Washington, D.C.

Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change at the Hirshhorn Museum

Robert Irwin has had a number of distinct careers as an artist, each with a distinct group of peers and beliefs. All the Rules Will Change presents the best known but least seen of these careers: the studio painter of the 1960s, who began the decade as a conventional Abstract Expressionist, and ended it by closing his studio and abandoning a practice of painting that had, he claimed, become too familiar.

Robert Irwin. Untitled, 1959–60; ©2016 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © 2007 Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

Robert Irwin. Untitled, 1959–60. © 2016 Robert Irwin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: © 2007 Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

Of this transformation, Irwin has said, “From about 1960 to 1970 [… ] I used my painting as a step-by-step process, each new series of works acting in direct response to those questions raised by the previous series. I first questioned the mark (the image) as meaning and then even as focus; I then questioned the frame as containment, the edge as the beginning and end of what I see. In this way I slowly dismantled the act of painting to consider the possibility that nothing ever really transcends its immediate environment.” [1]

Each step in the process yielded a new body of work, and the Hirshhorn presents these bodies in sequence. First, one encounters the Handhelds, austere miniature AbEx paintings set into heavy, crafted panels, each roughly the size of a laptop computer. Both their scale and name suggest a cargo-cult appropriation of digital tech, despite having been made at a time when computers were still room-sized and programmed with punch cards.

Robert Irwin. OceanPark, 1960–61. Photo ©2015 Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

Robert Irwin. OceanPark, 1960–61. Photo: © 2015 Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

As he moved from the Handhelds to the Early Line paintings, Irwin’s approach remained absolutely conventional for the late 1950s. He established a ground by building it up out of layers of some neutral color (ochre, generally, or sometimes orange or light blue), and then filled the mid-ground with a stack of horizontal lines, thickly painted in black, white, gray, or multicolored, but these were increasingly non-gestural; they are impersonal lines.

Robert Irwin. Bed of Roses, 1962; ©2016 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Robert Irwin. Bed of Roses, 1962. © 2016 Robert Irwin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In the Late Lines of 1962 to 1964, the lines reduce in number to two or three. They look mechanical, especially at a distance, but they’re not. They are the straightest lines that Irwin was capable of drawing after a great deal of practice. They are also the last in a near-endless series of scrapings and redrawings, all directed at an unplanned goal—Irwin would know it when he saw it. In this series, the mark (the line) has lost its indicative character; it doesn’t tell you where to look. But aside from the lines and the ground (and the frame, which will be the next to go), there’s nothing to look at, so looking, clearly, will have to change. At this point in the exhibition, I would have liked to sit for an hour or so to stare at the paintings (or maybe nod off, once or twice, as Irwin used to) while mentally reenacting some of what went into making it. Sitting was a key element in Irwin’s process, at every stage of his career. Unfortunately, in this entire show there’s no place to sit down.

Robert Irwin. Untitled, 1969. Image courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photo: Cathy Carver.

Robert Irwin. Untitled, 1969. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photo: Cathy Carver.

Irwin became a famously controlling artist. He forbade photography of his work, for the very good reason that his paintings require the active attention of viewers within a complex environment of light and space. Ultimately, a solution was reached by redefining the work as “installation.” But in the meantime, Irwin had two more steps to take in the dismantling of frame and edge, and two more series: the Dot Paintings, and the Discs. The dot paintings consist of subtly shaped canvases designed to reduce the distracting presence of edges and corners. Color is laid onto the surface in a series of fields, each of which optically cancels the previous color (for example, green cancels red) unless the viewer sits with the painting for an hour or so, at which point a radiation of color becomes apparent, though not exactly visible. Viewers who have sat with Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, or in Turrell’s low-light environments, will be familiar with the experience.

In all of this work, from the Lines to the Discs, the reward of looking comes when, in the end, viewers see what’s there. Irwin’s goal was to distinguish the presence of optical art from its accidental appearances, and then, as much as possible, communicate that presence through his work. As the beginning and ending images in this show, the Discs are a perfect choice. They show viewers the limits of optical art, and they require artificial light, so each one is both a painting and an environment. They’re mystifying but simple, like a card trick.

Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum through September 5, 2016.


[1] Robert Irwin, Notes Toward a Conditional Art, Getty Trust, Los Angeles, 2011, p. 164