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Light, space, perception

Times Staff Writer

Lots of artists extend established traditions in their work, adding to what came before. Some artists overturn them. A few begin new ones, starting from scratch.

Then there’s the rarest artist of all -- the one who manages to extend, overturn and radically innovate simultaneously. These are artists who set the culture on its ear. Their art conjures previously unsuspected possibilities, energizing other artists by changing art’s terms.

Robert Irwin is such an artist. Light and Space, the sensual art of perceptual discovery he pioneered in the 1960s, is now synonymous with Los Angeles’ emergence over the last half-century as a distinctive cultural powerhouse. With human perception as his inexhaustible subject, Irwin is, at 79, an eminence of postwar American art.

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Now he is the subject of an eloquent, tightly focused and sometimes startlingly beautiful career survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. (It’s the first since his 1993 retrospective in Los Angeles.) The show occupies both buildings of the museum’s downtown outpost. Nearly two-thirds of the works are from the museum’s permanent collection or they’re promised gifts; that’s an extraordinary, enviable institutional commitment to a major artist.

One building houses 16 works that together trace Irwin’s development since 1959. It begins with brushy, gestural abstract paintings and concludes with a new, room-size installation made from stretched fabric scrim.

In between is the most gorgeous installation I’ve yet seen of a classic 1969 Irwin disk. A horizontal stripe of dark acrylic lacquer is spray-painted at eye level across the center of a roughly 4-foot circle of clear acrylic, which stands away from the wall on a post. It’s illuminated only by natural light from an overhead skylight, reflected and diffused off a bright white wall in the light well. The disk virtually disappears.

What remains in full view is an inexplicable stripe of horizontal darkness, opening in space before your puzzled eyes. This wide, shadowy line inscrutably appears to recede into a deep void at the center. In reality, the convex curve of the disk means that the dark line is projected at you, but visually it seems to withdraw into infinity.

Irwin’s disks always make me think of the famous scene in Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s short 1929 film, “An Andalusian Dog,” in which a straight razor slices across a woman’s eyeball just as a thin cloud passes before a full moon. (Coincidentally, the movie is included at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the current exhibition “Dali: Painting and Film.”) The difference is that Irwin’s work is not an illustration, and the grim violence and dread of that cinematic bad dream is absent here.

Instead, when Irwin tears a gash in the fabric of perceptual space, it resonates with the perfect exhilaration of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball.” You plunge into bracing currents of hyper-acuity.

Irwin’s public projects

The other building compiles 20 drawings, photo-collages and plans for public projects at airports, parks and other sites in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas -- none of them realized. Hence, such celebrated works as Irwin’s magnificent 1997 Getty Center garden are not included.

Also here are three new large-scale installations made especially for the survey, and one offers a surprising twist on Irwin’s previous work. Arguably the show’s best piece -- no mean feat, given the high level of quality overall -- it suggests that we have much more left to see from this robust artist.

This installation, fittingly titled “Light and Space,” is composed of scores of colorless fluorescent lights, arrayed across a very large wall in an otherwise unlighted room. Steel structural braces that hold up the ceiling high overhead seem the obvious source for the work’s composition: 2- and 4-foot lights, set at 45-degree angles.

No immediately discernible rhyme or reason guides the pattern, however. The placement of lights, the arrangement of different lengths and the considered interplay of light and shadow all appear intuitive -- not capricious, but playfully attuned. The effect is spellbinding.

The syncopation provides visual interest. The composition yields a smooth, even illumination, which takes into account natural light variations in the room’s large volume of space. And the experience recalls encountering stained glass windows in a Gothic church -- Sainte-Chapelle, say, or Chartres -- but without the slightest trace of grandiosity or intimation of supernatural spirit. This is a wholly modern secular chapel, erected to exalt perception as the experiential creator of our universe.

Almost equally fine is “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue3,” which represents Irwin’s fullest engagement with color since he planted the Getty garden. Big panels of honeycomb aluminum are suspended from the ceiling and laid directly beneath on the floor in a large gallery. The pristine panels are lacquered to a mirror finish in vivid primary hues. (Jack Brogan, who has been solving technical problems for Irwin’s art since the 1960s, fabricated them.) You can’t look at these colored panels the way you would a painting; instead, they make you look into and through them.

I could find no place to stand in the room where it was possible to visually isolate one primary-colored panel from the rest. Whether you’re on the periphery of the work, at a distance from it or even within the spaces that separate the three pairs, no segment remains autonomous. See any part of any one of them and other fragments are inevitably reflected, flipping the room and shattering the space.

Look up and you see yourself reflected standing upright on the ceiling; look down and you see the reverse. View the work from afar and you might glimpse the sky through a window. The primary colors mix in the reflected layers trapped within your eye, unraveling the spectrum.

The scale of this piece was surely calibrated to the size of the room. One result is that the space defined by the paired panels seems logically carved from the larger volume of the gallery -- much the way a traditional sculptor would carve a figurative composition from the given contours of a block of stone. Irwin always articulates a formal fusion between the object he makes and the space in which it is encountered.

So, because it isn’t clear just where this work begins and where it ends, you carry it with you when you leave. Art, which we habitually regard as a physical object, dematerializes into heightened, ineffable experience.

Making a statement

“Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue3" was inspired by a famous group of four similarly titled Color Field paintings (1966-70) by Barnett Newman, a philosopher king among the heroic generation of Abstract Expressionist painters that Irwin greatly admires. Newman’s title toyed with the 1962 Edward Albee play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The playwright stumbled on the title as graffiti scrawled on a barroom mirror, and he once said it means, “Who’s afraid of living without false illusions?”

Like Newman, Irwin changed the question into a statement -- a declaration of fearlessness. His site-determined art poses an aesthetic question, and the answer lies in the experience of it. Sometimes that encounter leaves you gasping.

Take “Five x Five,” a new installation composed of five tall panels of black fabric scrim and five tall panels of white fabric scrim. Each group of five is installed in layers, with separations between them that are large enough to walk through. The black panels stand at a right angle to the white panels.

When you look through them, the black scrim is transparent and the white scrim is opaque -- a complete reversal of expectations. Surely a simple scientific explanation stands behind the preternatural phenomenon. But knowing it wouldn’t come close to the thrilling perceptual experience of seeing through the darkness and being blinded by the light.

christopher.knight@latimes. com

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Robert Irwin

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

1100 and 1001 Kettner Blvd., San Diego

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays through Tuesdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.

Ends: Feb. 23

Price: $10; free under 25

Contact: (858) 454-3541, www.mcasd.org


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