Irwin at the Guggenheim

It’s Art Week in New York – a bit like Fashion Week, only bitchier. The

Whitney Biennial‘s just opened, the

Armory Show is upon us,

and -scope is setting up shop on 9th

Avenue. The upshot is that there’s more new art on show this weekend than any

human being could hope to comprehend: the only rational response, and one which

is certainly going to be adopted by most of the international art-world types

who are arriving in Gotham by the 747-load on an hourly basis, is to get exceedingly


If they have a little bit of spare time, however, I would actually recommend

that they go to yet another art

show. It’s called Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated), and it’s

on at the Guggenheim. My friend Geoff went to see it a few days ago, and immediately

sent me a disgusted email: the words "quite an abomination" stood

out among his grudging props for the Turrell.

I can see why he says that. The wall texts are dreadful: dull artspeak at its

most banal. I gave up reading them halfway through the first one, when I reached

the phrase "this exhibition posits". And the actual art is of highly

variable quality, mainly because the cash-strapped Guggenheim basically cobbled

the entire show out of its permanent collection. As a result, Frank Stella,

one of the godfathers of minimalism, is represented by a rather incoherent early

black painting, rather than by one of the great stripe paintings which more

or less formed the historical basis for this entire show.

What’s more, the Guggenheim’s desire to give us a chronological survey results

in virtually everybody being represented by only one or two pieces. As a result,

we learn almost nothing about individual artists, and are subtly encouraged

to sign on to the "once you’ve seen one

you’ve seen them all" mindset. Someone like Joseph Kosuth fares particularly

badly: with only a single fair-to-middling work in the show, his importance

and inventiveness completely disappears, and he comes across as little more

than a copycat jokester.

Neither novices nor experts, then, are likely to learn much from this exhibition,

and it certainly won’t change anybody’s mind about minimalist and conceptualist

art. And yet, I still reckon this show is well worth seeing, for a handful of

individual pieces.

Firstly, there are some familiar artists who are interestingly tweaked in the

context of the Frank Lloyd Wright spiral. Dan Flavin has a small sausage-chain

of fluorescent lights running out and down along the floor, which looks fantastic.

And a big Carl Andre floor piece is probably the best I’ve ever seen. All his

floor works make you hyperaware of your own physicality and weight while you’re

standing on them: that’s what makes them great. But when the floor is tilted

and curved in the way the Guggenheim’s is, that feeling is only enhanced. It’s

almost impossible to describe without resorting to hyperbole: you feel almost

as if you’re taking off, defying gravity, peforming twisting and looping stunts

in space. Just by standing still. Or, to put it another way, stepping off the

piece feels much the same as stepping off a fast-moving people-mover in an airport

– which is quite impressive considering that the Andre isn’t moving at


More importantly, however, the Guggenheim is showing some major works by major

artists who don’t get exhibited nearly enough in the normal course of events

at contemporary art museums. The first is Brice Marden, who’s represented by

a series of his signature encaustic monochromes. These are lusciously gorgeous

pieces, in deep and subtle colours, which put the lie to anybody who says minimalism

is soulless. All the contemporary art experts I know revere Marden, but for

some reason I rarely see his work exhibited in museums, and these are a real


Best of all is a mind-blowing installation by Robert Irwin. It’s called Soft

Wall, and it was originally installed at the Pace Gallery in 1974, but

I doubt it could have looked better then than it does here. Irwin’s had an amazing

career, and I would highly recommend anybody who likes either art or biographies

to buy Lawrence Weschler’s masterful book-length study

of him, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. That book

was written in 1983, however, and since then Irwin has gone downhills rather,

doing things like designing the car park for Dia:Beacon.

The piece in the Guggenheim dates to when Irwin was doing his very best work,

with light and scrims and exquisite subtlety. Irwin has done something which

seems very simple: he’s taken one of the Guggenheim’s rectangular galleries,

painted it white, put a white scrim in front of one of the walls, and added

a white line running horizontally around the top of the gallery near the ceiling.

That’s it, really. But just walking into that room changes the whole nature

of the way you perceive your surroundings, and the way you perceive yourself

perceiving your surroundings. Not only that, but you’re also filled with the

utter certainty that this is one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen.

I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

I should also note that Irwin’s work is just about the most unphotographable

art there is: no photo of any of his gallery pieces can possibly do it justice.

But just to add insult to injury, the photo

on the Guggenheim website is of a different scrim piece entirely. Don’t judge

by that: go and see for yourself!

If you want to saunter past the Sol LeWitts, then, feel free: his wall pieces

really don’t work all that well in the rotunda’s niches. If you don’t want to

walk all the way to the top of the spiral to admire thousands of Damien Hirst’s

dead houseflies, that’s fine too. I would simply urge anybody who’s in town

for some serious Art this week to make sure they check out the Robert Irwin

piece at the Guggenheim. I can’t imagine that anything at the Whitney, the Armory

Show or Scope is even going to come close – although I’m keeping my fingers


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2 Responses to Irwin at the Guggenheim

  1. geoff says:

    yes there were a couple of good pieces there… actually somewhere between 3 and 5 of them- and it was really nice to see them.

    but if you are a purported world class museum in the middle of nyc, i think it is completely fair to expect more for your entry fee.

    if i wanted to see one or two really stellar pieces of work, i would have gone to the turrell exhibit in chelsea or the serra at the gagosian… oh wait, i did. both of which were far more enjoyable as i didn’t have to filter through the dross to enjoy them.

    3-5 great works or not, the guggenheim has once again proven that it is the provider of the corn meal filler in dog food of the art world.

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