In 1966, Robert Irwin moved on to a new format, spraying acrylic paint on convex aluminum discs. By 1969, when Alan Solomon came to his Venice Beach studio to conduct the interview, Irwin was bringing to completion a second and last set of spray-painted discs, now cast in plastic. Irwin mounted each disc on a metal tube and illuminated it with four evenly distributed spot lights, which created a cloverleaf pattern of shadows on the wall. In the interview below Irwin explains the genesis of these works.
These particular pieces that I’ve been doing are directly related to the pieces that preceded them, like the metal ones. The metal ones were directly related to the curved ones and so on and so forth. It’s been the same problem all along and it never changed. It’s been the same pushing of a certain esthetic and the key to that, the primary key, is getting the things to actually function in terms of their physicality. Every object, everything, has two levels of being. It has its imagery and how we read it, and it has what it actually is physically. So to play the game of non-objective thinking out. What you’ve really done is a step-by-step historical breakdown to remove the idea of the duality of imagery as the main thought dependence and when you get that all the way down to what we have called non-objective, the next step is to begin to deal with this physicality as such, and it is high time [we] began to consider the possibilities of this restructuring of our thought dependence. I would say the dot paintings came closest to being misinterpreted. They were sort of at point zero. Imagery was down just about to nothing, although they still worked within a near formal format, like a rectangular plane.They had a nice, very subtle physicality about them.
You know, getting your head to be able to do something like that is really the hard part. The pieces are a natural result of this more difficult process and for you to understand the implication, the same kind of complete change is necessary, it cannot be assimilated by your present structuring of information. I’m a part of the imagery-thinking just as much as anyone else – or was. And the idea of painting a painting or making something that was not existing as an object, or as a painting, or had any kind of a symbol quality about it, or function on any level, is really hard. That the assertion that my work involved “less is more” is a total error (which a lot of people tried to say I was doing). The “less” was in trying to remove that idea image so that you could get hold of the thing purely on the physical level, trying to get it to read that way. Our habits are so strong to read image into almost anything – to Rorschach anything to identify something, by relating it to something they now know. The question, “What is it?” is a literally structured question to grab hold of it by this handle of duality.
So the dot ones had a certain physicality about them that was very, very slight but was as strong as I could get at the time and still kill the occupying sense of image. Hence, the false sense of less.
What about the disc things – your early disc things?
Well, that’s what I’m starting to discuss. The question finally – when I finished on that – is that they really did function. The dots actually created their own space and actually moved off the canvas, in a sense, [and were] perceived physically. If you’ve ever seen one in half-process, it’s very dramatic to see what happens when you release the edge. In other words, I built the dots out in... like all, say, red dots getting stronger and then getting lighter, lighter, lighter, lighter, and then I put opposites in there – green. At a certain point, the thing was laid out – worked out – in squares even though it didn’t end up that way. And it would get out to a big square of red and a small square of green, which was similar to an [Josef] Albers, except that it worked a lot better in a physical sense, not better in the sense of what Albers intended, but as a tool. The thing that Albers wanted was that overlay interaction of color, so that a third, fourth and fifth color would be created by the action and interaction of those colors; having the space surround each one of the dots gave it much more chance to accomplish this action because of that white area in which the extra color could exist much more quickly. The thing would get out and had a good space to it, I mean it did a sort of Albers idea of space, a little bit more maybe, because you have more freedom in the thing. It wasn’t as tied to the surface, which by the way, is key to an interesting color space, which I’ll go into later, remind me of it. Another whole idea about color. But then, when I would start feathering out the dots, I’d get one corner feathered out and then the other corner, and the difference is that the whole thing would just take off in a new sense of space. The final things were really subtle so that you never really got preoccupied with that kind of drama, you read the final works in a different way, but when you saw this contrast, comparison, in process, it really was very dramatic. Now, the thing did work, but it still existed in a pictorial framework, in other words, the idea of existing within certain basic accepted limitations still remained, which is really very inconsistent. So the question was, “How do I destroy the limitation that we’ve used since Heaven knows when, how do you really get us out?” Many painters confronted by this limitation turned to sculpture, and many artists turned away from this challenge, by pretending the changes of modern art were never intended to go this far. The reason for [getting] off the wall, was to create that curve and a real space for the illusionary space to occupy. So I started out making the projected metal ones.The idea of the circle – which is incredibly obvious – I backed into structurally. A compound curve will hold a shallow curve and a square will not. The key to that whole thing was to destroy the edge. And the key to destroying the edge of course, at this point, was to get the shadow as such to marry with it, so that it no longer existed as a rigid confinement. If you play this game of physicality non- image, if you create a visual physical space, that has a seen volume to it, and if your mind no longer stopped at the ends with its literate preconditioning, the space exists, [and is] occupied by a visual sense of matter. Example: I can’t sit in that chair because you’re already sitting there. This is a physical law that parallels the correctness necessary for a sense of order in a physical space. This sense of space is more real and understandable than a literate sequential imagined space. The paintings are carefully worked out in terms of this idea of order. There no longer exists the historical hierarchy of beginning and end, but rather a series of positives linked physically to infinity. This idea of space corresponds with what we now know to be the physical make up of our universe. And all painting with confinement is incorrect in its naiveté. To sensually deal with the presence of this work, it was necessary, of course, to consider the space they occupied, because in our minds we had isolated the world to a box situation and we could pretend that things outside didn’t exist, but once that ceases, all this outside starts to happen. The four shadow circles are part and parcel of the space and the wall etc.
