Being There: Robert Irwin at the Hirshhorn

Being There

Robert Irwin at the Hirshhorn

April 7th- Sept 5th, 2016

By Sarah Kate Jorgensen


Irwin-Untitled-1969Robert Irwin
Untitled, 1969
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Robert Irwin is one of those artists who come along once in a century and makes art that investigates the nature of art, or more particularly, the nature of the viewer. He is known for his site conditional works around the world. The exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum entitled “Robert Irwin: All The Rules Will Change” digs deep into his early artistic practice to demonstrate where those investigations began and also to shed light on Irwin’s solid past as a painter steeped in formal concerns and practice.

The entire exhibit, which is curated by Evelyn Hankins, has Robert Irwin’s mark; he designed the entire exhibit himself. The walls are floating so you encounter each piece uniquely, on its own, and from different perspectives. The light gray floors offset the whiteness of walls and ceilings. This is not a postage stamp exhibition where everything is lined up–Boom boom boom! Instead, it’s one piece of art at time, on a floating wall. You only see, are able to see, one artwork and then must choose if you will focus your attention on it deeply. You the viewer decide where to go to next and decide what to turn to next. The artwork and its arrangement all connects with the theme of slowing down your approach. It’s about that focus. This is a show that takes time and extended, active viewing.  A lot of the works in this exhibit will not unfold until you spend time looking at them.

The show is framed by two of his disc works. One currently, in the collection of the Orange County, California Museum of Art, is installed at the beginning because it is visually compelling and it establishes the framework allowing people to realize what is happening and where they are headed. The discs bring people into the galleries. There are four discs in the show. The acrylic disc from Orange County, the aluminum disc from the Hirshhorn and  the acrylic disc from the Hirshhorn. The Orange County Museum’s piece is comprised of a disc extending from the wall which is usually lit by four cans creating four shadows when installed. Robert Irwin has changed the lighting for the show. By creating the sense of natural lighting, he found the effect that he was striving for:  a painting extending into your realm, then dissolving into space.



Robert Irwin
Untitled, 1959–60
Collection of Adele and Robert Irwin
Photo © 2007 Philipp Scholz Rittermann

Small paintings are the chronological beginning of the show at the Hirshhorn. In these paintings, you see how Robert Irwin started his artistic career obsessively working in the studio (in other words, a “studio rat”). Although he doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree in fine art, he is a very good draftsman who taught himself to paint, stretch canvas, etc. He was looking at the Abstract Expressionist artists in New York, such as Kline and Pollack, whose emotive gestures over large scale canvases were holding the art world’s attention for their impressive expressiveness in the late fifties and early sixties. Unlike the enormous, macho Abstract Expressionist paintings, Irwin’s paintings were small, meant to be hand held, a little less than one-foot square.  Robert Irwin wanted to take the scale down and focus on painting.  Instead of a huge scale, which according to Irwin, was spinning his work “out of control,” he wanted to reduce this art to a size where he was actually doing everything and responsible for all.

What triggered this change in Irwin’s sense of scale was a dinner with a studio mate, who had been in stationed in the Pacific in the army and owned a half-a-dozen rare antique ceramic Japanese bowls, which are traditionally used in the elegant Japanese tea ceremony. One day he asked Irwin to dinner and set out two cans of pork and beans and they ate. Afterward, he set a box on the table-wrapped very simply with a ribbon in Japanese style with wonderful sense of presentation. Irwin said “So you untie the box, take the lid off, and then there is a small, soft bag and it has draw strings you reach in and take out this Roku bowl. The beauty of going all the way down through these elements so that you could appreciate the thumb work.”  You look at the textures, rough and smooth, in each bowl (that usually contains green tea, symbolizing the ocean of life) and you notice the perfection in the imperfections. There process of coming to that way of approaching an object was a great, spectacular education.”

