If I curated a show of artwork by Robert Irwin, Yayoi Kusama and Maxwell Hendler I would call it Excessive Impulses of Visual Perception or Neurotic Meditations on Light and Space. The all-consuming compulsiveness of these three links them. And if I wanted you to consider the immersive results from their obsessive processes I would talk about the sensory affects of light and pattern. I would talk about edges, optics and notions of infinity.
When a wavelength of light is within the visible perception, individual hues are seen. Since our bodies require color (light) to be healthy it is no wonder the attraction is so strong. More people are diagnosed with depression that live in areas of less natural light than those who live in sunny regions. Ancient Egyptians used color to treat and heal the body by fracturing sunlight through portals in walls. When we are deprived a full spectrum, the cones in our eyes will reflect color this is not in front of our eyes, but within our brains as a way to balance the inadequacy. (I provide an example of this when I discuss Kusama’s work below.) Ultimately, these three artists offer up drinks for which we innately thirst.
Of course, they don’t do this in the same way. Start with Robert Irwin- His most recent work uses varying temperatures of florescent bulbs, dressed in color gels that play off one another and respond when a person’s movement alters the light in a room. For Irwin, light is both his medium and his object. In his installation titled Excurses: Homage to the Square3 at Dia:Beacon in Upstate New York (through May 2017), the light from his florescent tubes is diffused through scrims, like tempting ghosts. We find ourselves wanting to seek out, get closer, and taste the hum they shoot into our retinas. We wander through his meticulously made, translucent rooms passing silhouettes of other bodies also moving through the haze.
At first blush, Yayoi Kusama’s works appear busier with their obsessive patterns than Irwin’s, but in fact, the shape of a circle as it is repeated and minimized to polka-dots cancels out exterior shape. Step into Universal Order (Installation Centre Pompidou, Paris) and you’ll see a simplification through camouflaged edges so the overall space is reduced to a singular form. Within that form, the optics of each dot plays with our eyes causing visible vibrations. Blink and move your gaze to a blank area or keep your eyes closed and you will see the illusion of green, the compliment to Kusama’s most dominant palette of red on white. This is a phenomenon that occurs within our physiology as our bodies thirst for color balance.
With Irwin we are immersed in light and like a feather brushing across our skin, our senses are heightened. An awareness of self intensifies in relation to the illuminated change in surroundings. With Kusama we are immersed in pattern and “obliterated” through an “absoluteness of space”- words that Kusama has used to describe her work. In her Infinity Mirror Room, (Tate Modern, London 2012) we are reduced to becoming the particles from which her dots emerged. We are reduced, through infinite repetition, to nothingness.
“Nothing” is how some have interpreted Irwin’s rooms, as in having seen or experienced “nothing” when stepping into one of his extremely minimal site-conditioned installations because they simply didn’t slow down enough to pay attention. But for Irwin who studies the nuances of perception, “nothing” is everything. For Kusama, however, everything is nothing.
From here I look to the previous fifteen years of Maxwell Hendler’s two-dimensional panels of translucent color. His laborious process of sanding, buffing and polishing their resin surfaces to perfection provide a means by which light waves can penetrate, bounce around infinitely and splash into our faces in lapping waves of seduction. The assault is soft and mesmerizing and I feel I can stay for a long time, immersed in translucent color where sound is reduced to a gentle buzz. The elixir is everything I want.
How “nothingness” relates to Hendler is in how each resin painting is reduced to nothing but an isolated section of a whole color spectrum that is seemingly outside our typical perception- nothing but a single, saturated hue that could have plucked from the sun. And there in that isolation is where the perception of anything lies.
When Anne Truitt died in 2004 at 83 years of age, she left a thoughtful legacy through her visual artwork and writings. Her meticulously painted sculptures and three published memoirs reflect her sensitivity to life: Her desire to preserve it, its precariousness and; death: the inevitable.
Her painted, stacked blocks stand 5 to 7 feet high. Their proportions naturally relate with the human body. Truitt said she wasn’t interested in a narrative and couldn’t solve the problem of time. In a documentary by filmmaker Jem Cohen she spoke about time as having the ability to simply go around a sculpture.*
Truitt’s human scaled columns that she felt embodied the possibility to repel time, are, none-the-less, still infused with time. Perceptions that accompany me as a viewer, feed into this. It is as if I said, “Do not think of an elephant.” So of course an elephant comes to mind. Truitt’s color is clean and almost translucent, a result of the conscientious layering involved with her process and I can’t help but think of the involvement of time. Her hand-treated surfaces are slick and polished. The impression is one of human perfection, something we want to reach but is unattainable, except perhaps in flashes of moments that tease. Bands of color fields coat the blocks on which they are painted with a deductive simplification that wrap these monuments horizontally or vertically, an act to protect what is beneath from the ravishes (or problems) of time. For me, the sculptures are an attempt to encase and preserve what is ultimately ephemeral.
This leads me to consider the work of Christo, where he physically wrapped objects with cloth and string, a ritual that references shrouding death and decay. An ending. I am blatantly pushed to consider what might be beneath the wrapping and conscious of this consideration. With Truitt such a reflection is more visceral. In monumental scale, Christo’s wrappings establish a sense of dislocation. In the more intimately sized objects, like his wrapped handcarts, I consider the breakdown of my own body due of the shared size relation and skewed or partial recognition of the object underneath. Where Truitt speaks of preserving timeless perfection, Christo speaks of that perfection having an ending.
The work of Jasper Johns combines Truitt’s columns and Christo’s wrapped configurations. It is through the process of layering wax, a time consuming application, that the encaustic surfaces of his paintings also reference the duration of time. Reading death into his Target with Four Faces (1985) is not a long shot (nor a pun intended.) The eyes and chins of the four faces, stacked horizontally, are covered suggesting there is more beneath the surface. Each figure is compartmentalized while the entire contents of the work are boxed in as if to be preserved and saved or buried in wax and casket. All is stopped, as if frozen in time. The iconic target that is not actual but a referential painted sign, becomes an imagined cloak and I can visualize it tucked into the edges, like a blanket, wrapping around the back of what we cannot see.
Robert Morris said that Jasper Johns took the background out of painting and isolated the thing. He went on to say that the wall became the background. This circles me back to Truitt, whose objects (or things) stand or hover in space where the surrounding wall is distant background. But not only the wall, also the human body (me and you), space and all moments of time pulse around Truitt’s sculptures protecting whatever is embodied within.
*Matthew Mark’s Gallery-
Jem Cohen's 20-minute documentary Anne Truitt: Working, which was shown at the Hirschhorn Museum's 2009 survey of Truitt's work, will appear on the DVD of Museum Hours, Cohen's award-winning feature film. Anne Truitt: Working consists of an interview with the artist and 16 mm footage made in and around her studio at Yaddo artist colony, as well as footage from her studio in Washington, D.C. Cohen says, “I was honored to know Anne Truitt, and doubly so when she allowed me to make a short record of her presence and thoughts. I felt as if she opened her hand and showed, in a profound but down-to-earth way, the compass by which she navigated