Light and Space in NYC

Karen Kedmey
Aug 18, 2013 7:22PM

The Californians are in New York this summer, with James Turrell at the Guggenheim and Robert Irwin at the Whitney, bringing light and space to a city where both are hard to come by.

I recently visited Irwin's Scrim veil--Black rectangle--Natural light, a site-specific work, originally installed on the Whitney's fourth floor in 1977, and now exactly re-created. Irwin capitalized on the museum's beautiful Brutalist architecture in composing this work, comprised of exactly what its title describes. The white scrim, which bisects the room and hangs suspended from the ceiling, is invisible at first. It evaporates when looked at straight-on. All that remains is its distinct, black lower edge, appearing as a bold line drawn in space, continuing out from the matching lines tracing the gallery walls. From the moment a visitor enters the room, then, rectangles begin to compile and overlap: the slate floor; the black lines; the vapor-like scrim, visible only at an angle; the concrete ceiling; and the gallery space itself, out of which they are cut, and which contains them all.

The work's centerpiece, the source of its "natural light," is the gallery's window, simply as it is: oversized, trapezoidal, jutting out into the urban air like a blocky jewel and seeming to suck in its views. It is also surprisingly elastic--it can recede, but it can also command, which Irwin gives it ample space to do.

As a Whitney-goer who loves its building as much as its art, I was grateful for this exquisite and subtle installation, in which Irwin draws out the immateriality and airiness in such a solidly-built space. It was an experience of the building stripped to its essence, seen in all of its naked severity, punctuated with light and, since the scrim hangs low and the installation is photogenic, the guards' repeated admonishments: "Watch your head. No touching. No flash."

Karen Kedmey