Change Up Artist

Robert Irwin Sculpture

Square the Circle, 2015–16. Fabric and wood. Installation view of site-conditioned work in Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2016. © 2016 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © 2016 Philipp Scholz Rittermann

Since April 7, the Hirshhorn has been hosting “All The Rules Will Change.” It’s the first Robert Irwin survey outside of California since 1977, and as such only features work made between 1958 and 1970—with exceptions to a couple of installations designed for the exhibition.

The title of the exhibition has several reads. One is a tidy summary of Irwin’s process for art-making: transitioning away from painting to the optical and transformative play of his discs, columns, and later scrims. Another read encapsulates a personal response to looking at his work, and art in general: despite its minimalism, his work is muscular and will force most viewers to change how they see and engage art. 

Such is the case when seeing the Irwin installation, “Square the Circle,” which consists of a 120-foot long scrim bisecting the circular footprint of Gordon Bunschaft’s Hirshhorn Museum. Apart from a doorway in the center of the scrim, the length is uninterrupted. It’s a mass that seems sturdy enough to lean against, and at first glance presents itself as a brilliant visual gimmick: the sweeping curve of the architecture opposite the flat face of the installed scrim. How often are any of us in a 120-foot long space with little interruption to our line of site? That awareness alone can be unsettling, even without prior reference to what the Hirshhorn’s galleries normally look like.

It’s with a second look that “Square the Circle” flexes its muscle. As the eyes adjust to the light of the room, the opaque white face of the scrim dissolves. The translucency reveals the space beyond the scrim, and gives the illusion that it is nothing more than a corner of the gallery painted white: something you can enter: that no scrim exists. Move. Blink. The scrim again appears opaque. The experience is jaw dropping.

But, if allowed a little room for interpretation, the title of the exhibition reads a third way: as a bit of an inside joke. In some ways, for this exhibition, all the rules did change.

Robert Irwin Sculpture

Irwin’s proposal for a site-conditioned scrim installation on the plaza (unrealized), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2013

Initially, back in 2014, it was reported that the campus of Cuesta College was testing a 12-foot by 40-foot scrim for a 2015 installation at The Hirshhorn. For those unfamiliar with its design, the Hirshhorn looks like a concrete doughnut on stilts, with the galleries positioned above and below an open plaza. In all, 36 scrims would fan around the plaza.  At the time , former public information officer, Glenn Dixon, indicated that it was a stand-alone project. No further exhibition plans had been announced.

That installation never happened.

“Basically [Irwin] wanted to stretch scrim from the coffer spine (on the underside of the building) to the plaza,” noted Al Masino, Director of Exhibitions, Design, and Special Projects at the Hirshhorn Museum. And he wanted to do it with a one-inch by one-inch stretcher that ran the length and height of the scrim. “A lot of people were skeptical that the design would withstand the elements.”

Part of the skepticism had to do with the material itself: a thin, translucent fabric that —despite its use in the airline industry—has an appearance similar to a wedding veil.

“The big concern: there are millions walking up and down the National Mall throughout summer,” remarked Evelyn Hankins, Associate Curator at the Hirshhorn. “The exhibition is up from the Cherry Blossom Festival through Labor Day (September 5). The Smithsonian was concerned about the weather: thunderstorms, hurricanes, and what happens if an 80-90 mile wind comes out of nowhere!

Robert Irwin Sculpture

Installation view of Pier II, 1960–61, in Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2016. Artwork © 2016 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York . Photo: Cathy Carver

Considering Washington’s fickle weather, it isn’t a leap of imagination to envision the material ripping, stretchers warping or snapping, or the whole apparatus of one or several scrims breaking lose and sailing over the National Mall. The proposal had to be subjected to Smithsonian safety standards: 25 Smithsonian engineers  and specialists looked at documentation provided. They engaged with structural engineers. Anemometers were installed around the plaza and on the roof of the building to get a sense of how the Hirshhorn’s design affected wind speeds. As they learned, roof wind speeds differed from plaza wind speeds, sometimes by as much as 20 MPH, and with no consistency that the roof wind speed would be greater than the plaza wind speed. Sometimes it was just the opposite.

