Robert Irwin, Varese Scrim, 1973 (Panza Collection)

My first encounter with Irwin’s work was in 1973 or 74 when he installed a scrim piece in a stairwell at the Fort Worth Modern Museum. The piece occupied one wall adjacent to the stairs, maybe 10 feet wide and 20 feet high, making a translucent ghost wall that was about 12 inches inside the actual wall. The effect of this piece was startling, and yes, in many ways life changing. It was my first realization of the possibility of an artwork that was not an object but a situation -- an experiential condition – something like a hallucinatory event. Of course hundreds of people walked right past the piece and didn’t even notice it. But once noticed, then truly experienced, it caused a kind of floating displacement that required a re-orientation of one’s position in space, and by doing so, called attention to the contingent nature of all perception.

One of the hallmarks of a classic hallucinogenic experience is a flood of revelatory perception accompanied by an almost total inability to articulate the specifics of those revelations. Language suddenly becomes cumbersome and overly complicated, but also completely lacking sufficient nuance or clarity to reflect the wholeness of the experience. It is the breaking down of the filtering process of language that makes such an experience possible, suggesting that “pure” experience, insofar as that is possible, resides somewhere beyond such sequential constructs.

To me, this is Irwin’s great and continuing contribution, finding ways to remove art from its connection to critical discourse or from language in general, and situating it in the realm of pure experience. I can’t think of another artist who has dealt with actual space, perception and the nature of aesthetic experience as deeply, consistently and clearly. What his work seems to require and invoke is a total suspension of the incessant linearity of reason -- a surrender to the presence of pure sensation.