It’s nearly impossible to mount a career retrospective of the art of Robert Irwin. For starters, Irwin gave up painting in 1970. He became what Carl Andre long ago termed a post-studio artist or, as the 87-year-old former Angeleno has said about himself, someone who pursues “project[s] of general peripatetic availability.”
Instead of executing portable art, Irwin, for several decades, has been a maker of installations. Many of these have been ephemeral, and call attention to such immaterial properties as light and time. Curators can’t organize comprehensive shows with things that don’t exist or are site-specific. While Irwin has constructed some works that are permanent, you can’t borrow the Getty’s gardens in L.A. or the layout of the galleries in the former Nabisco factory near New York that houses Dia Beacon, which both are based on designs by Irwin.
As it is, Irwin was never a prolific painter. He made few examples of a limited number of series. It’s these works that have made “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change” a must-see show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, if you haven’t gotten there yet, time is running out. Closing September 5, this spare, elegant survey of Irwin’s art from 1958 to 1970 has earned a place on the short list of exhibitions that make it impossible ever to view a certain artist the same way again.
In the splendid catalogue, you’ll find essays that describe Irwin’s achievements in broad terms. He’s not just an important artist who was once based in Los Angles or a major American painter who emerged during the 1960s. With 25 oil paintings, 3 aluminum and acrylic discs, and 2 acrylic columns, curator Evelyn C. Hankins has supported her contention that “the artworks that Irwin produced during this interval constitute one of the critical chapters in the lineage of twentieth-century abstraction.” (Hankins also gives away quite a few trade secrets about Irwin’s work, and other essays in the exhibition catalogue fill in many gaps in our knowledge of this remarkable artist.)
The two dozen paintings on view are so impressive that it’s clear Irwin would have been an artist to be reckoned with even if he had remained a more traditional figure. He was, to be sure, never in a rush. Tracing his development step-by-step, Hankins reveals how methodical and slow paced he was in honing new ideas. Irwin varied the dimensions of his works as well as their facture, his palette, and the way he deployed lines. Though he was aware of the Abstract Expressionists, he initially made nonrepresentational art that was small and intimate. Moreover, his titles give nothing away: most of the oils are untitled, a few have place names (Ocean Park, Pier I, Pier II), and some have the wacky, period flavor of the 1960s (Jake Leg, Crazy Otto, Bed of Roses).
It took Irwin 11 years to get from the hand-helds, the first burst of canvases in this survey, to the discs, which he initially made from shaped aluminum and then from shaped acrylic. Ranging in size from 11½-by-11½ inches to 21-by-21 inches, the hand-helds are literally meant to be held in the hands of the viewer. At the Hirshhorn, the smaller ones are displayed in a case with nothing indicating tops or bottoms. Irwin left this decision to the beholder, though the larger ones hang on a wall next to one another. All were painted in a single session and sport box frames specially made by the artist that contribute a sharp, hard edge. With an autumnal palette, they have rich, creamy surfaces and pronounced brushstrokes.
Works in the pick-up stick series that followed two years later are measured in feet rather than inches. This group of 5½-foot-square paintings introduces the theme of long, straight horizontal lines, a subject that would occupy Irwin’s attention for many years. With the pick-up sticks, executed circa 1960–61, the artist became an avowed abstractionist who would never turn back.
There’s no tactility to the monochromatic grounds of the early line paintings, the next group of works. Irwin spent days and weeks methodically adjusting the lines, which are stacked one above another and never reach the edges of the canvas. With white medical tapes to which he had applied colors, he’d analyze how to proceed. Then, he’d hand paint the straight lines, which grew further and further apart as he worked.
Once again, Irwin’s work increased in size with the late line paintings. Now, because the colors of the picture planes and the narrow horizontal marks are so similar, viewers had to stand close to the frontal planes to truly see the lines. Executed on wood panels, these works appear to float ever so slightly away from the walls on which they are hung. To Lawrence Weschler, then interviewing artists for an oral history program, Irwin once explained, “[The early line paintings] had all the accoutrements, all the aspirations of a painting. The late line paintings, which, by the way, use essentially the same means—straight lines on a single colored ground—were to be my first successful attempt not to paint a painting.” Or, as Hankins points out, with this series, “Irwin once and for all precludes the possibility of pictorial representation by dispensing with the last vestiges of figure-ground relationships.”
The dot paintings and then the discs that followed are better known than the earlier works. They’re even more engaging once they’re exhibited with their immediate predecessors, which form what could be construed as their “backstory.” None of these works has ever looked better—nor has the Hirshhorn. The installation, for one, draws your attention away from the building’s curved walls because mini-bays were created to display the works. Instead of hanging next to one another, many of the paintings are installed in pairs, each one on a freestanding wall that faces another. As the show draws to a close, only one work occupies the now larger bays.
As if this review of Irwin’s early career were not enough, gallerygoers are rewarded with a special installation using scrim that transforms one of the museum’s intermediate spaces. Once your eyes are trained to appreciate the way Irwin painted his panels at the beginning of his career, it is easier to see what he has done to the Hirshhorn’s interior architecture. It is icing on the cake of a tremendous show.