You have, in the metal discs, the re-introduction of stronger and stronger elements, as opposed to the dots; and as you get stronger elements, it is possible to take that element and play imagery, even though I’ve already made the crossover but for someone who still thinks in those terms – as they get stronger, although they’re getting stronger in my terms, this person can still play his retarded image games with them. I mean, he can pull them back and deal with them on that level. In the new plastic works, the area actually has good spatial properties to it. These must really work to avoid the reading of them as circles with a bar painted on. A way of explaining the physicality of the center’s presence: imagine I stick my arm in the air, how much resistance do I meet? Now pretend I stick my arm into water or into cotton, or stick my arm into sand. Forgetting the words “sand, water etc.” what we have is an actual sensing of a different physical density, that has nothing to do with subject matter at all, but as a real physicality it means that matter exists with the different qualities of density and weight and so on and this physicality is read visually as the real, instead of the pictorial idea of real. The key to the order of that center area is to get the middle to have the right kind of density. In the plastic (since destroyed) they were too hollow, and in the earlier ones the bar also sat on the surface. No matter how many other things it did, it still existed first in the terms of imagery. In other words, its physicality did not supersede its ability to draw pictures in the situation. So what I have to do in each case, with every piece of image I get, I’ve got to develop a very powerful physical presence that can justify what image I still have. Because, as I stated before, everything does exist on both levels. Even when you first looked at a work’s imagery, you still had the physicality dealt with as secondary in the hierarchy of importance in literal thought. The difference is, now you have the physicality with changed order of importance, or sense of real.
I’m curious about the order of the floor lights, the four shadows – did you fool around with them?
Yes, of course, one of my work habits, which is one of the reasons it takes me so long to do things, is that in functioning very much on an intuitive level, I don’t try to guess. Anything that even looks like it may possibly work is tried and looked at with patience. In this plastic series, I shaped the first one about three years ago... and I got the first one really shaped right about two years ago. I really went to work on them about a year and a half ago. I’d say about six months ago I really pinned down the format you’re now looking at.Then about two months ago they got so much better, I threw all the early ones away and re- did them, and then repeated the process repeatedly since. They’ve all been done time and time again. The line was all the way from that wide to this wide, different variations trying to see thinner, thicker, and so on and so forth. There was color around the outside edge, the line did a thing in which it squeezed the middle slightly, then it relieved the middle slightly. At one point there was strong color on the outside edge, etc. Then, of course, with the lights – this has been going all the way back. I’ve been doing it with every series. I’ve been wanting to do a light piece for a long time, in fact I owned my own laser beam as long ago as well over a year ago, and had it here almost six months, and I’ve had all kinds of projectors and so on and so forth, and I’ve tried them. And I’ve been wanting to do a light piece, but so far the problem is that it’s too much what it is, it’s too self-identifying. The medium is a beautiful medium but so far I haven’t been able to release it from the presence of the light bulb.
So I played with the light patterns and they work. Like this thing almost starts to work now with just two lights – the lights above and no bottom lights. It is possible to move the lights in all different kinds of angles and every time you get some patterns which in a way are more interesting; in fact, I can get a more interesting arrangement, but the problem is that it’s just the reverse of what I want because if you start getting more interesting, what the eye does is start to play a game of “How interesting” or “How beautiful,” which is how all of them start. They all start much more interesting and much more beautiful than what they end up, and I mean beautiful in the sense of ingratiating. Which is another point I should make as long as I’m at this point.
Time is a very strong element in the viewing of the work, and one of the reasons why I don’t show them, why I wait a period of time to look at them myself. Because the things that first give me pleasure, the things that first attract me, the things that first in a sense demand of me in a way – I find that in my own mind, if I wait a period of time, those things often times, most times, become self-identifying. They start saying “Look how cute I am,” or “Look how pretty I am,” or something and they don’t have the ability to really span time and suspend you in the manner of my concern.
One of the things I like about each one of the last four series of paintings I’ve done, is that if you spend six hours with them or sixty hours with them, they get better with the extended time. They improve in the sense that what they’re really about sorts itself out. This question of time is not separate, it is close to the purpose of the work. Let me discuss time as part of the language of imagery.The strength of imagery as a language is its ability to compress time into action, to give you information immediately, with terrific impact, relieved of the unnecessary, in terms of the action. In other words, I give you a symbol, and with one symbol I can bring up hundreds of years of history or a fast-related reconstruction. Imagery as a form has that ability, the ability to immediately lock on to, add up, and relate it to the experience at hand. This is the strength of the thought form, its expediency and task orientation. The opposite, sensate awareness, is a much slower process and it takes extended time. You need the time and not to be distracted to allow yourself to zero in to the oneness of your present experience. This is the reason I try to hang my shows as dull as possible in the popular consensus of the word. What I try to do in terms of the word “dull,” the act of cleaning the space, is to give you a chance (if you want to) to stand there and really become very intimately, very personally involved with this experience, relieved of distraction. Let me add that the literal abstract idea of time has the capability to collectivize by organizing us all to the same abstract point in time and is task oriented. The sense of time I’m suggesting for my work has the ability to fragmentize our society, placing each person in his own sense of time.