Instead of ending the year with a slew of Best Of lists, BlackBook asked our contributors to share the most important moments in art, music, film, television, and fashion that took place in 2012. Here, Miles Klee writes about Robert Irwin’s exhibition, Dotting the i’s & Crossing the t’s.
Early this year a book title caught my eye: Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. That remarkable line, borrowed from Paul Valéry by author Lawrence Weschler, is meant to launch us into the rarified headspace of Robert Irwin, the biography’s endlessly interrogated subject—a singularly cool California artist whose career has arced from postwar abstraction to the minimalist dots and lines of the 1960s and 1970s to environment-based installations, often with him at the forefront of this or that about-to-be-chic art movement. By the time others warm to his visionary first leaps, he’s typically working on the next problem. He’s restless, unceasing, shark-like in his calm pursuit of a single goal: making us reanalyze the finely calibrated miracles known as our bodily senses.
The book itself is an outstanding achievement, a lifetime of wisecracking wisdom from an intellectual master of his media. Especially for this writer, who feels a palpable lack of kinship with the visual artist, it made dazzling connections between metaphysical spaces and the ones we can see, smell, touch. It houses tantalizing truths about the objecthood of a man-made artifact or event—something Irwin, who turned 85 in September, seems forever destined to destroy. As his work progressed over the decades, he strove to eliminate the ancient distinction between figure and ground and finally to be a curator of sensory experiences in themselves. He speaks of wanting to frame our perceptions so that we suddenly, almost shockingly, recognize them as such.
Irwin’s two-part 2012 exhibition with Pace Gallery in Manhattan, Dotting the i’s & Crossing the t’s, speaks directly in its name to this feature of the man’s art: the devil’s in the details. Indeed, to enter a Robert Irwin show is to understand that something as simple or natural as a shadow is not there by accident. In his contemporary gallery-based work, Irwin takes the inevitably flawed architectural spaces given to him and works them toward an eerie perfection with the fewest possible tools. To the uninitiated, his pieces can look like an empty if heavenly room. A spectator is no more than the intruding figure Irwin abolished from his mind-bending dot paintings so long ago, which forced a viewer to cognitively process a matrix or field of discrete impressions into an awesomely totalized whole.
But these manipulated rooms of his are far from empty. Dotting the i’s & Crossing the t’s: Part I, which ran through May and June, was willing to yield up treasures to anyone who hung around long enough. The exhibition had three components, two of which could be seen as you stepped out of the elevator into the pristine white limbo of the gallery: the street-facing windows, just a few floors up from the slush of midtown traffic, had had squares removed from them—windows within windows. Irwin had previously used this method to ingeniously highlight the beach view from San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art in a work called 1°2°3°4°. Here, rather than amplifying the serenity of the ocean square by square, they were a strange, porous membrane that allowed city noise to waft inside. More than that, they reminded us that clear glass still tints what we watch through it.
These windows (and their lacunae) had their images bounced around a few of the gallery’s cul-de-sacs, as well as the walls of the main room, all of which bore large, dark panels, each bordered by two white ones, polished smooth and reflective … only they weren’t smooth. Whatever Irwin’s methods of painting and finishing these panels, their coating, under glare that flowed across the piece as the viewer moved around it, was shown to be slightly pocked, almost scaly. What the eye assumed to be uniform was in fact molecularly messy. Meanwhile, the colors of the panels changed over minutes of study, giving off afterimage reds and icy blues that seeped into the seemingly monochrome palette. The mirror-like dark panels made it possible to stand almost anywhere and see the rest of the exhibit folded in on itself according to the fiendishly clean geometry of light.
Speaking of light, at the end of a long hallway, you came to a column of it—the third piece of the exhibit, and one that introduced an ambient neon white to the environment, electrifying it. This white, too, is variable, turning frosty blue, almost lavender. But that’s just the beginning. The different vertical bars of color—neutral, fluorescent white, and black—in their specific parallel sequence will hack your visual cortex: they seem to bulge outward, curving as though strained by rogue gravitational waves. One feels quite sucked into the very center of this vortex, a crucible of white light against black.
Dotting the i’s & Crossing the t’s: Part II debuted at Pace this past fall, and again Irwin’s subtle massaging of sensory conditions and input were on display. Sadly, lost in other matters, I missed the exhibit completely. And besides, that last column of bent light had lingered wonderfully—completely—in my mind’s eye. I didn’t know how its ideas could be expanded upon. Clearly, Irwin didn’t have the same problem. This time, a ceiling-lit room was filled with several clear columns that appear to split the very air, prismatically interrupting the solid straight lines that we take for granted in daily life. Again, it is a lesson about the complexities, the brilliant biophysical intricacies, of human sight.
It was instructive, I might add, to be limited in my viewing of this latest work to carefully staged photographs. As Weschler is fond of pointing out in Seeing Is Forgetting, Irwin’s work loses its atmospheric power when rendered photographically. It is so essentially of a place, and of a lived-in moment, that to not stand there in the midst of it is to not experience it at all. The photos, however beautiful, cannot help but fall victim to sterility. Then again, it’s hard to imagine Irwin satisfied with work that could survive translation. When it comes to being replicated, he’s untouchable.