Robert Irwin’s new work at La Jolla’s Quint Contemporary Art — his first show in a commercial gallery space on the West Coast in three decades — consists mainly of fluorescent light tubes. But it’s important to know that it’s not about the lights.
Sound like a contradiction? On the surface, yes. But not if we take into account the dramatic evolution of Irwin’s art since the 1960s — a body of work that has made him one of the major artists of our time.
Irwin, 81, has worked with an impressive array of media. There are the painted and shaped acrylic surfaces of his ethereal, wall-mounted discs of the late 1960s. Or, the tinted fence he employed in works like “Two Running Violet V-Forms” for UCSD’s Stuart Collection in 1981. Then, there is the vast array of plant life in what is arguably his most famous work for a public place: the Getty Garden in Los Angeles.
But in these and myriad other examples, the major concern has never been with medium. In the making of the work, it’s been about the relationship of what he makes to the place in which it resides — what he calls “site-conditioned art.” This view, in which he focuses on the viewer’s experience of the work, is rooted in an observation he made long ago.
“I was looking at one of my dot paintings and thought about how it’s in a frame. And I thought: That is not how we see the world. It’s closer to an envelope or a continuum,” recalls Irwin, talking at a bagel shop near the gallery.
This notion of art without frames, a more continuous visual experience, is crucial to Irwin’s art.
And though his new creations at Quint are discrete forms, they are true to his emphasis on the viewer’s perceptions. We might choose to classify the selections at Quint as objects, but each one is, as Irwin describes it, “as minimal an object as possible.”
Fluorescent lights are his chosen medium for them because, as a medium, it is what he calls “dumb.”
But dumb, it turns out, has a special meaning for him: It’s a form so simple that you end up not paying attention to it as a form.
“They are about the look of light, which really has no field of density,” he says.
Aside from the huge time interval between gallery shows on the West Coast, this show is auspicious for another reason: that he’s making art in a studio at all.
Until about a year and a half ago, when Irwin started concentrating on these works, he hadn’t really immersed himself in studio work since 1970, when he closed up shop in Venice, Calif.
Irwin has preferred, instead, to respond to a place, be it the grounds of the Getty complex or a museum space, as he did with many of the works in his major exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in 2007, curated by director Hugh Davies.
Irwin, who grew up and went to art school in Los Angeles, is one of the progenitors of the Light and Space School, which has come to be seen as a pivotal development in post-1945 art. For this and other work, he was recognized with a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1984.
He decided to make San Diego his home in 1987, residing first in Point Loma and a few years later, moving to the Carmel Valley area, where he lives with his wife, Adele, and his daughter, Anna Grace.
Davies has been one of Irwin’s most ardent champions for decades and in one big way set the scene for Irwin’s current explosion of work.
“Hugh insisted on giving me a studio,” says Irwin. In fact, Davies included a studio for him in the original plans for the Jacobs Building downtown, which opened in January 2007.
“I kept telling him I don’t need and don’t want it. But in short order I inherited a studio, against my better judgment. And I met Joey, who was the head of the guards and he became my assistant.”
The 31-year-old Joey Huppert, who worked as both a supervisor in security and an installer of exhibitions, is also an artist. He had read all of Irwin’s writings and could liberally quote them, much to Irwin’s amazement.
“I think he might have been the first person who had read all of them. We started having remarkable discussions and then I asked him to come work for me,” Irwin says. “He’s become indispensable.”
But why a show at Quint and why now?
“I’ve always liked Mark (Quint) and admired him for surviving for so many years in a tough environment for galleries. And I really needed some walls where I could look at the work.”
There is so much work he has wanted to install, it turns out, that those who saw the show when it first went on view will see a different exhibition now. Irwin may change some or all of them one more time before the show, aptly titled “Works in Progress,” ends on May 1. He seems to have an inexhaustible number of permutations he wants to try out.
The tubes themselves are 4, 6 and 8 feet in length. They are arranged vertically in combinations of three up to 33. Some are colored with a gel generally used in theatrical settings; there is a spectrum from lead gray to brown to greens and blues. On some tubes, he’s employed masking tape to create the effect of stripes or lines on their surfaces. Shadows and colors created on the walls are part of their effect, too. And each of these works have multiple states, created by switching tubes on and off.
The use of gels on fluorescent lights was a facet of Irwin’s great two-part exhibition at the Dia Art Foundation’s old space in New York’s Chelsea district back in 1998, an installation that may get a second life at the Dia’s current space in Beacon, N.Y. (Irwin designed that space, in collaboration with the architectural firm OpenOffice.) In part, it was a new piece using configurations of tubes in the 2007 show at the MCASD, “Light and Space,” that triggered the current wave of work.
“This has been a whole new game for me,” says Irwin. “The technology is the simplest thing of all about them.”
It’s the dynamics of these light pieces that fascinate him, the “rhythmic possibilities” of the tubes as he calls them — in different quantities, lit and unlit, variously colored, that hold his interest.
Irwin’s concept of art as an experience over and above its status as an object is reflected in theoretical writings of his own, which were in turn inspired by his readings in phenomenological thinkers like Edmund Husserl and other philosophers. But there is an intuitive dimension to him, too, which trusts open-ended exploration.
As Irwin puts it, “Since we started making these a year and half ago, these works have grown like topsy. I believe in the blind pig method. If you root around long enough, you get a truffle.”