Some thoughts on Irwin's "Whose Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue3"


As I mentioned in the prior post, something I found noteworthy in viewing Dorsky’s films was the heightening of the sense of perception, awareness and attentiveness, and how that persisted beyond the darkness of the theater. It put me in mind of what occurred during and after seeing Robert Irwin’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue3 at Pace in New York on a nasty February day in 2007.

The complex visual qualities of that work were manifold and have been well documented elsewhere (here and here, for example). One quality that was less analyzed was one’s attention to others in the gallery, and how the viewing was actually better and more engaging when there were other people in the room.

It began as one registered the range of behaviors of other visitors, a commonplace for looking at art in public. A fellow in a windbreaker, still shivering from the chill and shock of the almost horizontal winter rain, eyes adjusting, not yet able to focus on that which he came to see, ambled idly around the perimeter, just beginning to size up the thing that will either provoke a sophisticated sensory experience or a brisk withdrawal, the pointless drenching to be recounted to colleagues in exasperated tones later over a restorative bourbon, perhaps. Conversations, as a pair orbits the gallery together and compares observations. A blithely executed 180 degree spin and exit.

Then, as one stared down (or up) into the highly reflective rectangles, the specters of the other viewers entered the tinted fields and became part of the artwork; their movements enlivened the static world of the mirroring panels. Despite being just across from you, the illusions of these persons was magnetic enough to draw you into a compelling counter-reality. They strolled through glassy chambers that appeared to be more than 20 feet below the level of the floor, while their perfectly audible comments seemed incommensurate with the visual distortion.

Disjunctions such as this sharpened one’s attention. The other viewers’ presence added an extra dimension to the--already dense--experience of the work, a dimension unavailable to a lone viewer. They spurred and expanded one’s own perceptual and interpretive apprehension as they pursued their own. This dynamic in an artwork is rare if not unique.

The enhanced attentiveness that occurred with Red, Yellow and Blue3 was duplicated while watching Dorsky’s films. I recall how disappointed I felt if my mind wandered, how I felt that I was cheating myself, partly for not being in the now, and partly for missing a spectacular shot. The acuity cultivated in the experience of these artworks carries over into the street, onto the bus and into other activities and thoughts.

Well, so what?

Well, from an artistic point of view works like this operate as a kind of gift, one that brings us back to ourselves, into the moment and not elsewhere, abjuring monophonic message, and turning the art experience over to us. This is not common. It is a result, self-consciously in Irwin’s case, at least, of focusing on keeping the viewer participating and active. This initiative begins to take apart the notion of “content” in art. This is a notion that can cause a lot of confusion, even in cases where its possibility may be explicitly repudiated.

From a personal point of view, these works tacitly ask questions about how one conducts one’s life, both in the macro and micro view, which always carries the possibility of inciting pretty lively meditation and dialogue.