Fred A. Bernstein

Robert Irwin's 'Barcelona Pavilion for the 21st Century'

A thrilling installation at the Dia Center for the Arts explores tranlucency; it's like seeing snow for the first time.

Published in Blueprint, Dec 1998


Dia Center for the Arts, 548 West 22nd Street, New York



"In the realm of the phenomenal, 'less is more' only when less is the sum total of more." Robert Irwin


With quotes like that peppering the catalogue for his latest exhibition, Robert Irwin — the 70-vear-old California-based conceptual artist — seems determined to confound the critics whose job it is to locate his work in the history of 20th century art. But who cares what he's trying to do? What he has done is interesting enough: less than a year after the debut of his controversial garden at the Getty Center in Los Angeles (denounced as a fussy intrusion into Richard Meier's pure-modernist vision), Irwin has gone minimalist, turning the third floor of an old warehouse building in Manhattan into 18 rooms separated only by walls of translucent, panty-hose-like nylon. Each of the "walls" consists of two layers of fabric, stretched from floor to ceiling about six inches apart (roughly the thickness of a "real" wall), with nothing at all between them. (Unless you include, as Irwin certainly does, air and metaphysical meaning.)

If you're lucky, a dozen or so people — in different sizes, shapes and colours — will be moving through the rooms during your visit. (If not, Irwin recently installed a series of vertical fluorescent tubes, in colours adapted from a Joseph Albers painting.) The scrim, a material Irwin has been using in his work for at least 20 years, has the effect of "whiting out" whatever's behind it (a person dressed in red, for example, appears bright pink through one layer, light pink through two, and so on). The effect is like standing in a blizzard, with objects gaining or losing definition as they move forward or back. Expect to feel the excitement of a child discovering snow for the first time. But it would only take a few pieces of scrim to create that initial thrill; Irwin's labyrinthine arrangement of hundreds of square metres of the stuff offers enough permutations to justify repeated visits. Depending on vantage point, walls become (thin) rooms, and rooms (fat) walls. Two people standing in separate rooms, with a third room between them, are invisible to each other but visible from the middle room, an effect that suggests myriad possibilities for the layering of private, public, and semi-public spaces. Irwin forces the visitor to wonder why partitions as light, bright and diaphanous as these aren't a more popular architectural gambit. My guess is they will be.


And why not? There's a seductive, dreamlike quality to Irwin's installation. Here, on the third floor of the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, a small museum of site-specific works, all edges are soft. So lush is the emptiness of Irwin's universe, you'll want to spend the night or find a way to import his insights into buildings where the needs for privacy and brightness coexist. Translucence, the goal of architecture since humans abandoned the cave (and the inspiration behind everything from shoji screens to mashribiyas to granny's lace curtains), is in its endgame. For designers and architects, Irwin's Chelsea installation may be the most influential show of material science and spatial possibility in decades — a Barcelona Pavilion for the century to come.