Some thirty years after its installation at the Walker Art Center as part of the museum’s inaugural exhibition Works for New Spaces, Robert Irwin’s untitled perceptual work is, more than ever, a seminal statement that has helped to redefine the role of the artist and the contemporary canon itself. Commissioned by the Walker in 1971 for a major space in its then-new building designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, Irwin’s work was, from the beginning, fully intended to be a site-determined environment addressing the scale and structural parameters of the space. In response to this commission, Irwin constructed a mock-up of the Walker’s gallery in 1970 in his Los Angeles studio, and then proceeded to evolve the conceptual framework of the piece and its materials, which included synthetic scrim, wooden frames, concealed double-stripped fluorescent lights, and floodlights. Out of these seemingly straightforward materials emerged an elusive and enduring work that both creates and challenges the limits of perception. An oblique plane of scrim slanting away from the viewer creates two spatial volumes that are only perceived as indistinctly separate due to the immateriality of the scrim, but form a unity that is capable of being experienced visually while being both fugitive and real: in short, a work that leaves, in the artist’s words, “as few traces of myself as possible”1 —yet establishes an immensely powerful presence.
The more one experiences this and other works by Irwin over his remarkable evolution, the more one truly comprehends that the separation between art and thought, which is a convention of Western philosophy, is in fact artificial. Instead, adopting Irwin’s stance, art is the most profound inquiry into the nature of thought and experience itself—in his words, “an inquiry that takes me to places I never thought I’d be.” More significantly perhaps, in art-historical terms, a work of art for Irwin “has its own set of rules” not dictated by any other human enterprise. This is because art is essentially not about objects, but about perception, which—again in Irwin’s astute judgment—is “one of the great beauties of our lives.” Hence the art “object” or experience is in fact a dialogue between the artist who created it, and the viewer. “The issue,” according to Irwin, “is about context, not objects: how we perceive objects in context.”
The viewer unfamiliar with Irwin’s artistic journey may well wonder how he reached this point of hugely individual self-determination. Starting in the late 1940s and early 1950s as an Abstract Expressionist, Irwin was encouraged by the work of Willem de Kooning, which he felt reflected the observation that “perception is deeply tactile.” At this early stage in his development, however, Irwin chose not to be limited by what he saw as another set of conventions, and he began to question exactly what a painting was, and to see such works in an entirely different and much-expanded perceptual sense—simply as objects. This new “agenda” for his work led, between 1963 and 1969, to the enormously influential series of dot and disc paintings that further expanded the artist’s understanding of perceptual experience. From 1970 onward, Irwin found himself existing outside the art world’s self-contained, limited, but very functional systems for creation, presentation, and consumption. He deliberately set aside all assumptions of what art was and is, evolving with extraordinary focus and concentration a seminal body of work that was primarily installation- or environment-based. Often temporal in nature, this work is grounded in the frame of reference of the viewer, defined by perceptual phenomena, and determined by the unique circumstances of each situation. The untitled work presented here, so critical to the historical accuracy of the Walker’s permanent collection, epitomizes Irwin’s quest to redefine the nature of contemporary art and thought.
All quotes in this essay by Robert Irwin are from the documentary film Robert Irwin: The Beauty of Questions, directed by Leonard Feinstein (University of California Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning, Berkeley, 1997). ↩