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A view of Robert Irwin’s installation of the classic Marcel Breuer building for the Whitney Museum of American Art on Madison Avenue. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

When Robert Irwin abandoned his Venice beach studio in 1970 he did not know where he would go next. Irwin had grown wary of the implications of his painting practice; he began to ask questions of his practice — he questioned the image, then the frame, and finally the very act of painting itself.

In the late 1960s, Irwin’s practice was slowly moving beyond the limitations of an object-based practice and toward a new medium, installation art. Irwin called his new work site-conditioned installation, the works had simple materials, a few feet of lighting scrim, black paint, wire, and available light were often all he needed. The works would develop out of the spaces Irwin was invited to exhibit, each work meticulously tailored to its site. For several years Irwin was a nomadic artist, traveling to make his work and not maintaining a studio otherwise. Despite their modest materials and understated elements the works excited Irwin, they allowed him to focus on not just the perception of an image, nor just the perception of a space, but on perception itself.

Scrim veil-Black rectangle-Natural light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York” (1977) is comprised of a single scrim and painted black line, both just above eye-level, spanning the entirety of a cleared-out gallery on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Commissioned by the museum in 1977 the work is a pristine example of Irwin’s work of the period, in pieces, the work is only a few simple gestures, but as a whole, the work is transcendental.

The stillness of the gallery inspires a certain dilation of experience, time appears to move slower as your thoughts begin to unwind in the hermetic space. There is a specter of acuity to the work that sharpens the senses if you allow yourself to settle into a contemplative pace. As your perceptions increase, the space begins to open. Lit by a single trapezoidal window, light stretches through the work in an even flow, walking along the central scrim, you can feel the light shifting with your body. It is in this activation of natural light that I felt closest to the work, the warmth of a late summer day juxtaposed with the the severity of the institutional gallery placed me somewhere between joy and excited anxiety. As I spent time in the gallery my understanding of the space evolved along with my sensibilities, I watched as a blade of light slowly moved along the axes of the window, I noticed the compression of vertical and horizontal space, and I noticed the people around me as well. Perhaps the greatest quality of Irwin’s work is its ability to awaken deep sympathies in the viewer, as I watched the people around me I noticed a consistent feeling of peaceful contemplation amongst the museum goers, there were no crying babies, no flustered tourists, and, dare I say it, no jaded New Yorkers. Instead I saw lots of smiles and felt an even calmness.

When Robert Irwin gifted “Scrim veil-Black rectangle-Natural light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York” to the museum his only stipulation was that the work was to only ever be shown in it’s intended space, the fourth floor gallery of the Whitney’s Marcel Breuer-designed Madison Avenue building. The long, tall space with it’s gridded ceiling, dark, rough-cut stone floors and angled, recessed window, is as much a part of the work as the scrim and paint, each element reinforces one another and together they create dialogue. The conversation is a slow, contemplative talk, it eases itself into motion and takes its time. In an age of digitized capitalism, we rarely take the time to slow down, to see, to hear, to feel, to smell, to taste. Maybe a bit of a slower, more considered experience is in order.

Scrim veil-Black rectangle-Natural light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York” (1977) is on view through September 1 at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

A digitized version of the original 1977 exhibition catalogue is avaliable online through the Whitney’s website.

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Don Edler

Don Edler is a artist and occasional writer who, when not searching the world for new art to look at, he is in his studio making sculptures or reading books. Don lives and works in New York City.

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