The Big Daddy Of Light And Space

In art, Los Angeles is america's second city. Until the '60's, it had only one real museum (with modern art and dinosaur bones under the same roof), a few old movie stars who collected impressionism, and some second-rate expressionist painters. Then, suddenly, southern California's beach sunshine, car culture and showbiz savvy produced an art style--part pop sensibility and part aerospace neatness--that was known as the L.A. look. At the far edge of the look lay "fight and space art," and its Big Daddy (as the car customizers might have dubbed him) was Robert Irwin. He's the subject of an exhilarating, small retrospective at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art (through Aug. 15, then traveling to New York, Cologne, Paris and Madrid).

Irwin was a hot-rod guy who entered art school in the late '40s after he got out of the army. He made a beeline for abstract expressionism, and squeezed it into small, lovingly framed paintings you could hold in your lap. Then, starting in 1962, he calmed all showy gestures into six-foot-square monochrome canvases with horizontal bars of color, all done with intense Zen concentration. But Irwin, a voracious autodidact who's always hung out with scientists as much as artists, was bothered by what he considered the great unanswered question of modernism: what counts more, the art object or perceptual experience?

To start answering that, he made convex white paintings that were covered with tiny pink and blue-green dots so small that, seen from 10 feet away, the pictures appeared to be nothing but faintly colored gas. (Two of them were shown at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1965 and were almost immediately defaced by the crowd.) The dot paintings led to sprayed aluminum discs, five feet across, that jutted out from the wall and seemed to hover immaterially before the viewer. At the very moment when minimalists in New York were crowing about having reduced art to such "primary structures" as welded steel cubes, Irwin had virtually vaporized the art object itself.

Now almost 65 and about to become a father for the first time (with his second wife, Adele), Irwin is a trim, happy man who looks like Edd (Kockie) Byrnes matured as a Star Trek Vulcan. When he talks-which is practically always-his blue eyes shimmer with the wisdom of a Hollywood hipster who's seen the light of self-effacement. "All the work up to, say, 1969, is fairly manageable," he says. "You can put it in a box and take it someplace and light it. From then on, what you've got are some photographs and a couple of drawings. That's pretty thin evidence to cover 20 years." That's because during those two decades, Irwin's work consisted largely of articulating empty rooms with walls made of taut white nylon scrim whose gauzy sensations celebrated the visual electricity of, well, just plain space.

Since almost all of the scrim pieces were built to be ephemeral, Irwin has to put himself back in a 1970s mood and do a retrooriginal scrim piece for each stop of his retrospective. Imagine Frank Sinatra today, slicking his hair and getting up in front of a big band with a Mixmaster mike, to croon a just-written swing tune. At MoCA, he reprises "Slant Light Volume" (1971), originally installed at Minneapolis's Walker Art Center. The V-sectioned translucent wall bisects a huge gallery of earlier bar room is one of the most metaphysically joyful things ever in an American museum.

Irwin's art has recently taken a turn back to emphatic materialism: not to painting, but to quasi-architectural public art. Some of it--a downtown Seattle corner gridded with chain-link fence and planted with trees--has been built. But most of it, like a vast landscaping project for the Miami airport, hasn't been. Irwin, as usual, enjoys the apparent contradiction in his current work: "I [always] thought the nonobjective was going to translate into nonobject. At the point where I got to zero, I got fooled. The thing turned around and became its exact opposite." In other words, Irwin the space manipulator needs more material than Irwin the painter ever did. Where might his now hardware-heavy art go next? He smiles. "There's a time and place when the cannon on the lawn is the right thing." And a time when the second city gets to be first.