Robert Irwin's work at Dia:Beacon may elude the casual visitor. It consists of a master plan for the museum and its outdoor spaces, as well as design work on numerous aspects of the project, most notably the extensive landscape environment, where Irwin was involved in every aspect of the plantings, paving and fencing, and windows and doors.
Most important, Irwin helped Dia consider the design of the Beacon project in experiential and environmental terms as a totality—from the visitor's entrance, by car or by foot, down a driveway marked at its top by a gate and a new copper beech tree, through an orchard that serves as a parking lot, into a plaza that signals one's arrival at the museum, into either a café and bookshop or the newly constructed entrance to the galleries, and from there down any of a number of possible paths through the museum's interior and into the artists' spaces, each specifically designed by the artist in question and/or by Dia to accommodate the work on view. Irwin's work in Beacon lay across the borders of a number of different roles—landscape designer, architect, aesthetic philosopher—in a manner completely consistent with his practice as an artist, in which, among other things, he has questioned exactly where the boundaries lie around the role of the artist today.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, artists such as Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian proposed that the basis of painting could change, from representational relationships with an external world to a play of formal relationships within a work itself—Mondrian's culture of determined relations, as Irwin often calls it. As if in search of the reduced essence of painting, Mondrian's career moved dramatically from landscape painting, through a Cubist-inspired dissolution of pictorial space, to the rarefied and entirely abstract paintings for which he is best known. Irwin's early development moves along a similarly reductive trajectory, from Abstract Expressionist painting in the late 1950s, to more rigorously optical hand-painted line and dot paintings, to metal and plastic circular discs and prismatic columns that nearly dissolve visually at the same time that they channel and shape the light and space around them. Finally, in the early 1970s, Irwin eschewed the discrete object entirely in favor of totally environmental works that involved modifying and augmenting indoor and outdoor spaces themselves. He sees this development as foreshadowed by Mondrian, who predicted "the end of art as a thing separated from our surrounding environment." But that would not mean the end of art, Mondrian continued: "By the unification of architecture, sculpture and painting, a new plastic reality will be created. Painting and sculpture will not manifest themselves as separate objects . . . but being purely constructive will aid the creation of a surrounding not merely utilitarian or rational but also pure and complete in its beauty."1
For Soft Wall, a 1974 installation at Pace Gallery in New York City, Irwin simply cleaned and painted a rectangular gallery and hung a thin, translucent white theater scrim eighteen inches in front of one of the long walls, creating the effect of an empty room in which one wall seemed permanently out of focus. Because of its quality as a substance that defines space by slowing or heightening vision rather than creating an impenetrable barrier, scrim is a prevalent material in many of Irwin's projects, in various manifestations as fabric, translucent film, fencing, or even the branches, raw and dense in winter, of the European hornbeam trees that frame the Dia:Beacon entrance plaza.
In 1975–76, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Irwin similarly cleared out a gallery but this time placed one long strip of black tape on the floor to create, in conjunction with the reveal below three bounding walls, a continuous dark line forming a square around an existing standard square structural column. By this simple gesture the column became eerily isolated and newly discovered as a prominent object in an austere room. Commissioned to make an installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, in a gallery overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Irwin removed a square of glass from each of two corner windows and one central large window. The deletions from the gray-tinted glass created a strange and entirely new relationship between the museum and its spectacular outdoor context: Framed by a suddenly blurry and dense-seeming barrier of glass, the cutouts put the outdoors into sharp focus while also objectifying it, like small cubes of nature. Similarly, the decision to replace just a few panes of Dia:Beacon's long east and west rows of opaque factory-glass windows with clear glass completely changes the relationship between the galleries and the exterior. And the decision to create two windows in the south boundary of the building, directly opposite the double doors at the museum's new north entrance, has the effect from outside the front doors of momentarily collapsing the 490-foot view through the entire building into two punctures of light.
In the early 1980s, Irwin was invited to participate as a collaborating artist in designs for the rejuvenation and improvement of the Miami International Airport. The daunting task of creating some overall structure for the chaotic and unruly environment of an airport was an ideal challenge for Irwin, whose ambition it is to show that an artist can use his or her trained sense of vision to reshape any experience simply through a creative reorganization of elements such as directional paths and seating. An artist, for example, can create an overriding order, while also taking visual and experiential complexities as opportunities for discoveries in perception. The politics of the airport's huge construction project eventually defeated Irwin's proposals—but not before he had worked intensely to develop a master plan that included a process for identifying and then working with other artists on the project, as well as his own proposal to plant a large new grove of cypress trees in place of an old parking garage. He had also gotten a worthwhile taste of the possibilities of working on a complex, large-scale public project. More recently, Irwin completed a more discrete project for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a large-scale public garden. Both of those projects were important precedents for his work at Dia's museum in Beacon.
The primary medium of Irwin's art is neither steel nor glass, neither trees nor pavement, but our perception, our curiosity, and our desire to make sense of the world around us. By subtly manipulating our environment in unexpected ways, his gestures provoke us to see differently, to question our assumptions, and to pay an attention to phenomena that in turn cause us to redraw our mental picture of the world. The role of the artist, in Irwin's terms, is to learn to see not only a physical, quantitative reality but the qualitative aspects of a situation, and to empower the viewer to gain access to that vision as well—to engage in a process of discovery. The real subject of Irwin's art is not the object, then, but the viewer:
As artists, the one true inquiry of art as a pure subject is an inquiry of our potential to know the world around us and our actively being in it, with a particular emphasis on the aesthetic. This world is not just somehow given to us whole. We perceive, we shape the world, and as artists we discover and give value to our human potential to "see" the infinite richness (beauty?) in everything, creating an extended aesthetic reality.2
Through a self-directed study of philosophy, psycho-logy, and art history, Irwin has come to understand art not within its traditional social, cultural, and commercial practice of object making but as a process of "pure inquiry," as he says, and "pure subject." Art for him need not result in a discrete object or even a discrete experience. The work of the artist might then be defined as a process of investigation subject to a particular set of circumstances (a place, an invitation to work, a problem to solve) that may or may not result in a thing called artwork.
"If you asked me the sum total—what is your ambition?" Irwin told his friend and biographer Lawrence Weschler. "Basically it's just to make you a little more aware than you were the day before of how beautiful the world is. It's not saying that I know what the world should look like. It's not that I'm rebuilding the world. Basically what artists do is to teach you how to exercise your own potential—they always have, that's the one thread that goes all the way through."3 By Irwin's measure, a work of art succeeds when it challenges our perceptions to such a degree as to cause us to reconsider our environment and invest it, and ourselves, with greater potential. In the case of his work at Dia:Beacon, it was only after he had sensed and assessed the degree to which he had carried out his responsibilities to solve practical problems, as well as the total aesthetic effect of his myriad of individual and dispersed gestures, details, and proposals—some of which are described in his drawings in the following pages—that he was satisfied that his efforts operated within those terms and could be considered a work in his oeuvre and in Dia's collection.
1. Piet Mondrian, quoted in Robert Irwin, Being and Circumstance: Notes Toward a Conditional Art (Larkspur Landing, Calif.: Lapis Press, in conjunction with the Pace Gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1985), p. 23.
2. Irwin, "The Hidden Structures of Art," in Robert Irwin, ed. Russell Ferguson (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, and Rizzoli, New York, 1993), p. 35.
3. Irwin, quoted in Lawrence Weschler, "Playing It as It Lays & Keeping It in Play: A Visit with Robert Irwin," in ibid., p. 173.