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Robert Irwin’s Walker installation: Were you there in ’71?

Yes, this week everyone’s talking about 1969 and some sort of summer music jamboree, but we’re going to bump ahead a couple of years, into the next decade: “The paint on the walls was barely dry when Robert Irwin was invited to conceive a piece that would ‘challenge’ the Walker’s new building, which was designed […]

Yes, this week everyone’s talking about 1969 and some sort of summer music jamboree, but we’re going to bump ahead a couple of years, into the next decade:

“The paint on the walls was barely dry when Robert Irwin was invited to conceive a piece that would ‘challenge’ the Walker’s new building, which was designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. The year was 1971 and then-director Martin Friedman’s exhibition, Works for New Spaces, included such other preeminent artists of the moment as Siah Armajani, Larry Bell, Lynda Benglis, Mark di Suvero, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg, and Richard Serra.

“Irwin’s response was one of the most unforgettable yet little-seen installations in the Walker’s history. The untitled work, presented here only twice since the opening, in 1984 and 1989, now makes its fourth appearance in these galleries.”

So wrote curator Betsy Carpenter in the July/August issue of Walker magazine, the occasion being the August 6 unveiling of Slant/Light/Volume, the new installation (seen above) of this Irwin work. Below are some fantastic images of the artist 38 years ago (we love it when librarian Barb Economon pulls these kinds of things from the archives). Come to think if it – if you can access stories from your own long-term memory files about seeing this piece back then, please share via the “Comments” box below.

Looking to the (near) future, fans of early-’70s art will want to make a mental note about the upcoming Abstract Resistance, opening February 27, 2010. Curated by Yasmil Raymond (who is sorely missed, having recently left the Walker for an amazing opportunity at the Dia Art Foundation), this show features a new installation of a large-scale piece by the aforementioned Lynda Benglis for Works for New Spaces — and like this Irwin installation, it’s a knockout.


Irwin (and an unidentified man) at work in Gallery 1 in 1971


Irwin and his completed installation in 1971


  • tonifoti says:

    l was there in the summer 1970 71????? the mark de was outside orange in color l think chuck close had a pt also on ex irwin s skim moved me alot i havent been the same since i miss the modrian like theatre next door you felt like u were walking into something spaciale like,,,,,jiu et6ft 30gv87078 tgyhjx your coll has always maitains it s edge eg the video bra do you ever exhibit any schwarzkogler??????? thanks ton

  • Dan Wilson says:

    I was there in 1971. I was 9 or 10. My mother took me and my brother to the Walker pretty often during our childhoods. I vividly remember seeing the Irwin scrim piece for the first time. Of course when I first saw it I didn’t know what a scrim was. I just saw the piece as a magical trapezoidal solid chunk of light in the back end of the room. I looked at it for a long time and got very close to it before I realized that the effect was acheived by the scrim stretched across the space on that diagonal. The “secret” being revealed, I was all the more amazed and when I stepped back to look again, I was once again able to believe in the magic right away. This was very moving as I think it was the first time that I encountered anything on this scale where I saw the illusion and the mechanism at the same time. Also I remember discussing the piece with my Mom and part of what has stuck with me was that there was a guy whose job was to amaze us in this very clean and abstract way. It felt like an artwork made of pure light. All the other artists must have been very jealous.

  • Rochelle woldorsky says:

    I don’t know when I last saw the Irwin piece. I know I loved it and was excited to see it again, or should I say experience it again. I can’t tell you how disappointing it was to walk into a smallish room with a low ceiling, black tape on the floor that said “stay back”, and a pillar blocking one side. What were you thinking?

    With the new building, with new galleries you have managed to reduce a significant work of art to a mere dabble in history. It has none of the brilliance as it did in it’s original installation in that large open space with light that filled the gallery and on approach it felt like walking into a weightlessness. An experience I’m sure Irwin intended it to be.

    If you can’t do it right, don’t bother at all, because those who have seen this version will never know how wonderful a work of art this is. And those like me will walk away disappointed.

  • lia sanfelippo says:

    hello i remember the cloth art by robert irwin i was 12 years old and was draged into the museum by my father i hatered going to art museums aand i stil have a problem w/ most of them but the walker is different its hip way hip some day i hope to take my child there peace out lia

  • Susan Roverud says:

    saw the Irwin piece probably in the 70s. I remember being alone in the
    gallery and looking toward the far wall filled with glowing light, not
    being able to identify what this mysterious field of light was. I was
    pulled toward it, feeling I was in another dimension, going forward
    until I ran into the scrim fabric. This has stayed with me as a truly
    art experience. The idea of creating something that held such mystery
    with the ability to create such curiosity and other-worldliness is
    still with me.
    When I heard it was going on exhibit, I was thrilled, told all my
    friends about this wonderful piece of experience art. When I walked
    into the entirely too small gallery, from the side(!), with a pillar in
    the middle of the room(!), my disappointment was profound. I have to
    agree with previous post by Rochelle Woldorsky – WHY BOTHER? The
    presentation of this piece was less than inadequate – there was no
    experience, no transformation – it was just a room with fabric and a
    light. I have to experience this brilliant piece only in my memory and
    I was so hoping to have and share this experience again. I think of the
    people walking away, wondering what that was all about, knowing that if
    only this piece was presented well it might transform some about the
    power of art.

  • Frank Gaard says:

    Underwhelming I remember liking Siah Armajani’s floating sculpture in that first gallery (1971 new museum opening) that’s where I first saw Irwin’s scrim. I know Irwin is well regarded but I think he’s just not credible in the scrim pieces. He was a great painter but this is way just whack. The test of time requires diverse opinions. I like his painted circles(disks) better than his hyped less material post-minimalism. Painting keeps returning like zombies in a b-movie, when Irwin painted he was very fine but this rag with a light behind it is like Star Trek sets on tv.You can do some things well but not everything well. I guess I like Irwin more human and more fetish finish 60’s than as a conceptualist. Call me romantic but Irwin was quite a fascinating painter.This scrim is like saving wrappers off a birthday present.I don’t mean to be glib but the mystery of art has grown bigger in the last 40 years and the gambits the propositions of then don’t all hold water today. Maybe he was opportunistic ambitious artist to threw the dice and voila look at my little sensation (apologies to Paul Cezanne).Not everyone thinks minimalism is pie.

  • tonifoti says:

    dear frank may i be frank you dont know anything about light or space the scrim is the best its irwin at his best You become part of the art his early paintings are nowere i saw his show whos afraid of red yellow and blue in san deigo 2008? they had a small retro of his paintings middle of the road he was trying to find himself …… keep looking at art w/ a open mind i save all my birthday wappers they are better than the ”presents” regards ton

  • Bgrace says:

    I so wish this piece could always be on view! I’ve stopped by to visit it multiple times in the past few months – and it creates such a holy space. Such clean thought – such quiet grace. I’m sad to see it go. Too soon!

    Thanks so much for bringing this back – even if the gallery space/entrance are less than perfect. It’s still wonderous. Thanks, Walker!


  • thanks !! very helpful post!

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