Robert Irwin, Scrim Veil-Black Rectangle-Natural Light,
Whitney Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977
Among New York's art cognoscenti, the Summer of 2013 will be remembered as the "Summer of Space and Light" thanks to two exceptional exhibitions: Robert Irwin, Scrim Veil-Black Rectangle-Natural Light, Whitney Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977 at the Whitney Museum (closing on September 1) and James Turrell at the Guggenheim Museum (closing on September 25). Although these artists were born 15 years apart (Irwin in 1928; Turrell in 1943), both responded to the visceral presentness of Abstract Expressionist by rejecting its materiality and choosing instead its ephemeral ingredients: real space and pure light.
Their work (along with Richard Serra's, Michael Heizer's and Michael Asher's) belongs to an ill-defined overlap of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, wherein the simplicity of form interacts with the viewers' self-awareness in the presence of the artist's decisions. Space, scale and light play principal roles, rather than the flat canvas, the carved stone or the welded metal object. And yet, Irwin and Turrell are sculptors, shaping a specific environment through directing the source of light and the reception of light. Briefly stated: they are the Illuminators of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, bringing intellectual and spiritual enlightenment to a population of overstimulated, sentient creatures.
Irwin's Black Veil rewards a physical visit to the Whitney Museum's 5th Floor by confusing and surprising our visual perceptions as soon as we exit from the elevator or stairs. It takes a moment to grasp what is there and what may be an illusion. This disorientation is part of the thrill, which no photographs or videos can convey - not even close. The fact that a virtual encounter cannot achieve the real intent of the artist delights me. For it re-enforces the main objective of today's gallery or museum: being there and not here - online.
To learn more about Irwin's work, please view this short video:
And read the digital catalog, a reprint of the original 1977 catalog with an new introduction by Chief Curator and Deputy Director of Programs, Donna De Salvo.
(Stay tuned for another post on James Turrell in September.)
"The Unicorn in Captivity," from The Hunt for the Unicorn tapestries, c. 1495-1500
The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art
A Gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., 1937
I am running to Washington Heights this afternoon to see The Cloisters' charming exhibition In Search of the Unicorn for the last time. This small collection of art and artifacts which depict a beloved mythical creature deserves another unhurried visit before we must say adieu (not to the tapestries but the installation).
I love The Cloisters: compact and serene. A few hours yield plenty to consider and yet the search never feels completely exhausted. Plus the whole setting (museum and grounds) provides a mini-vacation from the 21st century just a few blocks from the 190th Street subway station (A train) or at the northern terminus of the M4 bus. Time-travel on the NYC transit system - or in your own car (there is convenient parking right in front of the entrance) - was never as easy or inexpensive.
In Search of the Unicorn celebrates the 75th anniversary of The Cloisters' existence. Based on a collection of assorted cloister architecture which the sculptor George Grey Barnard (1863-1938) brought from France to New York in 1914, the museum (it is not a replica of a medieval monastery as is often mistakenly believed) opened it doors in 1938 with some additions from its mother museum, the Met, and its benefactor John D. Rockefeller Jr., who shepherded the project from start to finish. Among the Rockefeller Bequest were the precious Unicorn Tapestries which had been purchased from Count Gabriel de la Rochefoucauld whose family owned the works as far back as 1680 (according to their inventory) and perhaps even longer. The tapestries were probably made in Brussels around 1500, as the abundance of flowers throughout seems to be an excellent example of Belgian mille fleurs design and the figures wear fashions contemporary with that date.
The Metropolitan Museum created an impressive online exhibition to accompany the show. There you will find the history of unicorns in literature, the story that unites the Unicorn tapestries and the tale of their acquisition. So even if you cannot rush out to The Cloisters on August 18th, you can learn a good deal about the tapestries and the museum right now - or later.
Forgive me for not urging you to visit this exquisite exhibition sooner. Who knew the Met would close a summer show in the middle of August! Labor Day must be just around the corner (17 more days to be exact).