This is supposed to be how these handheld paintings work.  Although not possible in the museum, the visitor is meant to pick them up, hold them, and experience the Raku. “I genuinely started to realize the importance of scale, how one looks at it, how one approaches- that brings you down to the point where the slightest mark has a kind of meaning of its own. That’s a major thing to find out and I don’t think many people have had the opportunity to find this thing out- (this changing of pace)”, Irwin said in an interview on the Modern Arts Podcast.

When Irwin’s hand held paintings are seen at close range, one is able to absorb color, texture, movement and contrasts. One gets a sense of intimacy when looking at this scale. This intimacy is still present even seeing them on a table top setting in the museum. What is amazing about them is that they are an encounter. He even created his own wooden frames and particular varnishes to go with each work. At first perhaps they do not capture interest, but when you spend time with them, they move. What is interesting to see is he is an outstanding colorist. Some of the colors are acidic, some are novel- the colors of burning butter and ripe string beans. Robert Irwin is known for his sense of immaterial and he has moved to create pieces that are more intimate and less immaterial as time has passed. For someone known for working with the immaterial, you can see here that Irwin started out working with a great sense of form, material and color. They are complete paintings-your eye moves around them.


Robert Irwin
Installation view of Ocean Park, 1960–61, and Untitled (partial), 1962, in Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2016. Artworks © 2016 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo: Cathy Carver

Still, good art is an investigation and these are the beginnings of his investigations into perceptions. He’s asking “How can you upend the traditional relationship between a static object and the viewer?” Irwin does so by making his painting small and dynamic, making the viewer hold it, question it, letting it unfold over space and time.

Irwin goes large again because he feels he has this gesture to explore. He starts by making what are generally known (not by him) as the Pick Up Sticks Paintings. Most people haven’t seen these and nor the preceding paintings.  During a walk through the galleries, the curator, Evelyn Hankins, added “and I think that’s really important- everybody is familiar with his projects at the Getty garden, DIA or at Chinati [or those window cutouts in La Jolla] but what fascinated me is that the questions he asks now were present in these paintings”, meaning the investigations and queries of his later work, where he leaves the studio and starts a de-materialized practice, are prevalent in these early paintings. They are all about the viewer noticing themselves noticing; they are about experience.  Hankins goes on to say that these “paintings, are not random figures but instead complicated juxtaposition of color, material and mark making. They are both formal and conceptual.  At this point, he was becoming more and more attuned to his own perceptions. And before he made these paintings, he spent weeks or months looking at gray forms on the wall, and he learned that you don’t actually perceive a square as a square- you often make assumptions about what you see based on where you stand or where you are.”

line irwin

Robert Irwin
Bed of Roses, 1962
Private collection

Irwin was interested in similar ideas to philosophers of language and phenomenologists, he would later (in the early 1970’s) immerse himself in Wittgenstein and second tier phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty. He was interested in how we perceive and what informs our perceptions. He understood it was all framed by experience and culture- you cannot throw those influences away completely. The idea of the line paintings is you don’t just look at the paintings and say “those are four lines” and walk away.  Instead you look at the painting and say

  • “What is going on here?
    “Oh look, the surface of the painting is more textured, brushed and gestural, then there are four lines that are less gestural and carefully placed—so I can’t always hold all four in focus at once. “
  • “Some are really flat against the canvas; some extend a bit.”
  • “What happens when I stare at the canvas and it starts to unfold?”

There’s a tension in your eyes, try to put aside the learned things and keep going.  You start to notice yourself noticing, seeing yourself seeing.  Irwin’s art makes you conscious of yourself processing. It’s a safe place for you to notice.

irwin in studio

Robert Irwin in the studio working on an early line painting, 1962.

© Marvin Silver/Courtesy of Marvin Silver and Craig Krull Gallery

In the late line paintings, Robert Irwin transitions to larger canvases and removes frames. He asks, “How can I make it not possible to project subject matter onto this?”  In the paintings he challenges the figure- ground interaction. The figure-ground relationship is defined in Western Art as where the figure (or object which draws your eye) is more important than the background or ground it sits on. When you look from certain vantage points, the two lines gradually expand into the viewer’s space, undermining pictorial conventions.  When he says, “THROW away your perceptual reflex” he means we are all conditioned to see things a certain way, based on our culture, our situation, etc. He is saying “note that, and put it aside as much as you can.” We expect there to be a certain figure-ground relationship; what if it isn’t there?

