SAN DIEGO — There are no drawings in Robert Irwin’s new exhibition, Drawings, at Quint Projects. Instead, these “drawings without marks” are composed of manufactured fluorescent light tubes and fixtures that are not wired for electricity, combined with colored gels, each one constructed of narrow white bases mounted vertically on the wall, most with light fixtures attached (each work includes fifteen light fixtures). Irwin lists the materials as, “shadow + reflection + color.”
Beginning his career as a painter in the 1950s, Irwin’s conceptual inquiry began because, as explained to me, he wanted to “make a painting without a ‘mark’ at all.” The “qualitative” changes caused by a shadow around a painting became more interesting to him than exploring marks within the frame because, he added, “the physicality of painting is more important than the elements in it.”
This line of reasoning led the artist to question early in his career why he was a painter at all when the unique light conditions of a space could be the basis of the artwork. For five decades he has expanded the field of aesthetic possibilities in what he calls “conditional” art — artworks that respond to and work within the conditions of the surrounding world. First moving beyond the picture frame, he then moved beyond the gallery, with ephemeral artworks and installations in outdoor locations that questions the way we see and understand the world, our cognitive and sentient selves, and perception.
Less is more in Drawings. Different hues and line widths vary subtly between the different artworks in the exhibition and within individual works, all 2017. In “Past Due” black lines extend below the length of the tubes, adding another dimension to the relation between the lush greens and blues. “Stella Dallas” pairs cool grays with soft greens. The colors of “Cumulus” are muted as well, but lines inside and on the borders of individual tubes are emphasized, while in “Lights Out,” brown and ochre earth tones are equally subdued and atmospheric.
“It’s a challenge to see [the artworks] as drawings,” Irwin told me. Yet, “They are all lines and planes and in this way rely on drawing elements.” At first, I was perplexed by his decision to not illuminate the light fixtures. When I asked gallery director Roy Porello about it, he took me outside and then back into the gallery. The change of environment allowed me to see how the natural light in the gallery context brings out the mesmerizing muted color scheme of the fixtures, evoking nature through common industrial materials.
The natural lighting effects create the illusion of subtle shifts in depth and shallowness, presence and absence that allow the viewer to see how much we shape our world through sensitivity to visual nuances. Irwin incorporated tubes and gels into his trademark scrim installations in the late 1990s, at the Dia Art Foundation in New York. When he returned to studio practice in 2009, after decades working outdoor, he began using these tubes in two-dimensional artworks that draw on his early, Mondrian-inspired exploration of straight lines, but Irwin’s works are interventions that alter the viewer’s perception of the gallery space.
By leaving the fixtures unlit, Irwin emphasizes changes in the appearance of the art as the gallery’s natural light shifts over the course of the day. He explains, “Every space has light of some kind and we act as if it isn’t there.” The reflexivity between natural light and the unlit light fixtures develops our sensitivity to slight changes in natural light and encourages us to really see and contemplate the entire site, and ourselves within it, as elements of the art. According to the artist, “being an artist is sensitivity of awareness,” and he invites the viewer to be a receptive part of this process. The variations in shadow, reflection and color interacting with the viewer’s perception starts a conversation of sorts. “Spend time and they all speak to us,” he says, “saying interesting things.”
Irwin is interested in posing questions that expand understanding of our world. In Leonard Feinstein’s revealing documentary, The Beauty of Questions (1997), the artist emphasizes, “there are things in the world more beautiful than any art I’ve created.” It follows that art becomes “the human potential for an aesthetic awareness.” Robert Irwin’s artworks are vehicles for questioning the way we see the world. Drawings is a thoughtful addition to the legacy of a luminary of the Southern California Light and Space Movement who has dedicated his career to expanding aesthetic awareness.
Robert Irwin: Drawings continues at Quint Projects (5171 H Santa Fe Street, San Diego, California) through September 16.