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Exhibition view: Robert Irwin, Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles (23 January–21 April 2018). Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.
Inside a gleaming San Diego tract home, 89-year-old artist Robert Irwin reclines in his favorite leather lounge chair, snug in his favorite worn baseball cap, sipping a fizzy Coke over ice.
Irwin has lived here about 15 years 'because my wife wanted kids on the block for our daughter,' he says of his now 23-year-old. Still, the cozy setting seems incongruous. With dark sunglasses donned and legs outstretched, Irwin appears less the renowned contemporary artist that Los Angeles County Museum of Art Director Michael Govan calls one of the most innovative artists of the '60s and '70s and more a relaxed suburbanite, tanned and ruggedly handsome.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Robert Irwin's work, both to the art history of his native Southern California and across contemporary art more broadly. In the late 1960s, he shifted focus from creating traditional art objects to producing sculptures and installations that explore perception and the very conditions of art viewing. Irwin has continued to push the boundaries of artistic practice into the twenty-first century through installations precisely conditioned to the sites they occupy, both inside and outside the walls of cultural institutions. It is with great pleasure that Sprüth Magers announces its first exhibition with the artist, several years in the making, on view at the Los Angeles gallery. It is the first large-scale presentation of Irwin's work in Los Angeles since 2011.
In keeping with Irwin's experimental approach to light, space, and the phenomenological experience of the viewer, the artist has produced an immersive installation comprising an arrangement of scrims that responds directly to the architectural layout and visual qualities of Sprüth Magers' modernist interior. As he wrote in Artforum in 2016, "The scrim is a great material; it both is there and it's not." Irwin has used scrim since the early 1970s as a means to alter viewers' experience of their environment; by stretching it to create new interior walls and pathways, he deploys a simple material to shift space in radical ways.
At Sprüth Magers, the gallery's interior walls have been removed, exposing the large windows that surround the 5,000-square-foot exhibition space for the first time since the gallery opened in 2016. Inside this glass box, slender pillars are placed along the building's architectural grid and around its central load- bearing column. Irwin's semitransparent white scrim connects several of the pillars to form impenetrable, but see-through, chambers that reach to the ceiling. If Irwin's scrims are understood as a vertical axis, a series of black squares cuts through them along a horizontal one, via tinted squares on the gallery's windows, square spray-painted atop the scrims, and a row of square black paintings lining one remaining gallery wall. These recurring shapes create visual sight lines that link interior and exterior, moving from the nuances of Irwin's site-conditioned installation to the bustle of cars and pedestrians moving along Wilshire Boulevard, visible through the tinted glass. Viewers moving through this layered space, from different angles and at different times of day, will have distinctly attuned experiences.
On the gallery's second level, several of the dynamics at play on the floor below are inverted. Newly constructed walls block out most of the room's windows, and surrounding a central wall of black scrim, four of Irwin's fluorescent light sculptures emanate shades of reds, pale greens and yellows, and soft whites. Irwin constructs these works using rows of vertical neon tubes, tinting them using theatrical gels, electrical tape and spray paint, and lining their colors into symmetrical patterns. The artist's evocative titles (Faust and Misty Miss Christy, for example, the latter named for singer June Christy) add an additional hint of narrative potential to the sculptures' otherwise minimalist, industrial forms.
Visible only in natural light, during daylight hours, the exhibition at Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles, will highlight Robert Irwin's long-standing investigations into the subtle, yet significant ways in which the spaces we navigate affect our understanding of and relationship to the world around us.
Robert Irwin (b. 1928, Long Beach, California) has been working at the forefront of modern and contemporary art for the last six decades. Major solo exhibitions include All the Rules Will Change at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, 2016, Primaries and Secondaries at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, 2007, and a large-scale retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, that traveled to the Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris, and the Reina Sofía, Madrid, 1993–1995. Since the early 1970s, Irwin has created site-conditioned installations at institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego and La Jolla; and the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, among many others. The artist has also designed major architectural and environmental installations at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Dia:Beacon, and the Getty Center. The recipient of numerous awards, including the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture, 2009, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship, 1984, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, 1976, Irwin lives in San Diego.
The exhibition Robert Irwin: Site Determined will be on view concurrently at the University Art Museum, California State University Long Beach, January 28 - April 15, 2018.
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