Irwin wants a dialogue. He has this idea about eminent domain and the sharing of information. In this sense, it is that people in different places and different fields are thinking some of the same ideas but with different approaches. And then there’s this moment: if I can think it-he can think it. He’s doing a painting, and the cognitive scientist is doing an experiment and you find cross currents. It is just another way of talking about the world.

circles irwin

Robert Irwin
Untitled, 1963–65
Acrylic paint on shaped aluminum
60 in. (152.4 cm) diam.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2007; The Panza Collection
© 2016 Robert Irwin / Art

The final paintings in the show, the Dot paintings, are comprised of a thousand tiny hand painted dots, dense in the center and spread out to the extremities. This variation gives the sense of protrusion. In fact, when viewed from the side, you notice that the canvas frame also bulges slightly to enhance that sensation. The canvas vibrates.


Robert Irwin in his studio, 1970.
Photo: © 1970 Steve Kahn

The idea here is that you come back and there is an energy created as you approach the painting and stand back. There is an experience created over time.  That’s the essence; there’s a variation. What initially is illegible begins to engage the viewer. We get an embodied experience-meaning we experience with more than our eyes, but with our bodies in space. We notice how perception unfolds across space and time. Multiple vantage points is why Irwin discourages photography.

When we come to the Discs toward the end of the show, it is as if Irwin asks “how can I paint a painting that doesn’t begin and end with the edge?” Irwin, having worked on hot rods as a youth, worked with auto manufacturers to make the aluminum discs. He then sprayed them with acrylic, cantilevered them out by two feet and used these lights to pose the question, “where does the work of art end and the surrounding space begin?” He takes something that lacks quantitative value, but has a qualitative value-the shadows- and makes them a part of the artwork. He is questioning boundaries. It’s almost impossible to know where the art begins and ends.  He is using acrylic or car manufacturing materials. He is moving away from traditional materials. He is asking questions. He is moving toward creating dialogues.

In the late 1960’s, scientists were also asking these questions about experience and perception, and so were philosophers. At that time, the question which was for Irwin a private investigation, became a dialogue. This has been the basis of his practice ever since. For Irwin, his art has always been about dialogue. In 1970, he spent time in the desert. He wanted to only have a practice “In Response”.  He eventually got rid of everything in his studio, and then, the studio and went to the desert and made experiments in perception. He’d give a lecture one place, then another place.  But instead of objects, he worked on making encounters in response to specific spaces. Once he let go of his studio and “Dematerialized, De-commodified” his practice, he went where he was invited, spent time there, had a conversation with the people and the environment and worked on site-conditional work. This conditional practice continues today, from airports to the Getty garden.



8a And 8b. Students and Museum Visitors exploring Robert Irwin’s Instillation for the Hirshhorn, 2016

Photo: Author

In his installation for the Hirshhorn, Irwin continues his practice of site conditional work. Initially, he wanted to work with the outside of the building, but safety standards made this difficult. Nevertheless, he manages to elegantly interact with the building’s form on the Hirshhorn’s second floor.  A scrim is stretched and stabled, “squaring the circle” of the museums’ form. It changes your understanding of the shape of the room and the building. Light gracefully floats through the scrim. It is disorienting. Viewers find it hard to know where to start. One of my own students began to look at the slight variations of shadow on the walls-something Irwin undoubtedly would have liked to have seen. You begin to notice the coffers, the light. Your vantage point shifts, your experience shifts. There is no fixed vantage point to take a “selfie.”  All of this comes from the times Robert Irwin spent staring at the wall in the studio, thinking about how we notice and how to activate our sense of perception.

The exhibit “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change” defies real description. You have to be present; you have to be there.




All works © 2015 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York