Too often, too many of us talk one theory but live another. In his rigorous examination of the possibilities of perception, and his always renewed wonder before the world and the open act of seeing, Robert Irwin's career exemplifies the committed, moral, nondogmatic union of theory and practice. In his current traveling retrospective, as installed at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art this summer, the viewer experienced his most recent work first; but the exhibition also featured a selection of Irwin's early Abstract Expressionist--inspired works (including a wonderful display of his "handheld" paintings, which, however, one was not allowed to touch), his line and dot paintings, the light discs, the cast-acrylic columns, and finally a series of photographs and plans documenting, first, the explorations of interior and exterior space that for some link Irwin with the Light and Space movement, and, second, the realized and unrealized projects that demonstrate his recent commitment to "art in public places" (a descriptive term he distinguishes emphatically from "public art").
Animating the retrospective, in accord with the respect and delight Irwin feels toward the uniqueness and contingency of each site, were three new works. Entering MoCA's spartan red-sandstone building, one passed through Two Radial Bowers, each made of 50 12-foot rebars (bamboo was the material of choice, but it didn't work) alternating with bars of shorter length and constructed to fan out as they rose so as to hold a great mass of deep pink bougainvillea that took two years to grow and dripped down over the rigid metal supports. The other two new pieces did not duplicate but were literally and titularly in the spirit of earlier Irwin works that dynamized "empty" rooms by challenging their accepted planes through linear demarcation, or through the use of sheer linen scrim. "Scrim Light Volume": created in the spirit of work from 1970/1980 such as "Slant Light Volume," 1971 was a double-V-shaped scrim wall with an open entrance that bisected the main gallery, destabilizing the space and making the viewers on the other side of the gauze from oneself into fragile, shifting shapes. For me the most wonderful experience in the exhibition--perhaps because its isolation gave it a rigor and integrity that the other works could not achieve gathered together--was "5 Openings: 2+3": created in the spirit of work from 1970/1980 such as "Black Line Volume," 1975--76 (MCA, Chicago): in a large white room lit by a scrim-softened skylight, and with a blond-hardwood floor in which a large center square had been bleached to a lighter color, the walls were cut with openings that precisely framed contingent activity in the galleries around them. Experiencing the room meant oscillating between a sense of asceticism and exacting geometry and a sense of the sensuous quality of light and wood and the beauty of random configurations.
I talked with Irwin at his San Diego home in July 1993, not long after the opening of the retrospective in Los Angeles. The conversation was lively and far-ranging, opening out from our shared appreciation of existential phenomenology: the philosophy and method that focus on the structures of experience as lived by embodied persons "being in the world," and that insist that any description of objective, worldly phenomena must include the subjective, human perception of it and thus is always open, quite concretely, to re-vision.
VIVIAN SOBCHACK: Why is it, do you think, that people often equate technical precision with coldness? The passionate rigor of working something out, which I find extraordinarily apparent in your work, is hardly cold.
ROBERT IRWIN: I've had to wrestle with that, because the thing about being an Abstract Expressionist, which is how I cut my teeth (though it was strictly borrowed), was that it was a very passionate kind of act. I mean you'd equate painting with a kind of Zen preparedness, eat the right foods the night before, sweep the studio in the morning, sort your brushes out. …