Art as Experience: Robert Irwin’s “Untitled (Acrylic Column)”

Morgan Meis writes at Slant Books: Robert Irwin died a few months ago. He was 95 years old, so this was not a great tragedy. I didn’t know the man personally, but I have the sense that he lived a good and fulfilled life. He was quite famous within the more or less refined corners of the international artworld. He’ll probably always be most associated with the so-called Light and Space Movement that emerged in California, more properly southern California, in the late 1960s. Judy Chicago also did important works from within the Light and Space sensibility. James Turrell. Mary Corse. If these names mean anything to you. Quite fine if they don’t.

It is hard to describe the works of Robert Irwin. A typical work by Robert Irwin is, for instance, a piece called Untitled (Acrylic Column), which is generally listed as having the dates 1969-2011. I guess that’s because he kept making and remaking the piece over those years. It’s a simple work of art. Basically it’s a free-standing column of see-through acrylic about fifteen feet high.

The column is constructed in a kind of ‘V’ shape so that it doesn’t fall over. Also, stuff happens with the light and with the refractions of vision in that shape.

Stuff happens. This is not the most helpful description, I know. But that’s what is interesting about the work. The stuff that happens in the room because the column is in the room. The column itself isn’t interesting at all. If you stand there, in the gallery or museum or wherever, and just look at the column you’ve completely missed the point. The column is there because of what it does, not what it is. And what the column does is to split the room up in visually startling ways. The column messes with the visual unity of the room. People walking behind the column suddenly disappear, or are sliced into various sections. Visually, of course. Not really. But then again, what is really?

The column makes something happen in the room. This is only possible because people, or I suppose other kinds of creatures too, but most essentially because people go into the room and then encounter the strange way that the column messes with one’s experience of the room, creating a kind of heightened sense of being in the room altogether. So the work Untitled (Acrylic Column) is really about experience. Or it simply is experience, since it isn’t exactly about anything in the normal sense that an artwork can be about something. The work doesn’t reference or represent or symbolize or anything like that. It just makes experience.

Philosophers, especially those of the Kantian extraction, sometimes like to talk about transcendentals. To make a long story short, transcendentals are conditions for the possibility of other things to be. Space and time, for instance, are transcendental because they are necessary conditions for there to be physical objects at all. An object, to be an object, has to be here or there at this or that time. You could say, then, that when you think transcendentally you are trying to go to the very roots of experience. What is there at the root? What underlies the possibility of experience altogether? More here.


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