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Robert Irwin

American
(1928–2023)

Untitled
1969-1970

Acrylic on plastic
46.25 in. (117.475 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
1997.10

Beginning in the late 1950s, Robert Irwin, a conventionally facile young figurative artist, quickly moved through a vivid abstract expressionist phase in thrall to the group of artists associated with L.A.’s Ferus Gallery. But early on, Irwin started being bothered by the arbitrariness of his painterly marks and their almost inevitable tendency to suggest images, when he wasn’t trying to make representations of anything—just the opposite, he was pursuing an unmediated experience of presence itself. Initially he began radically compressing his vocabulary, limiting himself to a cluster of marks gathered at the painting’s center, and then to just three or four roughly parallel horizontal lines, and finally to just two parallel lines the same hue as their monochrome backdrop. But people still insisted on characterizing the resultant canvases as “those paintings of two lines.”

Dispensing with line, he began to create ever-so-slightly bowed canvases over which he meticulously spread a hive of minuscule dots in countervailing colors. Closer, Irwin felt, to his ideal of pushing the ongoing cubist project of marrying figure and ground, but now he began to be bothered by the way any framed object necessarily “figured” as somehow more significant than the shadows, say, that it might be casting on the wall behind it. This conundrum thrust the artist into his disc passion: the attempt to make objects (subtly convex plexiglass shields, thrust out from the wall, overpainted with quietly modulated layerings of pale colors) that literally seemed to melt into their backdrops. The result provoked a delicious confusion in the viewer as to just what sort of things the discs were, and in the midst of the resultant perceptual free fall, an awareness of the marvel of how we are in fact constantly having to get our bearings across an ever-changing life world.

Lawrence Weschler


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