Speculative Modernism: Robert Irwin at the Hirshhorn
Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change at the Hirshhorn Museum
April 7 to September 5, 2016
700 Independence Avenue SW (at 7th Street NW)
Washington D.C., 202 633 4674
“All the Rules Will Change,” a retrospective Robert Irwin’s art is the first to survey his oeuvre in the 1960s, and his first museum show outside of California since 1977. We get a thorough survey of his astonishingly swift development in that tumultuous decade. And there is a major new site-specific installation, Square the Circle (2015–16), which shows how Irwin made art after he abandoned painting in 1970.
In the late 1950s Irwin responded to, and critiqued, New York School Abstract Expressionism. From 1958 to 1960 he painted small, gestural abstractions, using oil paint, set in heavy, dark wooden frames. One, Form for Tomorrow (Gray) (1960) looks like a diminutive Cy Twombly. Sometimes, as in Lucky U (1960), Irwin depicts a painted form against a field of color. But he also constructed fields of gestural painting, as can be seen in works such as Untitled (1959–60). Irwin wanted that these hand-held paintings be picked up and examined from all angles; now, of course, when that’s not possible, they are mounted in a vitrine. Soon he did much larger paintings: Ocean Park (1960-61), just over five-feet square, is a good example, with heavily painted horizontal lines in brilliant background fields of color.
By 1962 he was making radically simplified large pictures, with a small number of parallel horizontals running almost the width of the painting. And within a couple of years he did near-monochromes in white — the dot paintings. When you stand back, they look pure white; when you get close, you see tiny red and green dots, concentrated around the center and thinning out at the edge, optically mixing colors that cancel each other out. Then, in 1967 Irwin did untitled acrylic paintings on thin shaped aluminum discs, four or five feet in diameter. Finally, at the conclusion of this period, Irwin painted columns, like Untitled (1970-71) in this show, which were illuminated from above with natural light. One can see in this development the seeds of Irwin’s later, large-scale installations, which create austere spaces that manipulate viewers’ perceptual facilities.
The Hirshhorn is a notoriously difficult site, more difficult even than Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling Guggenheim. The building is elevated on stilts and is shaped like a donut — the toroidal, curving walls presenting a significant challenge to a medium like painting. The best part of the museum is outside, in the sculpture park extending towards the mall. Irwin proposed an installation on the plaza beneath the museum. Judging just from the two small images in the catalogue, this would have been a marvelous use of a rebarbative site. Unfortunately, though, his plan was rejected. And so we have instead Square the Circle (2015–16), a scrim that runs along the inner wall of the galleries for about 120 feet in a straight line. Looking through the scrim, you see the curved inner wall; on the other side, you view the museum’s curved outer wall. I remember fondly Scrim Veil — Black Rectangle — Natural Light (1977), a transparent, bisecting wall reconstructed at the old Whitney three years ago. Suddenly a gallery in that too-often-claustrophobic museum was opened up in a liberating demonstration of the pleasures made possible by physically empty rooms. Square the Circle isn’t that good. Where Irwin’s Whitney installation drew your attention to the visual potential of the Breuer Building’s galleries, Square the Circle just reminds you of the problems inherent in the Hirshhorn’s architecture. This exhibition very effectively reveals Irwin’s dramatically swift development in the 1960s, and the essential continuity of his concerns since that time: having moved from quirky Abstract Expressionism to near-monochromatic paintings, his subsequent installations, removing any painted objects, draw attention to the setting itself.
A special genre of history writing is devoted to alternate histories In that spirit, imagine an alternate history in which in 1960, the New York art world disappeared, but with its concerns taken up by Irwin. Then the history of Modernism might look quite different. Art historians would explain how the Abstract Expressionists’ interest in gestural paintings led inevitably to the disappearance of the art object in favor of focusing on the gallery setting. It turned out, they would argue, that all the distinctive aesthetic features provided by the abstract paintings of the New York School could be presented more economically by scrims. And so the history of Modernism would take us from Henri Matisse through Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, forward to the singular figure who worked out the implications of that Modernist tradition: Robert Irwin. One reason that this exhibition is challenging is that it asks us to imagine that the entire recent history of art might have been different.