Robert Irwin at the Hirshhorn


There is a new exhibit of Robert Irwin’s work at the Hirshhorn Museum, All the Rules Will Change. I went to see it last weekend on a rainy day with a few of the other contemporary art faithful.

I’m an art nerd and a fan of Irwin’s work, so I totally dug it. We got to see his progression from an abstract painter to a definer of space with light and line. There’s a lot of talk about “no spoilers” for the site-specific installation he made for the exhibit, but I’m not sure if I could describe it sufficiently to spoil it for anyone. I’ll leave it that I was delighted by the piece. You need to see it for yourself if you are coming through D.C. before September.

At the end of the exhibit was a video loop of an interview Irwin did in the 1970s with UCLA. I was struck by how culturally dated the questions were – “How do we get more people turned on to contemporary art?” – and how un-dated Irwin’s responses were. He could give the same answers now and still sound relevant and visionary.

As I watched, I was struck with his ease and confidence. He seemed to have nothing to prove. No need to place himself in the pantheon of great artists or declare himself an iconoclast who was destroying the past to bring about the new. The way he spoke about art was highly intellectual  and very personal all at the same time.

The next thought I had came in on a wave of jealousy. Could Irwin have given his ideas and his art so much freedom to develop if he didn’t have his sociodemographic head start? He got his artistic freedom, respect, and fame when being a white dude was still the best set of credentials for success.

I have been a fan of Irwin’s since I went to see the reprise of the 1977 Scrim veil – Black rectangle – Natural light at the Whitney just before the museum moved to the cubist ocean-liner structure at the southern end of Manhattan. The installation was more than a visual surprise as you left the elevators. It made me aware of the space more intensely than I thought possible using only black lines and suspended white scrim material.

The next spring, I read Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Weschler. I was home alone and I read it in one sitting. I think it was a sick day, but more likely it was a mental health day. When I’m physically sick my brain doesn’t do jack shit, and that day I know my brain was sparking around the edges as I read.

I devoured the conversations and biographical bits Irwin shared with Weschler. What I remember most was being inspired and enthralled by Irwin’s deep curiosity and constant exploration. He never seemed to be rejecting how other people did things; he was just way more interested in seeing where his art and ideas could go. I wanted that for myself.

I walked away from the Hirshhorn exhibit mulling over my jealousy. Even if the celebration of Irwin’s art and ideas were boosted by his whiteness and his maleness, and that cleared the way for him to deepen his artistic practice, it didn’t mean Irwin waited for someone else to give him permission to follow his own ideas.

No doubt it is easier to roll down a path when the way has been smoothed out for you. It is easier to have the freedom to create and follow your own path when people accept you and your ideas because you look right or act right.

But it turned out that what I was really angry about -and jealous of- was that by going his own way, Irwin didn’t have to sacrifice acceptance and praise. That kind of situation isn’t often on the table for those who don’t share Irwin’s race or gender.

The thing is, if I remove the desire for acceptance and praise from the equation, I can get that kind of freedom. I can play by my own rules when I make my ideas, my interests, and my art my central concern, just like Irwin.

I’m going to slide a white scrim in between me and acceptance and praise, and dim the light so it’s hard to tell exactly what’s on the other side.

The way feels clearer already.


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