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Through February 23, 2008 at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Downtown, San Diego

by Judith Christensen

"Untitled," c. 1960-1961, oil on canvas 64 7/8 x 64 5/8".

"Untitled," 1969, acrylic lacquer on
formed acrylic plastic, 54" diameter.

Desensitization. It’s a handy survival tactic given the plethora of data we encounter daily, the breakneck pace that carries us along, and the overload of disastrous news from around the globe. Handy, yes, but risky too. Indifference and apathy are just around the corner. A paramount function of art is to reverse that trend, if only temporarily, so we reassess and readjust, and, perhaps, occasionally make a conscious change.

Robert Irwin has spent a lifetime honing that function of art. In an exhibit that traces this path from his Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1950s through his minimalist paintings, dot paintings and disks of the 1960s to his current site-determined work, he demonstrates the continuity and significance of his quest.

Irwin created five new pieces in response to the architectural environment of the two downtown buildings--one of which he helped design. In “Light and Space” he focuses the viewer’s attention on the light itself, recalling his 1960s disks. But the light functions differently here. Irwin filled an entire wall with one hundred and fifteen fluorescent fixtures, arranged in singles, doubles and triples. The resulting pattern resembles the surface of a steel diamond plate. The viewer’s eye seeks out repetitions and patterns within the larger schema. Although that attempt fails, what does result is a heightened sensitivity to line, arrangement and angle--the fixtures are perpendicular to each other and at a forty-five degree angle to the lines of the floor, ceiling and adjacent walls. As the viewer turns to exit, the gallery space itself appears transformed, not because it has changed, but because Irwin has elicited a change in the viewer’s perception of it.

The other four pieces present a contrast in texture. Two of the newer pieces, “Five x Five” and “Square the Room” utilize the familiar scrim, or Tergal voile fabric, which filters and softens visual perceptions. Another two, “Primaries and Secondaries” and “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue” are large aluminum panels, each sprayed with one color of urethane. The result is a hard, smooth, reflective surface, calling to mind a reflecting pool. Whereas the scrim encourages the viewer to look through and beyond, barely discerning outlines, shadows, and room corners, the solid, glossy panels compel the viewer to look directly at the intensely colored surface and examine the reflections of what can be seen only indirectly—that is, what is behind, above and to the side. “Primaries and Secondaries” is mounted on the walls, and consequently functions like a set of mirrors. The six panels in “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue” are paired by color--one on the floor, the other hung above it from the ceiling--and they integrate the symmetry of the room’s green arched doorways and high windows into the piece. Because of this and because of the large scale, it no longer appears as a piece of artwork in a museum gallery. Rather, the piece and the space function as a unified whole.

For this exhibit, Irwin, who is characterized as one who ended his object-making in the early 1970s, has again produced a series of objects. But because he has gradually and systematically eliminated the nonessential elements from his object-making, it is not the object itself, but the experience it engenders that is the focus of Irwin’s art-making.

Five x Five" (installation view), 2007, Tergal
voile, light construction, and framing
materials 10 panels: 201 x 176 1/2 x 2" each.

"Light and Space (installation view),
2007, 115 fluorescent lights one wall:
overall dimensions 271 1/4 x 620".

"Primaries and Secondaries," 2007, urethane
paint over lacquer on aircraft honeycomb
aluminum 13 panels: 84 x 38" each; overall
installation dimensions variable.

"Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue3"
(installation view), 2006–07, polyurethane
paint over lacquer on aircraft honeycomb
aluminum 24 panels: 132 1/2 x 96 1/2"
each; 12 panels: 132 1/2 x 48 1/4" each;
overall installation dimensions variable.