The way Irwin’s work was received by critics in New York versus in Los Angeles in the 1968 exhibits of his discs revealed how important context is to the viewing of art. Preconceived notions can completely affect how the art is viewed. At the Jewish Museum in LA, Irwin spent time “neutralizing the exhibition spaces,” or making them pristine to eliminate as many distractions from the viewing experience as possible. He “meticulously repainted the walls, cleared the floors, squared the corners,” and so forth. Yet when he did the same things at Pace Gallery in New York, it was perceived as “abrasive, fetishistic…indeed in itself a distraction to any calm viewing of the pieces.” The difference in responses was fascinating to Irwin, and it proved to him that the art object can not transcend the context it is presented in, even if the context is the art itself, as Irwin was creating entire spaces. People bring their own perceptions. He found this to be true at his MoMA room too, when a teenager with no knowledge of his work seemed to understand it better than his highly educated art friends.
His room at the MoMA in 1970 is considered one of the two decisive breaks of his midcareer. I’m completely enthralled by how the book builds it up as “three major gestures” in the space. Yet they are insanely subtle. He changed the fluorescents in the skylight cavities as alternating color temperatures. Juxtaposed, they called out the color differences between them more pronounced than if separate: they appeared to alternate as pink and green lights. He hung a partial ceiling scrim which is hard to focus on,, and divided the room into two volumes of light. He also stretched a piano wire across one end that he painted at it’s ends, so it was barely perceptible against the back white wall. All of these gestures are so daring to me – their subtlety seems so incredibly risky. And sure enough, a lot of artists were disturbed by it because they didn’t get it.
Irwin also seems unbelievable audacious to me in the way he got rid of his studio to leave all of his research and habits behind and develop a new way of thinking and working. He had the courage to drive out into the desert – literally out into the unknown – and trust that it would eventually come to him. It would take an artist of his sensitivity to find what he was looking for – the “presence” spots out in those isolated places. What did these feel like?
After that experience, he tried to engage in dialogue with people all over the country, offering to talk and work at universities and museums for free. He knew that this dialogue was the antithesis of what he was really interested in: unmediated perception. But he realized his questions were becoming so abstract and ethereal that he needed to engage in the world in order to offer anything back to it, rather than getting lost in the metaphysical questions bouncing around in his head.