"Lucky U," 1960

“Lucky U,” 1960

The title of this show is taken from Robert Irwin’s words about his intention to move from traditional art—paint on canvas—to more “conditional” works that deal with light and space directly. At the Hirschhorn Museum in DC, this is the first historical survey of the California artist’s work from the late 1950s through today. Up until September 5, 2016—the Hirshhorn is the only venue—it’s a rare treat.

"Ocean Park," 1960-61

“Ocean Park,” 1960-61

Of the show, its curator, Evelyn Hankins said, “The historical portion of the exhibition includes many rarely seen works that, because of their extremely subtle nature, demand in-person viewing. And as both these objects and the new installation demonstrate, Irwin’s art becomes fully present only when you are standing in the physical space, experiencing it over an extended period of time.” Italics mine.

In the late 1950s Irwin created small works meant to be held by the viewer. Beautifully framed in wood, these small paintings hang on two walls and lie flat in a case in the middle of the gallery. They possess a tactile, restless energy that does invite touch. “Lucky U,” a little charmer made in 1960, was loaned from the collection of the artist, now 87.

crazy ottoA larger painting, “Ocean Park,” 1960-61, evokes the series of the same name made by Richard Diebenkorn. Irwin’s vision of the California community where both artists drew inspiration is more kinetic that Diebenkorn’s calmer vision. Lines fly as if hurled by some paint-wielding Thor. Is that a jet plane about to land? Cars streaming by? Tides surging, lawn chairs in a jumble? Loved it. Then I read that this was one of the “pick-up sticks” paintings in which Irwin wanted to expel any visual associations with the real world. Oops.

From 1961 to 1964, Irwin made a series of “line” paintings in his desire to obliterate the “Rorschach effect” in which the eye makes associations with elements of nature or human figures. Or lawn chairs. In “Crazy Otto,” 1962, four heliotrope lines vibrate against a vivid background. One thinks first of Otto. Who was he? In what way was he crazy? And then, inevitably, of Rothko.

"Untitled," 1963-65

“Untitled,” 1963-65

The artist further challenged himself to make a painting without making a visible mark. This, our curator Hankins tells us, is the flex point in Irwin’s career. In the “dot paintings” he has made works that require an “active, persevering viewer.” True. It’s impossible to see these works in reproduction, or even standing back from them by the usual three or four feet. In “Untitled,” 1963-65, what looks like a uniform white ground is revealed to be gazillions of tiny dots in complementary colors that effectively cancel each other out.

In 1966 Irwin abandoned painting on canvas altogether and began working with auto body shops and industrial fabricators to create objects that test the “experiential and material limits of art.”

Acrylic Column, 1969 - 2011

Acrylic Column, 1969 – 2011

Floor-to-ceiling acrylic columns, triangular in shape, and highly polished, refract light while doing very interesting things to the people who walk by them. Something about the simplicity of conception and the quality of execution of these columns made me think of Donald Judd’s work in mill aluminum. Just as I wondered if the artists knew one another, two photographers began to set up, each wearing T-shirts that read, “Robert Irwin Opening: Dawn to Dusk, 23 July, 2016, Marfa Texas.” They were absorbed in their work, and didn’t seem approachable, but a young woman who appeared to be with them said they were working on a documentary.

"Dawn to Dusk," 2016, at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas

“Dawn to Dusk,” 2016, at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas

Later, Google filled me in. Yes, Judd and Irwin knew each other and Judd admired and collected Irwin’s work. Sixteen years in the planning, a new large-scale Irwin piece was installed this month in an old Army hospital at Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa. For more on Donald Judd and Chinati, see my October, 2013 blog post.

Made in 1969, the “Untitled” disc had me and a group of young art campers enthralled. The painted aluminum disc gives off a pale yellow radiance that blushes at the edges. Again, the artist is playing with our perception of “art.” Shadow and light are as important to this ethereal piece as paint on aluminum.

Untitled Disc, 1966-67

Untitled Disc, 1966-67

Even more spell-binding is another of the untitled disc series, also made in 1969. Lit from above, the work is positively otherworldly. I expected it to speak, utter oracular wisdom, or some Hal-like pronouncement.

The Hirshhorn is a giant doughnut of a building, with the galleries along the outer rim and a ring of glass overlooking a fountain in the interior hole of the doughnut. When you walk from gallery to gallery, you’re aware of the circle you’re tracing, but at the same time, not.

