Robert Irwin at the Hirshhorn

worth asking — in that broad-brush, pseudo-sociological kind of way that so often rears its head in discussions of art and culture — whether we are somewhat desensitized to visual experiences.

To be totally clear, “visual experiences” is just a bloated phrase meaning “things that we look at,” and most of us look at a lot of things in a given day. A big cause of this collective exposure to these myriad sights is often attributed to what we refer to in pop-science editorials as New Media.

Again, to be totally clear, “New Media” is just a general term for the unfiltered garbage dump of all things presented to us through our phones, laptops, tablets, smart watches or other vehicles of internet connectivity, which, according to Deloitte, the average American checks almost 50 times a day.

I will spare you a litany of tired examples, but just consider how heavily subjected we are to online media that aims to stuff us with entertainment, news, social networking, even raw shock and anger. Furthermore, consider that for many of us the primary tool in our career is the same device that feeds us this media.

This is not a sanctimonious admonishment of the developing cultural pandemic of computer addiction. It is just to say that the amount of time we spend in front of these things presents our eyes with an endless mishmash of images, in no order and without any agenda save our own interest, which must inevitably render us less sensitive to visual experiences. We see something and we move on, hundreds of times a day.

But there is a difference between the rote act of seeing and the evolving eye of one’s perception, and this distinction is at the heart of “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change,” at the Hirshhorn Museum through Sept. 5.

When a thing changes with our perspective, with our very movement and real-time perception, it comes alive. This is really not a big deal; in fact, it’s almost meaningless in itself. It happens every time we walk down the street. It’s the very dimension we live in — the third, specifically.

But in the hands of an artist like Robert Irwin, who is capable of isolating perception into a pure and singular experience, such a simple concept can challenge our understanding of the world.

A major postwar American artist, a pioneer of California Light and Space art, Irwin is a leading figure in broader movements away from discrete art objects in traditional media and toward an understanding of art as a perceptual experience. This exhibition is devoted to Irwin’s work from the 1960s, chronicling the period during which he moved from making small-scale abstract paintings to large acrylic discs and columns. He later abandoned studio work in favor of ephemeral installations of unconventional materials that respond to specific environments.

Walking into the first gallery, your eyes can’t exactly make sense of what is happening. A large concave disc, like a frosted polyphemian contact lens, floats off the wall. It is lit directly from above, and the light falls behind it. There is a dark line through the center of the disc, like the cargo bay of a spacecraft. The whole thing gives off a distinct Stanley Kubrick vibe. As you move toward it, it shifts almost imperceptibly, as if breathing. Something is changing in this space, but you cannot make sense of what the something is. You can see it, but it casts a fog over your perception.

I can’t tell you how refreshing this feels. Feeding on stark images and information on a rolling basis as I imagine most of us do, to confront something so perceptually obscure left me ecstatic.

After spending some time with it, you can figure out the what and how of this piece — it isn’t a magic trick — but knowing how it functions isn’t the point. The issue is whether you are open to the experience.

Through this, Irwin seems to be saying that art itself is but a matter of time and space — the work is not relative so much as we are.

This of course relates to our physical relationship with art, but it also speaks to temporal and philosophical perspectives. A painting by Jan van Eyck has a significance to 21st-century audiences entirely separate from its significance to the 15th-century patron who commissioned it. A more specific example would be the Mona Lisa, which was little known outside of the art world until it was stolen in 1911 and had its likeness printed in newspapers across the world; prior to the 1860s, it was hardly even considered a Renaissance masterwork.

Art is static. What changes is how we see it.

It is clear that Irwin thought about art differently from the beginning, evidenced by his early “handheld” paintings in the following galleries. They are small, no more than one foot square, with thick wooden frames built around them so they could be picked up and handled by viewers, breaking down the traditional barriers between art and audience. They are exceptional little paintings, on par with the best Abstract Expressionist work from the late 1950s, and yet in their diminished size they seem to defy the movement’s message of unbound, aggressive expression and focus it as with light through a gemstone.

The exhibition culminates in a major new installation of what (I jotted in my notebook) should be called “monumental nuance,” in which Irwin responds to the Hirshhorn’s distinctive architecture using nothing but scrim, a translucent and heavy-duty fabric often used to make curtains, which has become the artist’s signature medium.

Optically, it is sort of brilliant, and it almost seems best not to say anything more; it is a piece that I think should exist entirely within the realm of experience. It is beyond seeing, it is perceiving. It forces you to consider what it means to pay attention, to truly bare witness. If you don’t pay attention, you might even miss it. But it should just be seen, and that’s all there is to it.

Did I say “seen”? I meant perceived. There’s a difference.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *