A pioneer in minimal painting, sculpture, and site-conditional installations since the 1960s, Robert Irwin has worked at the forefront of modern and contemporary art at each stage of his celebrated career.
He is best known for his sculptures and environments that are closely attuned to the architectures and qualities of the spaces they occupy, and which use translucent and light-reflective materials, including scrim, aluminum, and acrylic, that capture and interact with light in myriad ways. Marking his 90th birthday, Sprüth Magers presents an exhibition of Irwin’s recent light works and paintings at the Berlin gallery. To commemorate both this exhibition and the site-conditional installation he produced at Sprüth Magers Los Angeles earlier this year, the gallery will also publish the catalogue Robert Irwin (forthcoming, fall 2018).
The artist first employed fluorescent lights on a monumental scale in 1998, as part of a multi-room scrim installation he produced for the Dia Art Foundation, New York; and later for the massive wall installation Light and Space (2007), first conceived for the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. Approximately ten years ago, as he was nearing the age of 80, Irwin gave the medium renewed focus and created an original kind of form: cascading rows of fluorescent lights, tinted variously with vivid, muted, and metallic colors, that function enigmatically between painting and sculpture.
As with all of Irwin’s art, the light works use deceptively simple materials to produce a complex effect. In contrast to the work of Dan Flavin, with which they are sometimes compared, Irwin utilizes only white fluorescent tubes that he overlays with arrangements of colored gel sheets. The same material used in the theater to give stage-lights a tonal range, the gels exist in hundreds of colors. Irwin then “blends” them further by sometimes layering multiple colored gels on top of one fluorescent tube, as if mixing paint. When the light is on, one color might show; when it is off, an entirely different tone is visible, such that each work exists in multiple states when off or on. In addition, bands of tape zip down the front of most tubes, and the sides of a handful of light fixtures are painted in gray or black, which adds an alternating sense of shallowness and recession to the work’s overall presence. Over the years, the artist has developed a sensitivity to how each gel changes the bulb’s luminosity, and how different colors shift in relation to others, in order to create as contingent and dimensional a viewing experience as possible.
The distinctive titles of the works often refer to literature and music and include plays on words. Their symmetrical arrangements, moreover, can evoke an open book, or the repeating motifs of a musical composition. The title of Faust (2015) brings directly to mind the classic German legend of Dr. Faust and his bargain with the devil, captured famously in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play (and in the opera by Charles Gounod). In Mint Condition (2015), a palette of cool greens and opaque gold offers a visual pun on the concept of being fresh and new. And though one might see a reference to the tropics in the pale greens and bright yellows of Oasis (2015), ultimately any associations are dependent upon the individual viewer’s understanding. Instead, what interests the artist most is the play of color and varied tonalities that each light work acquires in different environments, and at different times of day.
Finally, Irwin’s Untitled (2018) panels are from a series of black paintings that the artist has produced in the last few years. Meant to be installed in pairs, they are fabricated from honeycomb aluminum (a material used in aerospace, among other industries) and polyester primer, which is tinted with a specially devised pigment nicknamed Irwin black. This gives the paintings their deep, smoky tone and adds to their intense reflectivity. Hanging two black squares together sets up an immediate relationship between them, making the viewer aware of the paintings’ spatial dynamics and of their own processes of perception as they catch reflections of themselves, the room, and Irwin’s light works installed nearby.all images © the gallery and the artist(s)