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Robert Irwin’s Modern Ruin, Years in the Making, Set to Rise in West Texas

TK
Robert Irwin, “Untitled (Four Walls)” (2006), special exhibition at the Chinati Foundation (all images courtesy Chinati Foundation)

A couple of weeks ago, I went to 101 Spring Street, the former home and studio of Donald Judd, to hear about a new Robert Irwin project to be built at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Chinati, a former military base, was founded by Judd in the late ’70s to showcase large-scale, site-specific artworks by Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain, and Judd. But in the late ’80s that roster expanded to include almost a dozen more artists, and it was Judd’s intention to install a major work by Irwin that has been gestating since. Twenty years after Judd’s death, and after 14 years of development, the Foundation is ready to present Irwin’s project.

Second only to Judd perhaps, Irwin has a reputation for exactitude and attention to detail. Irwin also shares Judd’s overarching concern for art-in-architecture and architecture in the landscape. Irwin designed the master plan for Dia:Beacon, as well as the obsessively-formal formal gardens at the Getty Center, both of which bridge the spaces of art, architecture, and landscape.

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Robert Irwin Chinati Project Plan (2014)

In his introduction to the evening’s presentation, Judd’s son, Flavin Judd, called our attention to the building we were standing in: a 5-story cast-iron building constructed in 1870 that would set the pattern for the Dia Art Foundation, the Chinati Foundation, and every major museum space created in the past 40 years.

Listening to him, I didn’t find his claim to stretch credulity in the least. I had just come back from the men’s room, two floors below street level. The stairwell took me down past exposed brick, scarred by older stairwells and now-gone basements. I’d gotten a thrill from the forbidden act of photographing a hook on the inside of the bathroom door and a few other architectural details while I was alone (photography is strictly verboten). But also from peeing in The House That Judd Built — like a little boy farting in the church of minimalism. Let me be the first to point out the absurdity of the thrill.

Not only did the commode I peed in not exist when Judd lived at 101 Spring with his family, the hook on the back of the door I had so admired hadn’t even been designed yet. But the mix of harsh, plain materiality, and obsessively exacting attention to details of fabrication not only made the sub-basement lavatory a perfect contemporary base to the original Judd aesthetic, it made it a perfect match to every high-end art space I’ve ever visited. That crashing — of the existing 19th-century structure with the more contemporary construction — and cohabitation of old and new that is so particular to Judd’s aesthetic, and to Irwin’s, is something I used to take for granted. My entire art-going life is post-Judd, and was shaped either directly or indirectly by the aesthetic of Judd and Irwin and others of their generation.

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Left: Fort D.A. Russell, former hospital site; right: Robert Irwin, “Untitled (Four Walls)” (2006), special exhibition at the Chinati Foundation

According to Jenny Moore, Executive Director of the Chinati Foundation, the new Irwin project will occupy the site of a former hospital — one of the horseshoe shaped buildings built for the cavalry (seriously) between 1911 and 1920. The building, now little more than a crumbling ruin, has no roof or floors.

Irwin’s installation for Chinati will, like all of his work, be subtle to the point of near invisibility, abstract to the point of muteness. The plan is radically simple, and ambitious. Because the existing walls are structurally unsound, they are to be torn down and replaced by fresh construction. The existing footprint will be preserved, and the original elevation recreated. The hospital’s long-lost wood flooring — which would have been four feet or so above the desert floor — will not be replaced. Instead, Irwin has chosen to preserve the experience of the ruin. The hospital walls and windows will be recast at their original heights, but the new floor, pictured as polished concrete in a rendering, will be even with the surrounding desert floor. The former hospital will have a new roof, with the exception of the entryways, which will remain open to the elements, to allow a hint of the ruin that Irwin was inspired by. Visitors will have the choice of entering either through the right or the left. This point — of audience choice — seems key, since it was touched on by Moore a number of times.

The former hospital wards, now with their sunken floors and curiously high windows, will house Irwin’s signature scrims. They will divide the long, narrow, C-shaped gallery down the center — occupying the space once paced by army doctors and nurses. At the entrance, the scrims appear pearlescent and translucent, but as visitors move deeper into the wards, the scrims will be dyed to a dark, if still translucent, bronze (or at least that is the impression the renderings gave, at the presentation). Nothing else. No recordings of hospital sounds, projections of wounded soldiers, no representations or markers of history. Just space, light, landscape, and the blur of a veil.

Moore used Irwin’s installation “Scrim veil—Black rectangle—Natural light” as a touchpoint for the description of the new work. The “Scrim veil,” originally installed on the 4th floor of the Whitney Museum for Irwin’s retrospective in 1977, was recreated in 2013. In his book, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, author Lawrence Weschler describes the experience of seeing that work for the first time:

As the elevator doors eased open onto the vast, empty room on the fourth floor of the Whitney, you were immediately in the thick of it, the thin of it. For a fragile moment, all your expectations were suspended, and the world itself seeped in. Already, as you walked out of the elevator, you were triangulating, calibrating, trying to get a fix, to mend the tear in the fabric of your mundane anticipations. But even as you were doing so, you were newly aware of the way in which that is something you do all the time.

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Fort D.A. Russell, former hospital site, future site of Robert Irwin installation

Weschler describes Irwin’s Whitney installation as “only one stage in a progression of aesthetic discovery,” a “progression to Zero Point … or, as he might have preferred to characterize it, to Point Infinity.” Not coincidentally, that language recalls the revolutionary desire to break with the past: 1 Vendémiaire and Pol Pot’s Year Zero. Like other American artists of his generation, Irwin saw his progression as moving away from the confines of “European Painting” — away from history. Judd, in particular, used “European” as a red flag: it signified for him a historical idea of art as a discrete object, a thing, rather than a space or experience.

“There has been some discussion of space, usually proportion, by past architects,” Judd observed shortly before his death. “Judging by the evidence of building by recent well-known architects, space in architecture is no longer known. It’s not unseen, it’s not there. Within the clothes there is no Emperor.” And he was right: in the early-90s, the architecture Judd valued had given way, on one side, to academic architecture that abandoned any pretence of social practice and put imagery before space, and on the other, to commercial development that put profits before anything and everything.

“The subject of space in architecture, the nature of architecture, is not developed” Judd wrote. Clearly, Judd hoped we “moderns” might one day recognize what he believed we were missing, and develop a vocabulary for it: articulate space. “The most important and developed aspect of present art is unknown. This concern, my main concern,” he wrote, “has no history. There is no context; there are no terms, there are not any theories. There is only the visible work invisible.”

To “articulate” means both to break and to fix, to joint and to join firm. We articulate ideas by breaking them apart and joining them together, as words in our mouths. We also articulate ideas by making them appear, as Judd did and as Irwin continues to do, in the world, as things, as space. According to Weschler, the Whitney retrospective was “the terminus of Irwin’s trajectory, when all the nonessentials had been stripped away,” and with it “came the core assertion that aesthetic perception itself was the pure subject of art. Art existed not in objects but in ways of seeing.”

Again, the footprint of Irwin’s new work will be almost identical to the original hospital’s plan, except for one important change to the floor level. The bottom of the windows, instead of being at the level of the viewers’ knees, will be up near their shoulders. Moore explained that Irwin’s aim is to create a “Dutch painting view” on the surrounding steppe as well as the garden courtyard – the two views – outwards and inwards, separated by a veil. To articulate Irwin’s ideas is to inhabit and walk through them, to experience history as a palimpsest, and be jarred into seeing “the visible work invisible.”

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