The artist Robert Irwin took over the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1977 with a single work that became a kind of legend, though many visitors at the time failed to see it. “People would step out of the elevator, say, ‘Hmm, empty room,’ and hop back in before the doors shut,” Mr. Irwin recalled recently.
But the room was not quite empty — and in Mr. Irwin’s work, “not quite” can mean the entire world. He has become one of the most important artists of his generation through work that is less about objects and how they might be perceived than about perception itself. The Whitney piece was a radical experiment in dialing art down to almost nothing: simply a white translucent polyester scrim bisecting the open space, extending from the ceiling down to about eye level, with a black painted line on the wall creating the sensation of seeing floating rectangles. Daylight from one of the museum’s trapezoidal windows was the only illumination. The effect, for the receptive observer, was as if the room were separating into its constituent parts.
Mr. Irwin later described the work as the “X at the point where I jumped off,” and told the writer Lawrence Weschler that he considered leaving the art world after the show. “I don’t know what else I would do exactly,” he said, “but I’m not wedded to that world at all anymore.” In the end, he decided to stay. But the Whitney is not staying in its Marcel Breuer building, for which Mr. Irwin created the piece; in 2015 the museum will move to a new home downtown. And as part of the rolling goodbye to the Breuer, Donna De Salvo, the museum’s chief curator, long dreamed of resurrecting Mr. Irwin’s piece, which has not been seen since it came down 36 years ago.
Beginning on June 27 she will get her wish, with the blessing and even the participation of Mr. Irwin, 84, who is famously averse to revisiting his artistic past. Through Sept. 1 “Scrim Veil – Black Rectangle – Natural Light” will retake the fourth floor, reconstituted with new scrim fabric but the same basic raw materials: Breuer’s imposing Brutalist gridded ceiling, his imposing black split-slate floor and his window, which looks west over Madison Avenue. The only difference will be the season and the nature of the sunlight — in 1977 the piece was on view during the spring.
On a recent visit to the museum to reacquaint himself with the space, Mr. Irwin, who spent most of his career in Los Angeles and now lives and works in San Diego, said the installation was a rare older work he was looking forward to seeing again. “Usually for me, when new questions and interest arise, I just shed my skin and move ahead,” he said. “But I always thought that this was a very good one. It taught me a lot of things.”
He began as a restless abstract painter but soon left canvases for works that used light, shadows, reflections, transparency and often the sparest of materials to try, as he once wrote, to invoke a state of “perceiving yourself perceiving.” The Whitney installation was a continuation of ideas he had explored in a similarly minimal work executed in an out-of-the-way room at the Museum of Modern Art, as he was gradually shedding most of the trappings of an object-making artist. (Not long after the MoMA show, he even shed his studio, selling it, and working from then on only at sites, or from his home or car.)
His works migrated, as he puts it, “out into the world,” and often took forms that made many people wonder if Mr. Irwin was, indeed, still an artist: gardens, landscape projects, architectural interventions. They did not announce themselves as installations or sculptures but sought to deepen people’s awareness of the world around them, if only of things as commonplace as a parking lot or four walls, a floor and a ceiling.
“When you walk into a room you assess it instantaneously, habitually, before you’re even aware of it,” Mr. Irwin said, sitting in a cluttered conference room at the museum, wearing a baseball cap with Ray-Ban sunglasses perched on the bill.
“I mean, you make sure there’s not a hole you’re going to fall into, but mostly you’re not even aware of what you’re thinking.” The purpose of art, as he sees it, has always been to wake people from such nonthinking, and Mr. Irwin has simply pursued this in a way that blurs the boundary between the art world and the rest of the world.
“It’s a constant, continuous, spectacular world we live in,” he said. “And every day you see things that just knock you out, if you pay attention.”
At the time of the Whitney show, some critics saw Mr. Irwin’s methods as an affront to art. Hilton Kramer, in The New York Times, described the scrim room as “Mr. Irwin’s idea of paradise, not ours.”
“Were he in perpetual residence at the Whitney, eloquently declaiming his gospel of pure perception,” he added, “we might feel differently,” but without that, the room was “a chapel that requires a sermon.”
But Ms. De Salvo said she had heard from many people over the years who longed to see the chapel again. She was not living in the city in 1977 and has always wanted to experience the room firsthand. “For me it’s always been kind of mythic, and it just seemed like a great time to reinstall it,” she said.
After the Whitney leaves the building next year, the question of whether the Irwin piece will be seen again is an open one. The Metropolitan Museum of Art will begin using the building in 2015 as an exhibition site, under an eight-year agreement with the Whitney, but the Whitney will continue to own the Irwin piece as a part of its collection. “It’s one of those pieces that can’t exist independent of its space,” Ms. De Salvo said, “so we’ll have to see what its life will be down the road.”
Mr. Irwin does not evince much concern about the piece’s ultimate fate, but he said he did care about one thing: that the opening reception not be held in the evening, as it was in 1977, with the daylight ebbing, leaving everyone standing around with their drinks in the near-dark by the end of the party. (This opening will be in the evening, too, Ms. De Salvo said, but emphasized that the summer light would make it a less crepuscular affair.)
“If I can’t win that simple argument, then how far have I come in this dialogue with the art world?” Mr. Irwin asked, grinning, and added, “The answer is maybe not very far.”