Has any artist had a better year than Robert Irwin? Late in 2007 the MCASD launched a thrilling collection-driven Irwin survey, an exhibition that moved from Irwin’s David Park-meets-abex paintings to his latest incarnation as a post-Flavin light sculptor. The Chinati Foundation, the West Texas museum where minimalism has found its utopia, announced plans for a permanent Irwin installation. Most recently, the Indianapolis Museum of Art became the first American museum to install a permanent indoor Irwin.
Irwin’s success here is all the more striking because the IMA gave Irwin a space reminiscent of a food court. The IMA has doubled down on museo-architectural orthodoxy by installing two atriums: First visitors encounter a soaring glass entrance hall that welcomes them in from the museum’s parking lot. (The space can double as a contemporary sculpture hall; right now it holds an Orly Genger installation.) After passing through Atrium I, visitors glide up an escalator, walk past an information desk, wait for automatic glass doors to open, only to enter the mere outer-chamber to Atrium II, home to a pleasant Sol LeWitt wall-drawing that seems to promise that this trek will end at art.
But first, after passing the LeWitt, a visitor has six (!) choices: To enter the IMA’s superb Pont-Aven and neo-impressionist collection, to enter the museum’s less superb modern art collection, to enter a temporary exhibition, to enter the museum’s American art collection, to ascend a bank of escalators leading to the museum’s Asian, African, European and contemporary collections, or to walk into Atrium II, where the visitor might simply catch her breath and damn I.M. Pei for making all these silly atria fashionable.
The IMA Irwin is in Atrium II. After the trek I found myself too busy processing my options to consider it: I turned heel and walked to Pont-Aven. (I noticed that most other visitors did about the same thing — having finally arrived somewhere, they wanted to be in galleries, not in yet another big open space.)
Over the next four hours, I slipped from the Brittany coast to Victor Higgins’ Taos to Bosch’s nightmares. I shared a 400-year-old Cupid joke with Caravaggio and discovered that at 20 Titian couldn’t paint hair or a beard without making his subject look like he was in the Venetian Witness Protection Program. I felt Fred Sandback in a spare gallery, and the installation left a ball of yarn in my gut. In between floors and collections I stole glances at the Irwin, and it grew on me.
Light and Space III shares one of the atrium’s four sides with a bank of escalators and five-story-tall white scrims. The Irwin doesn’t front the escalators — that is, it doesn’t act as a barrier between the escalators and the atrium. Instead it both fronts and backs them. As museum visitors go up and down between floors, they move through the piece. Think of it as relational aesthetics without Rirkrit’s lousy cooking.
The relationship between IMA’s Light and Space III and MCASD’s Light and Space is plain: While in residence at MCASD last year, Irwin developed a new way of marrying light, space and sculpture: short, perpendicularly-opposed white fluorescent tubes installed in a kind of grid. (Irwin also created a second new piece for MCASD, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue.) The juxtaposition of those two pieces in MCASD’s new Jacobs Building, emphasized that Irwin was still happily engaged in two of modernism’s principle arenas: the deconstruction of color into the primaries and the elimination of perspectival depth in the pursuit of flatness.
Light and Space III is all-white, but it shows that Irwin is using his perpendicular fluorescents — his T-lights — to explore the push-me-pull-you of depth vs. spatial recession. While Irwin’s lights are installed on both the wall behind the escalators and on the drywall in front of them, from across the atrium the affect of the cold fluorescent lights is to flatten the work, to make it appear as if all of Irwin’s lights are on the same vertical plane. (This flattening effect is magnified by Irwin’s use of scrims on the two sides of the installation.) Only when a museum visitor traverses the escalator is it obvious that Light and Space III is ten or so feet deep. Irwin has found a way to have spatial depth and flatness too, all in one work of art.
Related: Rikrit Tiravanija joke conceputally borrowed from Peter Schjeldahl.