Artist of Light, Space and, Now, Trees
LEIDO en NYTimes.com
WALKING through a nearly empty museum with Robert Irwin, an artist known for making artwork that barely registers as being there, is an unsettling experience. Could the fluorescent lights overhead be an early Irwin work, recalling the time he transformed a room at the Museum of Modern Art in New York by replacing the lights and stringing a wire across a wall? What about the tape on the floor? Did he add it himself, as he once did in Chicago?
Then there’s the architecture itself, a former railroad baggage depot that is now the main building of the Museum of Contemporary Art here. Has Mr. Irwin tweaked the space, reworking the flow of light and people as he did at Dia:Beacon in New York?
The answer to all of the above was no. Or, rather, not yet.
“It’s a new facility, and they did a good job with it,” Mr. Irwin said of the building, which opened this year across from the museum’s other downtown location. “But I’ll need to make some changes for my work.” He was referring to five new large-scale installations he was planning, part of a larger Irwin survey opening at the museum in late October.
“Right now it’s pure inquiry,” said Mr. Irwin, 79, who cut an athletic figure in his blue jeans and fitted black T-shirt. “If you wanted to watch me work, it would be totally boring. It would look like a Warhol film where nothing happens. I sit for 24 hours, then I scratch myself.”
These days he is also in the planning stages of an outdoor commission for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that draws on his experience designing gardens at the Getty Center in Los Angeles a decade ago. Scheduled to go up in skeletal form by February, it is an “installation” of palm trees designed to provide the county museum’s fast-growing campus some needed greenery and visual coherence.
But the connection between his museum work and his meta-gardening is not immediately clear. How did California’s most radical light-and-space artist, who once exhibited an empty gallery in Venice as a work of art, come to design those much-loved Getty Gardens? And what is he doing now with palm trees?
The San Diego show should help connect the dots by showing new work along with a sampling of early “light and space” pieces. No one is calling it a retrospective, but it is his biggest survey in 15 years, filling the museum’s two buildings downtown. It is also his first show in San Diego since he moved here in 1990.
Some of the earliest works in the show date from the 1960s, when Mr. Irwin was still making paintings. First came the so-called dot paintings (“my attempt to make a painting without making a mark”), then the acrylic disks (“paintings without edges”). Some of the most recent works are drawings for architectural projects, like his plans for transforming a defunct hospital at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Tex.
“I tell people this will look like a group show,” said the San Diego museum’s director, Hugh Davies, a close friend of Mr. Irwin. “There will be Abstract Expressionist paintings, Minimalist paintings, architectural work. It’s all over the map. He doesn’t have a signature style.”
Mr. Irwin has created a garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
But the more Mr. Irwin talks, the more his various projects seem one and the same. He sounds like a philosopher of everyday life. He talks about the grace of a perfect football play. (He plans to catch the University of Southern California game on television the day of his opening, even if that makes him late.) He talks about the discipline of betting on horses, not unlike the way Marcel Duchamp once talked about the logic of chess. He talks about his encounters years ago with the writings of Hegel, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, philosophers who were “so difficult that I decided the only way to read them was to read them all day.” And he talks most of all about the purpose of art, as a vehicle for attuning or retuning individual patterns of attention and perception.
Almost 30 years ago a 27-year-old former philosophy student named Lawrence Weschler was so inspired by their ongoing, open-ended conversation about the meaning of life and art that he wrote huge chunks of it into a 25,000-word manuscript.
“He was showing the piece around, but we knew there was no chance it would ever get published,” Mr. Irwin said. “Then he showed it to writer Calvin Tomkins, who showed it to New Yorker editor William Shawn, who ended up running it in two parts.” Mr. Weschler ultimately landed a job as a staff writer for the magazine.
The article, published shortly afterward in book form as “Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees,” also had ripple effects for Mr. Irwin. It introduced his work to many who could not see it in person, either because of location or because it no longer existed, like the nearly empty room at MoMA.
Mr. Irwin said people still come up to him with dog-eared copies of the book (which the University of California Press plans to reissue in expanded form next year) whenever he gives talks.
The director of the Los Angeles County Museum, Michael Govan, who once tapped Mr. Irwin to “design our experience” of Dia:Beacon when he was the director there, said the book “has convinced more young people to become artists than the Velvet Underground has created rockers.”
The book is a primer of sorts on how to open yourself up to aesthetic experience, how to be bowled over by beauty. It’s about “trying to get people to perceive how they perceive,” Mr. Weschler offered in a telephone interview.
