, resin, acrylic, fiberglas, neon and fluorescent lights, xenon projectors, dielectricoated glass, and luminescent and phosphorescent agents in their exploration of philosophic and metaphysical issues, based on their study of both Oriental mysticism and scientific studies in sensory perception. In the late 1960's or early 1970's, both Irwin and Turrell were involved in the E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where artists were paired with scientists and engineers to explore perceptual phenomena (they were paired with psychologist Edward Wortz). Besides for the play of light and dark on forms, light has also been used extensively as a symbolic or expressive element in art - and an extremely powerful one which also has alluded to spiritual beliefs since the dawn of time. As technology developed, artificial light was used by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in the 1920's and '30's, and more recently Dan Flavin used fluorescent light in his hard-edge Minimalist sculptures; even pixel light has been used to comment on such things as advertising, by some newer artists. Some artists have pointed to the influence of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko's large luminous color fields, including Robert Irwin, seeing their expressive power (like church stained glass windows). Artist Erwin Redl started out making computer art, then switched to LED lights as he wanted to 'be in the space.' Artist Jenny Holzer also makes art consisting of LED strips with mobile text messages. American art has been influenced not only by Rothko's light, but that of the Hudson River School of 19th century landscape painters as well. Both types of art, though very different, use light to express grand emotion to the point of spirituality. Light has many historical meanings, from cosmic to alchemy, as well as in the sense of life/death, transcendance/ignorance, good/evil, etc. Light also has a special affinity for West Coast (California) artists, with the large sky and open expanses there. Compared to artists on the East Coast, Pacific artists have been deemed to be less stodgy, less intellectual, less traditional (think Ivy League and the Northeast Corridor of stress and perhaps more emphasis on tradition). In the West there has been more room to breathe, less established tradition, less overall crowding, plus the philosophical influence of the Orient. In my research for this profile, I also came across some articles on the importance of the car culture in California, particularly custom cars and hot rods, since the 1930's. One article on the Frieze Magazine website described the importance of this to Turrell and Irwin in their younger years at least; apparently this has to do with the powerful beauty of machine and the paint on the machine, which is done so meticulously and with so many layers that the color has depth and luminosity. In the article, Irwin is quoted as describing his annoyance at an East Coast art critic's failure to accept this car culture as folk art. This culture may also relate to the industrial, "cool" finish of some '60's L.A. art - Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha and Robert Irwin, among others, according to the Frieze article, which also says that the culture values the notion of the extraordinary effort taken to achieve perfection, a characteristic of good art as well.
Robert Irwin was born in 1928 in Long Beach, California, and grew up in Los Angeles. He attended Otis Art Institute, Jepsons Art Institute and Chouinards Art Institute. In the years following his art school training, he practiced as a painter in the Abstract Expressionist style then dominant. In the early 1960's he began to experiment in his work, trying to de-materialize the work of art, as previously mentioned, to escape the 'bonds of the painting frame," and to draw the viewer into the work of art. This includes the idea that with art generally, each mark one might make on a canvas is automatically compared to the art historical tradition; Irwin (and others) want the work to reference only itself. One of the first of Irwin's efforts were his disc paintings, circular, convex aluminum discs, sprayed with a matte acrylic paint and mounted on a concealed tubular arm, 20 inches forward from the wall, which sought to avoid the dilemma of "the edge" of the painting, by means of artificial light (four incandescent lamps of equal intensity). The perceptual ambiguities in these pieces caused viewers to question what they were actually seeing, and to consider the nature of perception itself; the act of perception itself became the subject of his work. In 1968 he began making installations, to alter the viewer's perception of space (Scrim Veil - Black Rectangle - Natural Light, (down the page), 1977, Whitney Museum of American Art). His outdoor works also are involved with the viewer's experience of site and place, and involve landscape design, architecture, and aesthetic philosophy. His approach differs from most other artists in that he approaches each site without preconceptions or design; he allows the site to completely determine how his work will take shape (site-determined installation). This sometimes causes his work to completely disappear within the landscape, causing the viewer's attention to be drawn away from the art and toward the landscape or world at large. An example of his outdoor work is his commissioned installation on the grounds of the J. Paul Getty Trust's Getty Center in Brentwood, California. His site-determined works were created at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Pace Gallery and Dia Center in New York, as well as many other sites. He has also created 'ephemeral interventions' in many museums in Europe, e.g., Musee d' Art Moderne de la Ville, Paris; Kolinscher Kunstverein, Cologne; and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid). His inquiries into the role and boundaries of art have also produced projects in public spaces such as the Old Post Office Atrium, Washington, DC; Stuart Collection, University of California, San Diego; a proposal for radical change of environment for Miami International Airport, and many others. He has also lectured and written widely on philosophy, perceptual