Robert Irwin (American, b. Long Beach, California 1928)
Conceived 1980, constructed 1981
Creson signboard, luaun wood, Masonite, acrylic latex paint
Wall relief in two segments: left: 11 ft. x 7 ft. x 16 in. (335.5 x 213.5 x 40.7 cm); right: 11 ft. x 4 ft. x 16 in. (335.5 x 122 x 40.7 cm)
Gift of the artist in honor of Ellen H. Johnson, 1980
Distinctions between artwork and context all but disappear in Robert Irwin's Untitled, a permanent wall installation in the entrance corridor of the museum's Ellen Johnson Gallery of Modern Art. As its dimensions exactly repeat those of the deep-set windows just opposite, Untitled responds to the windows' voids with mass, shape, and relief, and a surface that absorbs the entering light.
In 1975, Robert Irwin donated a "Piece to be designed and executed within the designated space of the Bidder," to the benefit auction held to raise money for the construction of Oberlin's Ellen Johnson Gallery of Modern Art, designed by the firm of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.1 The lot did not reach its reserve, and thus became the property of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, as a gift from the artist in honor of Ellen Johnson.In August 1980, Irwin visited Oberlin to explore the museum's interior and grounds for a fruitful site. He was especially drawn to the Venturi addition (see About the Building in The Museum), and proposed two works in direct response to the building's eccentric details and references to the external environment: a sculptural piece addressing Venturi's large, wooden Ionic column located outside the northeast window of the gallery, and the piece Irwin ultimately selected, an exact reversal of the distribution of solids and voids formed by the west windows and their off-center pier.
Since 1970, Robert Irwin's work has consisted of installations that respond to preexisting, physical phenomena in a given environment.2 A remarkably concentrated example of Irwin's work, Untitled focuses on the space and light of the museum and gallery interiors, while subtly transforming the viewer's experience of that space.
Comprised of two slablike forms of great height, Untitled narrows and marks the entrance to the Ellen Johnson Gallery on a heroic scale. Yet the gallery visitor is hardly aware of Untitled's existence, as its white surfaces and neutral geometry blend into the gallery environment. To the visitor entering the gallery, Untitled is only peripherally visible; and once the relationship to the windows opposite is discovered, it may still appear that Untitled's volumes are simply part of the gallery's architecture. Irwin has described such works as "site determined," to the extent that the installation is "visually woven into that space, part of the scene yet not changing the whole."3
As Robert Evren has noted, Untitled points to the tangible, material direction that Irwin's work began to take from 1979 onwards.4 Prior to the Oberlin piece, Irwin worked in ephemeral and transparent materials, such as nylon scrim, tape, and string, creating scrim veils and wall divisions that reframed--and thus heightened and multiplied--the viewer's experience of existing conditions of light and space.5 While the Oberlin work has similar aims, its means are much more concrete and literal, as Untitled re-presents (not merely reframes) the negative space of the windows in terms of solidity, relief, volume, and color.
Work reproduced with permission of Robert W. Irwin
Robert Irwin was born in Long Beach, California, in 1928, and studied at the Otis Art Institute (1948-50) and the Chouiard Art Institute, Los Angeles (1952-54). Throughout the 1950s, Irwin painted in the Abstract Expressionist style only to reject it later for lacking "potency." In the early 1960s, Irwin, like other Minimalist sculptors, began to experiment with ways to make the work of art represent nothing other than itself. His desire to draw the viewer into the work of art led to a series of installations, beginning in 1968, that altered the viewer's perception of space primarily through lighting and nylon scrim sheets (for example, Scrim Veil - Black Rectangle - Natural Light, 1977; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art). Irwin's outdoor sculpture and installations (such as 9 Spaces, 9 Trees, 1980; Seattle, Washington) similarly draw attention to the viewer's perceptual experience of site and place. His site-specific work of the 1970s and ‘80s includes indoor works at the University Art Museum at Berkeley (1977), and the present work at Oberlin. In the mid 90s, Irwin was selected to create a major outdoor installation on the grounds of the J. Paul Getty Trust's Getty Center in Brentwood, California.
Levine, Edward. "Robert Irwin's Recent Work." Artforum 16, no. 4 (December 1977), p. 28.
Wortz, Melinda. "Surrendering to Presence: Robert Irwin's Esthetic Integration." Artforum 20, no. 3 (November 1981), pp. 63-68.
Fox, Judith Hoos. In Aspects of the Seventies: Sitework. Exh. cat., Davis Museum and Art Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass.,1980.
Weschler, Lawrence. Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1982.
Irwin, Robert. Being and Circumstance: Notes toward a Conditional Art. Larkspur Landing, Calif., 1985.
Robert Irwin. Exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1977.
Koshalek, Richard, and Kerry Brougher. Robert Irwin. Exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1993.
Gift of the artist and created for the Ellen Johnson Gallery of Modern Art, Allen Memorial Art Museum, in 1980
Evren, Robert. "From Window to Wall: Robert Irwin's Untitled." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 39, no. 1 (1981-82), pp. 39-47.
The plain materials--Creson signboard, luaun wood, Masonite, and acrylic latex paint to match the walls of the gallery--were chosen by Irwin. The piece was technically designed, constructed, and installed by the museum preparator, Henry Paustian, in 1980-81.The work is in good condition. It was repainted in 1984 to cover moderate cracking. The work is prone to buckling during fluctuations in humidity.
1. Sale New York (Sotheby Parke Bernet), 9 April 1975, lot 40.
2. A selection of Irwin's project descriptions and photographs of installations is offered in Robert Irwin, Being and Circumstance: Notes toward a Conditional Art (Larkspur Landing, Calif., 1985).
3. Quoted by Judith Hoos Fox in Aspects of the Seventies: Sitework (exh. cat., Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass.,1980), p. 13, apropos of Irwin's work for the Wellesley exhibition. Cited in Robert Evren, "From Window to Wall: Robert Irwin's Untitled," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 39, no. 1 (1981-82), p. 41.
4. See Evren's "From Window to Wall: Robert Irwin's Untitled," Allen Memorial Art Museum 39, no. 1 (1981-82), pp. 39-47, for an extensive discussion of the Oberlin work. Much of this entry is drawn from Evren's essay.
5. Perhaps the most successful example of these earlier installations is no title, a temporary installation created for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 1975. The MCA Chicago installation is widely discussed in the Irwin literature; see, for example, Edward Levine, "Robert Irwin's Recent Work," Artforum (December 1977), p. 28.