Robert Irwin at Pace Gallery

Installation view, Robert Irwin, “Dotting the i’s and Crossing the t’s: Part I” at Pace Gallery (all photos by author for Hyperallergic)

Robert Irwin has been a favorite of mine for some time now. His work helped to pioneer the 1960s California Light and Space movement, and it is often beautiful to experience in person. Having never seen his well-known window installation “1° 2° 3° 4°,” which was originally installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, I was wanted to stop by his show at Pace Gallery in midtown Manhattan to see the piece revisited.

Installation by Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin’s window installation “1° 2° 3° 4°”

The show, Dotting the i’s and Crossing the t’s: Part I, was, however, a little disappointing. Toying with architectural boundaries, and everything a window can be, “1° 2° 3° 4°” was nice, but I got the feeling that the window installation exposing the gallery to the outside sounds and elements probably worked better in San Diego than midtown Manhattan. The rest of the show was comprised of five black-and-white, highly reflective panels, with subtle undertones barely visible, as well as one light sculpture of vertical fluorescent tubes with color filters.

Irwin’s focus has always been creating art that demands and invites thorough engagement from the viewer. Irwin captured acclaim with works such as, “Untitled” from 1968, a large plastic disk suspended off the gallery wall, which, after looking at the piece for a while, astoundingly appears to slowly melt into the wall. Irwin has since sought to capture more and more subtler effects with his work, almost to a fault. The panels on display, appear at first black and white, but after closer inspection, reveal barely visible color deep within. Unlike in older pieces of Irwin’s however, the subtle colors at I saw at Pace didn’t bring the same enjoyable reward; one simple saw the color or they didn’t, my thoughts about the pieces remained the same even after I had noticed the color.

light sculpture by Robert Irwin

The light sculpture in the back of the gallery

The only piece that did offer a real reward to the patient viewer was the light sculpture in the back of the gallery. If you give this piece some time and look at its center, the outer fluorescent tubes slowly begin to pulsate and shift color — a visual trick and a gift to the patient viewer. Although using subtle coloring in the panels was not too impressive, Irwin’s ability to cause near hallucinatory effects in the viewer’s perception was still alive in this work, and I am glad I got to experience it.

All in all, I left the gallery feeling a little let down, it was definitely not Robert Irwin’s best work. I visited MoMA afterwards and found myself enjoying their garden, when I looked over and caught my reflection in a black window. I realized that the surface I was looking at had the exact same subtle qualities that Irwin’s pieces did back in the galleries, only this wasn’t phenomenological art — it was just a window.

A piece by Robert Irwin and a window.

The author’s reflection in a piece by Robert Irwin (left) and a window (right)

Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s: Part I runs at Pace Gallery (32 East 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 23.

Ben Valentine

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...

2 replies on “The Subtle Disappointment of Robert Irwin”

  1. As a major Irwin fan, I agree with you completely — however wonder if your image in the MoMA window might have struck you the same way if you hadn’t just seen the Irwin.

    1. Sorry, I just saw this comment. I doubt it! I have read Robert Irwin claiming that his work pushes us to look at the everyday more closely, and maybe it is true. I think that putting work in a gallery to help us appreciate the everyday is a weird method…

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