Then there was the scrim installed at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. Unfortunately, their three-week test didn’t experience nearly the wind speeds that the Hirshhorn was measuring at the museum—which were upwards of 60 MPH.

“In the end I think the things we were skeptical about were not the things that didn’t allow the project to go forward,” Masino declared. Whereas there was initial concern that the scrims might rip, as it turns out, the scrims were more likely to rip apart the plaza’s granite pavers: when hit with 30 MPH winds, the scrims would lift multiple 800-pound pavers out of their moorings. Drilling hundreds of holes into the pavers wasn’t an option either, since it risked the integrity of the membrane that waterproofed collections and galleries beneath the plaza.

After over a year of testing the project was deemed infeasible. “In the end it really wasn’t Irwin’s proposal that wasn’t feasible,” reflected Masino. “It was that we didn’t and couldn’t understand the tendencies of the wind, and attaching [the scrims] to the plaza without potential failure.

Irwin had been working on the exhibition design prior to the conclusion of the feasibility study. However, once they determined the exterior project could not be realized, “Bob changed the whole exhibition design 100-percent,” Masino recalled.  Again: All the rules changed.

Robert Irwin Sculpture

Square the Circle, 2015–16. Fabric and wood. Installation view of site-conditioned work in Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2016. © 2016 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Photo © 2016 Philipp Scholz Rittermann

The change wasn’t so they could include Square the Circle: that piece Irwin had proposed prior to the termination of the exterior installation. The change reconfigured the entire layout of the rest of the exhibition. Cleverly enough, it was another way to square the circle.

The outer ring of the Hirshhorn is usually broken into several galleries, rhythmically constructed between large and small spaces connected by vestibules. At times, some of the exterior walls are flattened to avoid the weird optical bow that happens when hanging anything rectilinear on a curved wall. Although roomy-enough to hang several enormous paintings by the likes of Clyfford Still or Willem de Kooning, the galleries can still feel intimate.

Irwin’s solution segmented the outer ring with walls that act more like partitions that float away from the building’s exterior and central ring-walls. In essence, they create two passageways through the outer ring. At certain vantage points along the central ring-wall, you can see into individual galleries, like slots in a Kodak slide carousel. No artwork hangs on the outer or central ring-walls. With exception to a series of handheld paintings that sit in vitrines, each large painting sits on its own partition wall, with no other work visible to distract the viewer.

Robert Irwin Sculpture

Irwin’s proposal for a site-conditioned scrim installation in the galleries, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2015

The intention is for intense focus on only one work of art at a time. However, by accident, you are also looking at a second artwork: the layout of the gallery itself. The one work of art—a painting of dots or stripes from the 1960s—you look at. The other work of art you walk through. “When the installation was up, I thought I was outfoxed by Irwin,” Hankins confessed, “because there was an architectural installation that had a few pieces hung up.”  Thanks to the lighting of the exhibition, and the structure of the space, the exterior and central ring-walls almost melt away from view when observing one of Irwin’s earlier paintings. And a rhythm is established: look at a painting on a big rectangular wall, then move on. Because it is a wall, we’ll involuntarily ignore the wall as art. Then we’ll move on to the next piece, on the next wall, in an orderly fashion. And then the next piece, on the next wall. It’s not how we might normally experience a gallery space: where visitors circle the walls or zig-zagging past work throughout the room. The pace through the Irwin survey is rigid and processional.

Irwin’s career is one of calling the viewers attention to the act of seeing himself see, as was evident when looking at the long scrim piece, “Square the Circle.” WIth the redesign of the exhibition space, Irwin re-focused the audience into the act of seeing themselves see an exhibition.  Maybe with a little liberty we can assume a fourth read of the exhibition title. For viewing this exhibition, all the rules had changed.

By John Anderson

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