Untitled Disc, 1969

Untitled Disc, 1969

Entering “Squaring the Circle,” 2016, Irwin’s site-specific piece, you’re warned that your “perceptions will be challenged.” In the center of a wall is a doorway within a glowing white space. You feel pulled toward the door. Is it real? Can you walk through it without, like Alice, being plunged into some new reality? After a bit of exploration, you realize the curve of the gallery wall has flattened. In fact, the “wall” is a white gauze scrim stretched across the vast space so that it appears solid and the door appears to float inside the actual door to the outer rim of the doughnut.

"Squaring the Circle," 2016

“Squaring the Circle,” 2016

The show closes with a 1973 video of Irwin speaking about his art. I wasn’t able to find it on YouTube, but here’s a link to his fascinating talk at Stanford University in which both the Hirshhorn and Marfa installations are discussed.

You have to put up with a gassy introduction, but it’s worth it.




















































Said Hirshhorn Curator Evelyn Hankins, who organized the exhibition. “The historical portion of the exhibition includes many rarely seen works that, because of their extremely subtle nature, demand in-person viewing. And as both these objects and the new installation demonstrate, Irwin’s art becomes fully present only when you are standing in the physical space, experiencing it over an extended period of time.”



Visitors entrance, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX

Visitors entrance, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX

I had no idea what to expect from Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation, named for the nearby West Texas mountains. I couldn’t imagine how a bunch of spare aluminum boxes in a former Army warehouse would strike me, if at all. But I did know that I love Tex-Mex food, the wildness of the Southwest (see my earlier post, “Hike the Hoo Doos!”) and my husband Richard’s fabulous Aunt Lea, who lives in Ft. Worth—part of the package. So…all in all, an art pilgrimage to remote west Texas was too good to pass up.

Our docent, Elizabeth, met us in the visitor’s entrance to the Foundation, which opened in 1986. A transplanted New Yorker and art historian, she radiated enthusiasm for Judd’s installations – both the aluminum boxes and giant concrete rectangles scattered, seemingly randomly, over the desert floor. Both are site specific, designed to harmonize with and honor the surrounding nature. Touring the concrete boxes, Elizabeth told us, could be done on our own, and she urged us to return in the cool of the morning to see them up close. We did. More on that to come.

After a military tour of duty here, Judd was taken with the Big Bend area of Texas, and returned after conceiving a space in which he would present large-scale works by a small group of artists. With the Dia Art Foundation in New York willing to provide funding, Judd set about finding the right location. Tiny Marfa (population now below 2,000) had the answer: the abandoned Army base on its outskirts, Fort D.A. Russell, with 340 acres of unused land and 30 buildings to house the foundation’s collection.

Interior, with Judd aluminum boxes

Interior, with Judd aluminum boxes

Elizabeth led us into the first of the two impeccably-restored former munitions warehouses to see 52 of the “Untitled, One Hundred Boxes in Mill Aluminum,” 1986. The second smaller building houses 48. Bay doors have been replaced with enormous windows that frame the raw beauty of the landscape and flood the interior with light. Uniform in size: 41 x 51 x 72 inches, the boxes were fabricated in Connecticut and shipped out to Marfa to be painstakingly placed on the polished concrete floor at precise intervals corresponding to the spacing of the support columns and the windows. This sweeping progression gives the boxes monumental impact, like sarcophagi in a vast tomb.

They are breathtaking.

Suffused light playing across their shimmering surfaces causes dramatic forms and colors to arise. One, viewed from across the room next to a window, became a Rothko-worthy painting of horizontal stripes, the top one lavender, with a deep charcoal stripe beneath it, followed by molten black one, the whole under-pinned with a brilliant white band. The next in the row gave the viewer a vertical array of color: pale green, gray and lavender. How on earth could Judd have known what the light would do to these simple structures? Famously controlling and fastidious (some speculate he fell somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum), he must have reveled in the light emanating from the boxes, even if he could not have planned it. Or did he? It can’t be an accident that one box is a horizontal “painting” and the one next to it is vertical. For this viewer, however, the enjoyment was in the revelation; I didn’t try to figure out the order, or how each piece related to its neighbor, other than to admire them and move on to the next surprise.

Jewel box!

Jewel box!

Each box is unique. Some have little or no embellishment and others have interior walls, floating tops, slicing angles within. Seen from different perspectives, each is like a subtly changing jewel. One box (after a while, they don’t seem like “boxes” at all any more) offered up sharply delineated diamond shapes and hexagons, reflecting the raw landscape outside. Still others look like glass, prisms of yellow, gold, and silver. Slight defects on the surfaces due to the milling process have been left and add textural interest.

The intense desert heat and cold have caused some of the boxes to move slightly and the Chinati conservation team is working to realign them, after some debate about whether Judd would want any intervention at all in the natural process working on the sculptures. Ultimately, they determined that, as Judd had been so exacting about the precise distances between the boxes, and the symmetry in relation the building, he would want them adjusted.

If all this seems a bit precious, I assure you, it is not. The space, the objects, and the whole of the living piece fit stunningly into the rugged, flamboyant Texas landscape. Straightforward, simple, respectful of craftsmanship and material, fascinating in the mesmerizing effects of repetition and variation, these works simply could not exist elsewhere.

"Chinati Thirteener," by Carl Andre

“Chinati Thirteener,” by Carl Andre

After seeing 48 more boxes in the smaller of the two buildings we moved on to see an installation by another minimalist, Carl Andre. “Chinati Thirteener” was installed in 2010 in the enclosed courtyard of a former dormitory building, now a temporary exhibition space. Playing off the posts that enclose the space, 13 strips of hot rolled steel plates are laid at intervals across an expanse of dark rock. While touching a Judd box would have sent the conservation team scurrying to clean it, here Andre invites the viewer to walk on the strips and enjoy the oxidized yellows and oranges blooming under your feet.

As we walked between the buildings, we were treated to a view in the distance of Judd’s longtime friend Claes Oldenburg’s “Monument to the Last Horse,” 1991, a tribute to Louie, the last of the cavalry horses.

"Last of the Cavalry Horses," by Claes Oldenburg

“Last of the Cavalry Horses,” by Claes Oldenburg

Dan Flavin, another Judd friend, chose six former dormitory buildings in which to install fluorescent bulb sculptures in varying combinations of pink, green, blue, and yellow. When Dia funding ended, Judd and Flavin fell out and the project languished. Finally, financing was secured and the work was completed, opening in 2000. One can see similarities between Judd’s minimalism and Flavin’s—repetition, variations on themes, bringing in light from outside the dorm buildings— but at the same time, Flavin’s work is fanciful, far less austere than the Judd works. Trooping from building to building to see each configuration of bulbs and colors was fun and gave the experience an air of a treasure hunt.

Florescent Bulb Installation by Dan Flavin

Florescent Bulb Installation by Dan Flavin

John Chamberlain’s work is housed in a former mohair and wool storehouse in downtown Marfa. His metal work pieces left some on our tour group cold, if such a thing is possible in West Texas. Richard, having enjoyed the engineering marvels of the Judd boxes, was not impressed with Chamberlain’s squashed car sculptures and repaired to the vast muslin-draped object in the middle of the gallery known as “Barge Marfa,” 1983, where Elizabeth assured him he was welcome to lounge and watch Chamberlain’s romp of a film, “The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez,” 1968, in which Andy Warhol actors indulged in all forms of sybaritic behavior in a mysterious Mexican town. I found Chamberlain’s work to be wildly exuberant, especially when compared to the Zen-like refinement of Judd, and the shy playfulness of Flavin. His titles are marvelous too—“Small Monument to a Swiss Monument,” 1979-82—was my favorite. It writhes and dances and manages to stand only on three or four points with the agility of a sumo-wrestler crossed with dancer on pointe.

"Small Monument to a Swiss Monument," by John Chamberlain

“Small Monument to a Swiss Monument,” by John Chamberlain

Back out on the streets of Marfa, we repaired to “Future Shark,” a cafeteria-style restaurant operated by the same chef who purveys marvelous food from the “Food Shark,” a food truck (one of several) parked under the farm market stalls near the (very active) railroad tracks. Here we ate one of the most beguiling vegetarian meals ever concocted. If this post has inspired you to make a similar pilgrimage (wait—I haven’t even told you about Prada Marfa! Stay tuned), you’ll find a number of world-class restaurants in this flat, unprepossessing town: Maiya’s and Cochineal for dinner, and Squeeze Marfa for breakfast. Either of the Sharks – any time.

Oh, and stay at the Hotel Paisano, named for a nearby mountain pass. After a long drive to Marfa, the margaritas in the plaza by the splashing fountain can’t be beat! It’s where the cast from “Giant” stayed. You can even stay in the Rock Hudson suite …