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Art Review

Enticed Into the Worlds of Robert Irwin, Agnes Martin

October 30, 1998|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A pair of solo shows at PaceWildenstein Gallery provide an opportunity to see the profound differences between Robert Irwin's line paintings from the early 1960s and Agnes Martin's new acrylics on canvas. Superficially similar, in that each artist strips painting down to bare essentials (i.e., line and color), the bodily scaled abstractions by these two renowned artists actually make radically different propositions about art's relationship to time. Consequently, they invite viewers to experience time's passage in significantly different ways.

Downstairs, 13 paintings by Martin have been installed in four color-coordinated groups: blue only; blue and yellow; blue and red; and blue, yellow and red. All of the Taos, N.M.-based artist's lightly gessoed canvases are composed of horizontal bands of various widths. By filling in alternating bands with delicate pastel hues, and by repeating these arrangements according to specific formats, Martin composes a variety of patterns, which themselves form an impressive range of visual rhythms.

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What takes place within any 5-foot-square painting also occurs between and among the works that make up each group. To spend a little time with these rigorously casual abstractions is to fall into their relaxed pace and easygoing flow. No matter where you begin, Martin's paintings draw you into a serene and expansive world where time doesn't stand still as much as it circles around on itself--in the ebb and flow of a continuous, unending cycle.

Where Martin's canvases are best seen in groups of three or more, each of Irwin's four somewhat larger paintings upstairs is completely self-sufficient. Martin's softly tinted primary colors obliterate figure-ground distinctions by dissolving such contrasts into an all-encompassing continuum, but Irwin's dense fields of super-saturated color highlight the fact that two, three or four horizontal lines have been laid out across their surfaces.

To look at any one of these dazzling masterpieces (two of which have been loaned to the gallery by the Museum of Contemporary Art) is to be completely drawn into the animated drama that transpires between the lines (applied via palette knife) and the fields of unnaturally intense color (applied via feathery brush strokes).

Standing before "Crazy Otto" (1962), you get lost in the moment, trying to determine if its cobalt and royal blue lines are slightly different hues or only appear to be dissimilar because of their location on the painting's deep olive-green surface. Likewise, the two white lines in "Bowl of Cherries" (1962) seem to be playing hide-and-seek with you because they occasionally fade into the painting's subtly pink sunset of a background.

In either case, the rest of the gorgeously installed gallery (not to mention the rest of the world) falls away in the face of Irwin's paintings. Requiring a fairly high level of concentration and intensity of focus, his demanding art simultaneously promises an experience of the moment's fullness and gives it in an instant that seems a lot longer than that.

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* PaceWildenstein Gallery, 9540 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 205-5522, through Saturday.

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