New York has seen its share of art spectacles this summer. The Museum of Modern Art has its Rain Room, where the computerized stop-and-go downpours have attracted mobs. The Park Avenue Armory is filled with Paul McCarthy’s sensurround onslaught of sexual and psychological chaos. At the Guggenheim, lines of people wait to see the immense digital light show that James Turrell has inserted into the soaring rotunda.
The horizontal line in Robert Irwin’s Light and Space installation may help disoriented viewers regain their bearings.
And then there’s Robert Irwin’s installation at the Whitney Museum. This eye-filling yet barely-there low-tech mirage makes all the others seem overwrought.
“Scrim Veil — Black Rectangle — Natural Light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York” is an installation piece that has not been exhibited since its debut in 1977 and probably will not be seen again for years. A levitating concoction composed of a white semitransparent polyester scrim, a black attenuated aluminum beam and a black line painted on the wall, it has the scale of a spectacle; it takes up the museum’s entire fourth floor. But it is devoid of the sensational ostentation, heavy-duty physicality or technical complexity typical of the genre. It involves very little in the way of materials, and what’s here is decidedly analog.
The means with which Mr. Irwin has transformed the Whitney’s fourth floor are so simple — and the illusion so easily deconstructed — that you might even call his effort the anti-Turrell. (Mr. Irwin can certainly do complicated, but he saves it for unusual situations, like the intricate, constantly evolving Central Garden he designed for the Getty Center in Los Angeles.) Like Mr. Turrell, Mr. Irwin was part of the Light and Space movement that sprang up in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. These artists’ lack of interest in making visual objects led them to start creating situations that gave the viewer a new awareness of visual perception itself. They created, as was often said, the experience of “seeing yourself see.”
None of these artists did more with less than Mr. Irwin. Where most Light and Space artists made a practice of adding walls or cutting holes in them and using special artificial lighting, Mr. Irwin has rarely relied on anything more than a bit of scrim, tape, wire or paint combined with natural light, although he sometimes used the artificial lighting already in place. Still, most of his classic pieces from the 1970s and the 1980s qualify as Light and Space unplugged.
The Whitney piece, as is usual with Mr. Irwin’s scrim works, is extrapolated from a careful consideration of the details of the architecture. Here the main detail is Marcel Breuer’s enormous, emblematic Cyclops window, a trapezoidal bay affair that pivots slightly out from the building’s boxy and otherwise featureless facade.
The scrim abuts the left edge of the window and runs the length of the 117-foot gallery, descending from the ceiling to a height 5 feet 6 inches above the floor. There it is anchored and stretched into a smooth white plane by the aluminum beam, a three-inch-thick, seemingly seamless element (it actually breaks down into 11 pieces) that spans the length of the gallery. Then there’s the black line — also three inches wide and, like the beam, at a height of 5 feet 6 inches above the floor — painted completely around the gallery.
The piece is in some ways a work of measurement both accurate and inaccurate. The scrim-beam makes the space feel bigger than it actually is. The drama of its emptiness is the first thing you experience stepping off the elevator. The effect is of an indoor abstracted landscape, with the scrim functioning as sky and the beam and line providing shifting horizons.
At the same time, the scrim measures the light exactly. Its whiteness meticulously registers its fading and dimming from the window to the back wall. These measurements change every second of every day, corresponding to the time and weather.
Experiencing the work is a process of continuous mulling, of separating visual fact from fiction. You repeatedly take Mr. Irwin’s installation apart and put it back together again, parsing the individual elements — including the window — and then seeing the different ways they combine and affect one another as you move around the space. One thing that quickly becomes obvious is that the dark metal frame around the window seems to be an essential inspiration for the beam and black line. The trapezoidal angles of this aperture also play against the right angles of everything else, just as its transparency contrasts with the fluctuating milkiness of the scrim.
As you leave the elevator, the beam is dominant, but you don’t necessarily know exactly where it is. At first it reads as a deep, dark slot cut into the opposite wall, shadowed by the seemingly thinner, paler painted line. As you move toward it, the beam’s suspension in space near the central axis of the gallery emerges. Then you start sorting out the scrim: the way it diffuses light, making it a granular, tangible atmosphere while also constantly changing from transparent to opaque as you cross under it, walk along it, or view it from a distance. At times it might as well be a plaster wall.
At the juncture of scrim, beam and window, the painted line takes off like a relay racer, zipping around the walls, interrupted only by the elevator foyer and the door to a gallery in the opposite corner. It asserts the horizontal plane of the gallery against the almost guillotinelike vertical of the scrim. It also functions as a kind of ship’s railing by which you can right yourself if things get too disorienting, yet its distant-horizon effect adds to the illusionistic expansion of space.
Mr. Irwin made his first public scrim piece in 1970 at the Museum of Modern Art at the invitation of a prescient curator, Jennifer Licht. (I was her secretary at the time.) In a tiny skylighted gallery usually reserved for the Modern’s Brancusis, he stretched a horizontal scrim across half the skylight and added a thin strand of wire running parallel to its edge, again contrasting precision and diffusion. Seven years later at the Whitney, Mr. Irwin accomplished what is surely one of the masterpieces of Light and Space, or Minimalism in general, and he gave it to the museum on the condition that it could only be exhibited in the space that inspired it. And now the Whitney has brought it out of storage for the first time: a last look before handing its Marcel Breuer building over to its new tenant, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and reopening downtown in new quarters in 2015. It will probably not be seen again until the Met’s lease is up and the Whitney has the wherewithal to take back its historic building.
Robert Irwin’s “Scrim Veil — Black Rectangle — Natural Light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York” is on view through Sept. 1 at the Whitney; (212) 570-3600, whitney.org.