On ViewPace Gallery
April 1 – April 30, 2022
In December 1970 Robert Irwin created a sparse room installation on the second floor at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show was not labeled, and viewers had no way of knowing if this was a finished work, a work in progress, or a deinstallation. Irwin stretched a thin wire from wall to wall and placed a scrim over the fluorescent fixtures in the room to diffuse the winter light. That was it. I recall being amazed and puzzled by the show. I was a young art student, and this was my first room installation. I spent a long time studying the wire and the soft light on the walls. Ten months later I heard Irwin speak about his problems creating the installation when he lectured at CalArts. That same autumn, I read of Irwin’s collaboration with James Turrell in LACMA’s Art and Technology show where the two artists researched sensory deprivation experiments, an activity that dovetailed with the sparse installation I’d seen at MoMA.
Fifty-one years later, Irwin’s show at Pace offers viewers new sensory experiences. Seven intriguing “Unlight” wall reliefs occupy the two street level galleries. Each relief is assembled from up to two dozen tightly spaced six-foot fluorescent light fixtures fastened to the wall. There’s a gap or trough between each fixture that Irwin has left blank or, occasionally, painted gray or black. (When totaled up, these white, gray, and black gaps and other painted sections comprise the majority of each work.) The linear fluorescent bulbs are sheathed with colored theatrical gels: chartreuse, midnight blue, lime, yellow green, blood red, forest green, lavender. Occasionally a housing has no provision for bulbs; it’s just a white enamel box on the wall. Finally, Irwin applied a continuous strip of white or colored electrical tape on a few of the bulbs, in a manner that reminded me of pinstriping on cars.
The fluorescent light fixtures are not operable, and this makes the work perplexing and uncanny. The entire gallery seems a little dark or subdued. It would be easy to imagine that these dark bulbs comment on technological obsolescence, as Iris Touliatou’s worn-out fluorescent lamps did in the New Museum Triennial last year. To me, the Unlights recall a disassembled color processor with the rows of rollers exposed. However, instead of obsolescence and disassembly, Irwin invites us to contemplate the Unlights as beautiful objects in themselves, exemplars of precise engineering, bas relief sculpture, and hard-edge painting.
The attention to detail in these works is extraordinary. The front plate of each lamp is held in place by exquisite acorn nuts. The usual circular knockouts for electrical wires found on everyday fluorescent fixtures are missing, and the white enamel paint covering each housing is meticulously applied and unusually thick. Occasionally the edge of an extra L-shaped panel attached to the side of a fixture is painted black. In one work, Rainy Days (2020) these same L-shaped panels extend down below the base of the fixtures, suggesting the low notes in musical notation.
Each fluorescent fixture in the Unlights is arranged symmetrically, like bookmatched veneer. Hells Bells (2021) starts with white pinstripes running down two black sheathed bulbs. Blood red bulbs flank this central pair. Then gray, black, and red bulbs and blank spaces run out toward the edges on each side. A thin black line painted on the wall finishes the work. Greek Speak (2021), the largest and most complex piece in the show, starts with two dark green bulbs flanked by gray paint in the gaps on either side. A gray bulb follows, then a lavender bulb, then two greenish yellow bulbs. The work keeps moving outward, more gray paint on the wall, a black stripe, an empty fixture, a lavender bulb. Clean white bulbs complete both sides of the work.
Irwin’s colors are odd—there seemed to be a logic at work in his choices but it eluded me. After puzzling about this for a few days, I walked over to my window and looked at the traffic on Grand Street. As it turns out, the colors of the Unlights match up perfectly with the reduced color palette of the cars I saw driving by. Gray, black or white predominate on the street just as monochrome passages predominate in the Unlights. More surprisingly, I saw Irwin’s palette repeated as well in the few colored cars that passed by: two navy blue SUVs, one green sedan and a blood-red Mercedes. These intermittent, oddball colors combined with the monochromes to help me make sense of Irwin’s color palette.
On the top floor of Pace’s gallery Irwin has positioned six columnar sculptures (all 2021) composed of nine-foot-tall planks of transparent green, red, and gray acrylic, joined at right angles to stand upright. A set of four sculptures face you as you enter and two are situated on an elevated platform. The whole room looks a bit like a winter garden with all six arboreal sculptures lit by the north-facing windows. The planks in the group of four sculptures are arranged in a nesting pattern of green, red, and gray facing out from a center point, like annual rings on a tree. These four modular sculptures are laid out arithmetically, and their structures are visible as you circle them. The two sculptures on the platform have a very different vibe. Notations is constructed in alternating right angles, creating a zig zag pattern. In Trips, gray planks face inward to create a dark tower that looks a bit like Mies van der Rohe’s unbuilt 1921 Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper, but with a fiery red acrylic core.
When Turrell and Irwin researched sensory perception in the late 1960s, they were photographed in the famous anechoic chamber at UCLA. It was said that the chamber was so silent you could hear the blood flowing in your veins. While this sort of extreme sensory awareness isn’t on the table in the Pace show, the residue of that research is palpably present in all Irwin’s recent work.