psychology, and art, and has taught at the University of Minnesota, UCLA, Rice University, Yale University, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as well as many other institutions. In 1993, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, initiated a major retrospective of his work, which subsequently traveled to Paris, Madrid, and Cologne. Irwin has received the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship Award. A biography, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, by Lawrence Weschler was published by the University of California Press in 1982. A DVD, Robert Irwin: The Beauty of Questions, 1997, UC Extension Center for Media, presents Irwin's approach to art and its role in the world, showing him at work on some of his installations. Some interesting quotes on art by Irwin can be seen at this website. The artist has a long list of awards, exhibitions and accomplishments. In Two Running Violet V Forms, (down the page) an outdoor installation in the Stuart Collection, University of California, San Diego, Irwin installed two fence-like structures in V-forms amidst a manmade forest of eucalyptus trees. The V-forms are blue-violet, chain-link fencing supported by stainless steel poles which average 25 feet in height. Small purple flowers echo the violet color on the ground. For viewers, it is an ever-changing work, sometimes dramatic, sometimes invisible, that draws their attention to the landscape around the work. An indoor installation, Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue, (down the page), 2006-07, was made of six pairs of painted panels, each in one of the primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Panels were mounted on the floor and on the ceiling of a train terminal. The work's title is the same as a 1966-67 series of Barnett Newman paintings. Irwin said that the title came from his interest in the interrelationship of the primary colors (red, yellow and blue). The panels were installed on the floor and roof, rather than on the walls, as is traditional, and this caused the shapes of the panels to recede into perspective as the visitor walked toward the work; they therefore appear as trapezoids rather than rectangles. In art as in life, sometimes what we know differs from what we see, and Irwin is accenting this reality. Also, the "laws" of perspective are not real laws - perspective is a mathematical theory developed during the Renaissance that allows us to translate the reality of two dimensions onto a two-dimensional surface. So, when we stand on railroad tracks, and they seem to converge as they go away from us, what we see differs from what we know to be true - that they never converge, but are endlessly parallel to one another. As students, artists experience the illusion of perspective firsthand. There is not a big leap between knowing that visually things aren't always what they seem, to realizing that in life things aren't always what they seem. So artists also teach us to question our assumptions and perceptions. Irwin's work Light and Space (2007) (down the page), an indoor wall installation, is reminiscent of a Mondrian work of 1917, Composition with Lines (down the page). True to form, Irwin didn't see the finished work until it was installed; he did not construct it in his studio either life-size or in model form. He saw it for the first time along with everyone else, in its intended site, where he considered the relationships of every element in the large space, such as roof trusses, etc., and how to incorporate them or remove them from the overall design. Artists usually will try to plan ahead so as not to encounter problems at the installation of the work; Irwin's entire working philosophy, experiencing the work, causes him to remain open to possibility (and mistake) through the entire art experience. The intention of many artists is to try to make us see - since many people go through their lives too busy to notice what's around them. The artistic implication is that there is beauty and richness everywhere, and humans need to become aware of it. It is not beauty located only in museums - it is beauty without exception everywhere. Irwin has stated: "To be an artist is not a matter of making paintings or objects at all. What we are really dealing with is our state of consciousness and the shape of our perceptions." (www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=79227)
Through art, we receive a qualitative, rather than a quantitative, experience; with so much of modern life concerned with only the quantitative, art becomes even more necessary. Irwin's art is based on feeling rather than intellect, and its value is experiential for the viewer, rather than having a passive art experience in front of a traditional painting or sculpture. Rather than looking to the artwork, we will look inside - for this is where the real art lies, in opening ourselves to the present moment. This idea belongs with the contemporary notion that art is not a product - it is a process, and its value is not monetary, but in its power to enrich us as we experience it. We can buy a work of art, but we can't buy the expression/experience of the work - the artist's, or our own.
I once read in an art magazine about Irwin creating a light installation on a college campus that had been plagued with student conflict (if my memory serves me correctly). By choreographing the way light entered the small room, soft colored lights moved across the space throughout the day. It was used as a meditation room to try to bring harmony to the school. Researching this profile, I was unable to find a reference to this work, but it stuck with me because of its humanistic concerns, as art.
Irwin (and many other contemporary artists) have chosen not to make tangible art objects, as much as create installations and environments. It is most interesting to me that some artists are working with the intangible 'material' of light, rather than paint or bronze. This expands the notion of what constitutes art, and so expands the possibilities of art. Light is so powerful in our lives, and its expressive potential is great. It also has a healing reputation - it is the province of the divine, however the divine may be conceived.