Robert Irwin: Ocean Park, 1960–61, oil on canvas, 65½ by 65⅛ inches; at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

In 1970, Robert Irwin gave up his studio and sold his art supplies. The midcareer painter and sculptor “simply stopped being an artist in those senses,” as he told Lawrence Weschler for the classic biography Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. Irwin’s renunciation of objects was painful—“it was the loss of a way of thinking.” But in the late 1960s, it became clear to him that what mattered most were conditions, not objects, and he committed himself solely to making works centered on the light, space, and other qualities of their sites. 

Irwin’s renunciation is legendary among artists, particularly in the West, the landscape of which shaped his convictions. Just as Tony Smith was inspired by driving the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike, Irwin had an artistic turning point while wandering the Mojave Desert, drawn to its “quality of phenomena” and its lack of “identifications or connotations.” To produce an art of this experience, he realized, he could create temporary installations of translucent white scrims, which would make an exhibition space unfamiliar, thereby drawing attention to the phenomena within it and facilitating “extended subjective perception.” Irwin installed his first scrim, a horizontal partition called Fractured Light—Partial Scrim Ceiling—Eye-Level Wire, in a small gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, and has made temporary scrims ever since.

While these ephemeral, site-specific installations cannot themselves be the subject of a museum retrospective, Irwin’s interest in the conditional can be seen to an extent in the lasting objects he made before 1970. At the Hirshhorn, Evelyn Hankins curated an elegant and concise selection of these works. The earliest were “handheld paintings” (displayed horizontally in vitrines) from the late 1950s: intimate, intense abstractions, atmospheric despite their compressed space. Wide wood frames surround the thickly textured compositions. It’s delightful to imagine grasping these works, reorienting them, moving to change the light.

In the early 1960s, Irwin painted larger works meant for the wall—first, the “pick-up sticks” series, in which loose, colorful lines hover on fields of ocher, brown, and peach. Moving on from such gestural, spontaneous-seeming lines, he began making precise horizontal stripes across hazy gray, gold, and rose fields, often evocative of sky, in his controlled “line paintings.” Two “dot paintings” (1963–65) in the show seemed blank at a distance. At midrange, one perceived an ambiguous area of color that appeared to hover at the center of each canvas. Up close, the illusion was revealed: the apparently floating field of color was actually a concentration of dots painted on a convex bulge in the canvas. A fine-tuning of the viewer’s perceptual awareness is the point of these various works, and by the later 1960s Irwin phased painting out in favor of light itself, making translucent acrylic columns for it to pass through and reflective, shadow-casting acrylic and aluminum discs. 

Although focusing on Irwin’s early object-based practice, the show offered one new scrim installation, Square the Circle—a long piece of the translucent material spanning one end of the circular gallery space, giving the Hirshhorn’s doughnut-shaped Brutalist building a straight interior facet. Unlike Irwin’s scrims currently on view at Dia:Beacon, which form a mazelike installation filled with natural light, his intervention in the Hirshhorn had the effect of closing off the architecture. 

Irwin’s scrims are blank, almost spectral interventions, yet they transform the character of the spaces they divide. They erase, redirect, and obfuscate, allowing us to see our museums and their operations anew. Further, as with Square the Circle—exhibited at a branch of the Smithsonian Institution, on the National Mall, at a moment of deeply fractured public life in which walls are proposed as political borders—such works can speak not only to the conditions of their exhibition sites but also to a broader social environment.