A progenitor of the late 1960s California-based Light and Space movement, Robert Irwin began his career as an abstract painter but quickly turned to more ephemeral installations that respond to their surrounding environments. Full Room Skylight – Scrim V – Dia Beacon exemplifies what the artist describes as his site-conditioned mode of working. First realized as a commission in 1972 for Harvard University’s Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts (and then titled Full Room Skylight – Scrim V – Fogg Museum, Harvard), the work is also one of the artist’s earliest uses of scrim—a gauzy material he discovered in 1970—to create luminescent volumes of light in relationship to existing architecture. This large-scale work places his work in dialogue with concurrent presentations of works by Larry Bell, Melvin Edwards, and Charles Gaines—all of whom have critically contributed to Minimal, Postminimal, and Conceptual art on the West Coast. Given Irwin's central role in the redesign of Dia Beacon, this display celebrates his foundational vision for the museum and offers the rare opportunity to appreciate the interconnections between the artistic and architectural aspects of his work.
Robert Irwin is curated by Donna De Salvo, senior adjunct curator of special projects at Dia, with Zuna Maza, curatorial assistant, and with support from former curatorial research interns Noa Wesley and Gemma Cirignano.
For Full Room Skylight – Scrim V – Dia Beacon (1972/2022), Robert Irwin has stretched planes of translucent fabric in a “V” shape across two interconnected galleries. Suspended between floor and ceiling, the fabric, or scrim, is illuminated by natural light from above. As the light filters through the taut material, an opti-cal texture is created that simultaneously masks and reveals the surrounding architecture. First realized as a commission in 1972 for Harvard University’s Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts (then titled Full Room Skylight – Scrim V – Fogg Museum, Harvard), Full Room Skylight – Scrim V – Dia Beacon is installed here in response to the architecture of Dia Beacon. Intervening within the building that the artist helped redesign during Beacon Project (1999–2003), Irwin now highlights the transitive qualities of the gallery’s illumination—the light’s unpredictability from moment to moment.
While Irwin began his career as an abstract painter, by the end of the 1960s the artist had become dissatisfied with the confines of the art object. During this transformative period, Irwin more explicitly explored, as he declared, “our state of consciousness and the shape of our perception.” In 1969–70 Irwin participated in the Art and Technology project at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he collaborated with the experimental psychologist Edward Wortz on perceptual research. As a result of this collaboration, Irwin transformed his studio in Venice, California, into a series of environments for NASA’s First National Symposium on Habitability of Environments in May 1970. Irwin’s early experiments influenced many of his peers in California’s Light and Space movement such as Larry Bell, Mary Corse, and Maria Nordman.
After discovering scrim, a material traditionally used in theater sets, on a 1970 trip to Amsterdam, Irwin began using it for ephemeral, “site-conditioned” installations, a term the artist uses over that of “site-specific” to signal the responsive nature of each artwork. The fabric can appear as an opaque plane of light or a glowing yet evanescent form, depending on the direction and quality of the light.
Through the scrim’s transformative properties, Irwin intercedes in a given space. Attracted to what he identifies as the material’s “defocusing element,” where space becomes “either ambiguous or razor sharp,” Irwin uses scrim “to skew one’s expectations . . . so that your perceptual mechanism [becomes] tilted, and you [perceive] the room as you otherwise might not.”
Irwin executed his first scrim installation, Fractured Light – Partial Scrim Ceiling – Eye Level Wire (1970), in a skylit room at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. By stretching the fabric over half the room to create a lowered scrim ceiling, Irwin obscured the light source from one vantage point and revealed it from another. Finding scrim dynamic in its simultaneous ability to conceal and reveal given spatial qualities such as the size of a room and the source of its light, Irwin has repeatedly applied the material to create volumes of light in subsequent installations.
An adaptation of one of Irwin’s early scrim installations, Full Room Skylight – Scrim V – Dia Beacon exemplifies the period when he began to create artworks that facilitate the experience of perception. “Art, like time or space, has no physical being,” Irwin explained in 1977. “[Art] is really our awareness and attentiveness to the esthetic potential in the nature of all things and the nature of ourselves.”
Full Room Skylight – Scrim V – Dia Beacon, 1972/2022
Synthetic fabric and natural light
Dia Art Foundation
Robert Irwin was born in Long Beach, California, in 1928. He began his career as an abstract painter. After a period of thick, expressive paintings and then flat, calculated compositions, he abandoned the medium in the early 1970s. He went on to pursue ephemeral, environmental works that challenge notions of perception, light, and the art object, and is recognized as a leading figure in the Light and Space movement. Formative exhibitions and projects include Recent Paintings by Robert Irwin (1959), his first painting show at the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles; Robert Irwin (1970–71) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which included his first scrim piece; Scrim veil – Black rectangle – Natural light (1977), his intervention on the entire fourth floor at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and Central Garden (1997), his landscaping project at the Getty Center, Los Angeles. Dia mounted Irwin’s two-part exhibition Prologue: x 183 and Excursus: Homage to the Square³ at Dia Center for the Arts, New York, in 1998–99 and reinstalled the latter at Dia Beacon in 2015. Dia also commissioned Irwin to create the site plan for the museum and outdoor space of Dia Beacon in 1999–2003. Irwin lives in San Diego.
Robert Irwin was born in Long Beach, California, in 1928. He died in San Diego, California, in 2023.
Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Weschler