Mr. Irwin said: “In a way it’s a simple thing. For the next week try the best you can to pay attention to sounds. You will start hearing all these sounds coming in.
“Once you let them in, you’ve already done the first and most critical thing, you’ve honored that information by including it. And by doing that you’ve actually changed the world. It’s nothing mystical, but you’ve redefined the world for yourself.”
Artists can also redefine the world by reducing clutter, which is why Mr. Irwin plans to build some false walls inside the San Diego museum. One will cover the central window along the museum’s south side ’s south side so as to not distract from “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue,” a larger version of a piece that made its debut at Pace Wildenstein in Chelsea last year.
He also plans to build a false wall along the north end of the 10,000-square-foot space, to hide the wiring for a field of fluorescent tubes set at right angles to one another. “They’re not like Daniel Buren’s stripes but not unlike them either,” he said. “It will be something you can swim in rather than focus on.”
He uses the words “gestalt” and “ambient” for this project, crucial terms for works that are not contained objects of art. Another favorite term is “participation.” He cites, for example, his 1997 transformation of a room that overlooks the Pacific at the La Jolla branch of the San Diego museum.
Reasoning that he could not compete with the sweeping view, Mr. Irwin cut three rectangles —squares almost — into the existing windows. “At first I didn’t realize the glass was tinted,” he said. “So not only did my holes let in air and sound, adding another dimension to the experience, but they made everything seen through them appear in greater focus.” You might say he opened the window, that age-old pictorial device, letting in a cool rush of reality.
Another medium he uses for awakening perceptual powers is the scrim, which fluctuates between opacity and transparency. He is using this material to transform two rooms in San Diego. “Once when I was in Amsterdam, I was walking down the street, and I saw this material being used in windows, like curtains,” the artist said. “It’s a wonderful way to take hold of light. It’s self-effacing, but can really change a space.”
Scrims are also cheap, Mr. Davies pointed out. “When you’re doing large-scale art, it can be really expensive to fill the space,” he said. “What Bob discovered is that you can buy a scrim, and it’s not as expensive or heavy-handed as building a wall with sheetrock.”
Or you could buy a tree. Having used lindens and red flowering plums early on, Mr. Irwin is now bent on palms. “Palms are like cockroaches,” he said. “They were here long before us, and they’ll be here long after us. They’re the only things standing after a hurricane.”
He began working with the palms last year after Mr. Govan, having taken over as director of the Los Angeles County Museum, invited him to weigh in on its landscaping plans. Mr. Irwin said he felt those plans had no “rhyme or reason” and offered another idea: palm trees.
Mr. Irwin also had something of a political agenda. “The mayor of Los Angeles has said that he wants to ban palm trees,” he said. “So I thought: Why not ‘curate’ the palm tree? Let’s give people what they want to see in Southern California.”
Across the museum campus Mr. Irwin plans to use dozens of palms of different heights and varieties to help animate a central promenade, creating mini-installations along the way.
They will be up by February, in time for the opening of the museum’s new contemporary art building, named for the donor Eli Broad. Because of continuing construction and other concerns, Mr. Irwin is “planting” the palms in boxes of his own design, leaving the real planting for later.
In front of the Broad building Mr. Irwin plans to use just two Chilean wine palms, known for their colossal trunks. “They’re too good to use a bunch of them,” he said. “It’s like when you have a great $5,000 chronograph watch, you don’t put 10 of them in the window.”
He calls his approach “site-conditional,” a bump up from site-specific. It’s the notion of art so rooted in its place that making the art means responding to the place, and experiencing the art does too; no further reading or research needed. In the Getty’s case he organized plants by the complexity of their leaves, among other things.
“Someone walking through the gardens at the Getty doesn’t have to know a thing about art history or a thing about plants,” he said. “All of the context for the work is right there.”
Lately color has become another bid for immediacy. The Getty experience taught him that “the palette in nature is beyond anything any painter has ever considered,” he said. Now, with “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue,” he is testing the power of primary colors.
The work consists of pairs of colored lightweight aluminum plates suspended from the ceiling and placed directly below on the floor, in a sort of meatless-sandwich configuration. He opted to position the sheets outside of our normal range of focus “to break our old habits.”
He is also thinking about using colored gels on that field of fluorescent lights on the museum’s north wall. In a studio provided by the museum, he mocked up one section of the wall using exclusively white lights. But he reserved the right to change his mind once on site.
“There’s no way to really mock up or simulate what I’m doing until I’m there,” he said. “An exhibition for me is not a statement but an experiment.”Robert Irwin
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