Light + Space: Irwin’s Portals of Perception

Light + Space: Irwin’s Portals of Perception

The early morning sky and the beat of the steel pull my gaze to the Hudson’s flat surface, the fawn landscape. It swishes by. I’m headed up to Beacon, a small leafy town just over an hour’s train ride out of Manhattan. From the station, I walk through the gathering heat, up a small hill, and around a bend to a low-slung brick structure surrounded by quiet, ordered grounds and trees. I pass through a dark, compressed entry and into the museum and I stop — that sense of quiet and awe that happens to me in a great place. There’s just so much light. Skylights pull in the blue from above and the landscape is in every window. My skin is warm and illuminated. I run my fingers along a rough-hewn wall. I wander.

Photos ©Bruce Damonte, 2015.

Art + Architecture
I can see why Robert Irwin, who has spent much of his career exploring spatial relations and the subtleties of perception, wanted to help reimagine how an old Nabisco box-printing factory built in 1929 might be transformed into a museum housing art from the 60’s and 70’s. Irwin designed the master plan, grounds, and windows at Dia:Beacon — his own contribution to the ethos of permanent installation, or art as created, installed, and experienced within a site-specific context. The raw beauty and honest construction of industrial architecture — broad, day lit spans set to brick, steel, concrete, and glass — make the building itself feel like art. And much like the works it houses — Donald Judd’s wood boxes or Sol LeWitt’s patterns — this place leaves the story up to you. It’s like you’re the point.

Art, architecture, landscape, and light are one at Dia:Beacon, as seen in these spaces featuring work by Michael Heizer, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra. Each gallery was designed “in keeping with the Dia’s history of single-artist, site-related presentations.” (Dia:Beacon webite). Photos ©Bruce Damonte, 2015.

An Excursus
I find Irwin’s Excursus: Homage to the Square³ — sixteen interconnected, square(ish) spaces constructed of translucent, white scrim and illuminated by vertical fluorescent tubes. Originally installed at the Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea in 1998 and site-adapted for Dia:Beacon, Homage to the Square³ invokes Joseph Albers’ seminal inquiry into the subjective experience of color.

Robert Irwin,
Excursus: Homage to the Square³. Photos ©Molly Thomas, 2016.

Walking through the space, I imagine falling into an Albers painting, his squares tilted upright and organized into a maze. As I move through the chambers, the colors, vibrant in the hands of Irwin, shift to the peripheral. There is daylight and warmth. Ghostly figures pass through the scrim. Footsteps on the soft wood. Trains rumble up the Hudson, making the sounds of industry, past and present. After a while, Albers recedes, Irwin falls away, and it’s just the daylight, the space, and me — playful, pensive, and ethereal. It seems like a good idea to just lie down on that luscious wood floor and stare up at the sky.

But West Texas awaits: a large-scale installation, Irwin’s first and only ground up building, has opened at the Chinati. His exploration of the phenomena of perception through the mediums of light and space in the Chihuahuan Desert is something I need to experience.

It’s a bit mind-blowing to wake up to the taxis, stilettos, and steam of a summer day in New York and fall asleep under the black lit silence of a West Texan desert. As the white noise of the city gives way to the thunderous silence of the land — the bark of a dog, the steel grind of a train — my senses hone.

The Chihuahuan desert is situated atop a highland plane called the Marfa Plateau, punctuated by low-slung mountains under a sky that curves all around you. The grassland, cacti, dirt, rocks, and adobe meet the sky to make a variable brown-blue palette that changes throughout the day.

Like many of the buildings in Marfa — modest, straightforward adobe and concrete structures that defer to the geography and climate — Irwin’s modern, concrete building is a quietly elegant portal into the unexpected. U-shaped and organized around a landscaped garden, untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016 sits within the footprint of an old Fort D.A. Russell hospital originally constructed in 1921. It is approximately 10,000 square feet.

Photos of Fort D.A. hospital site prior to Irwin’s installation, ©Bruce Damonte, 2015.

Photo credits: Robert Irwin, untitled (dawn to dusk), installation exterior (top two images) and installation interior (bottom image), 2016. Permanent collection, The Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photos by © Philipp Scholz Rittermann, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation. © 2017 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

when things start to get super untitled
A kid who seems strangely serene for someone who appears to be 15 lets us in. My friend and I managed to miss the scheduled tour (desert distractions abound, I tell you), and so it’s just the two of us. It’s late in the day, but the sun rides high. The land and the light and the sky follow us through a tall and generous sequence of windows. We’ve been asked not to take pictures inside the space.  

Again, the scrims: white and black panels, veins running up the building arms, divide the structure into light and dark, intersecting at the crux. We immediately grow quiet and separate, our footsteps on the concrete. The building’s original use is with me — I imagine the people who came through, living and dying. I walk the length of the white scrims, watching the landscape through the sequence of windows, light and space given shape.

In his fantastic book, seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, Lawrence Weschler writes of Irwin’s artwork, “Perhaps the central concern of all these installations has been their presence — temporal, spatial — such that any descriptive report of their character or intention necessarily betrays their essential nature.” And yet, the procession:

I turn into the crux of the U. The darkness is sudden, dissonant. The contrast a jolt. I slow my pace through the dark side and reach the end. I turn back and walk slowly through the black scrims. I feel weightless and heady. The landscape, the sunlight, the sky recede as I move through the space, the clarity, and the blur.

Each scrim a thunk at my chest, a slow pulse. I pass through something and something passes through me, and it has weight and energy and a beat.

My friend and I lock eyes.

“I know, right?” she says.

There are tears in her eyes. Mine too.

She can’t know what I feel, nor I her. But as we leave in silence, I think we carry something out — a sense of our own consciousness. And perhaps we are closer to knowing the profound and beautiful difference of that in all of us.