SAN DIEGO — Lots of artists extend established traditions in their work, adding to what came before. Some artists overturn them. A few begin new ones, starting from scratch.
Then there's the rarest artist of all -- the one who manages to extend, overturn and radically innovate simultaneously. These are artists who set the culture on its ear. Their art conjures previously unsuspected possibilities, energizing other artists by changing art's terms.
Robert Irwin is such an artist. Light and Space, the sensual art of perceptual discovery he pioneered in the 1960s, is now synonymous with Los Angeles' emergence over the last half-century as a distinctive cultural powerhouse. With human perception as his inexhaustible subject, Irwin is, at 79, an eminence of postwar American art.
Now he is the subject of an eloquent, tightly focused and sometimes startlingly beautiful career survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. (It's the first since his 1993 retrospective in Los Angeles.) The show occupies both buildings of the museum's downtown outpost. Nearly two-thirds of the works are from the museum's permanent collection or they're promised gifts; that's an extraordinary, enviable institutional commitment to a major artist.
One building houses 16 works that together trace Irwin's development since 1959. It begins with brushy, gestural abstract paintings and concludes with a new, room-size installation made from stretched fabric scrim.
In between is the most gorgeous installation I've yet seen of a classic 1969 Irwin disk. A horizontal stripe of dark acrylic lacquer is spray-painted at eye level across the center of a roughly 4-foot circle of clear acrylic, which stands away from the wall on a post. It's illuminated only by natural light from an overhead skylight, reflected and diffused off a bright white wall in the light well. The disk virtually disappears.
What remains in full view is an inexplicable stripe of horizontal darkness, opening in space before your puzzled eyes. This wide, shadowy line inscrutably appears to recede into a deep void at the center. In reality, the convex curve of the disk means that the dark line is projected at you, but visually it seems to withdraw into infinity.
Irwin's disks always make me think of the famous scene in Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's short 1929 film, "An Andalusian Dog," in which a straight razor slices across a woman's eyeball just as a thin cloud passes before a full moon. (Coincidentally, the movie is included at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the current exhibition "Dali: Painting and Film.") The difference is that Irwin's work is not an illustration, and the grim violence and dread of that cinematic bad dream is absent here.
Instead, when Irwin tears a gash in the fabric of perceptual space, it resonates with the perfect exhilaration of Emerson's "transparent eyeball." You plunge into bracing currents of hyper-acuity.
Irwin's public projects
The other building compiles 20 drawings, photo-collages and plans for public projects at airports, parks and other sites in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas -- none of them realized. Hence, such celebrated works as Irwin's magnificent 1997 Getty Center garden are not included.
Also here are three new large-scale installations made especially for the survey, and one offers a surprising twist on Irwin's previous work. Arguably the show's best piece -- no mean feat, given the high level of quality overall -- it suggests that we have much more left to see from this robust artist.
This installation, fittingly titled "Light and Space," is composed of scores of colorless fluorescent lights, arrayed across a very large wall in an otherwise unlighted room. Steel structural braces that hold up the ceiling high overhead seem the obvious source for the work's composition: 2- and 4-foot lights, set at 45-degree angles.
No immediately discernible rhyme or reason guides the pattern, however. The placement of lights, the arrangement of different lengths and the considered interplay of light and shadow all appear intuitive -- not capricious, but playfully attuned. The effect is spellbinding.
The syncopation provides visual interest. The composition yields a smooth, even illumination, which takes into account natural light variations in the room's large volume of space. And the experience recalls encountering stained glass windows in a Gothic church -- Sainte-Chapelle, say, or Chartres -- but without the slightest trace of grandiosity or intimation of supernatural spirit. This is a wholly modern secular chapel, erected to exalt perception as the experiential creator of our universe.