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Robert Irwin's "Excursus" at Dia 

click to enlarge Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York - PHILIPP SCHOLZ RITTERMANN.
  • Philipp Scholz Rittermann.
  • Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York

"There is no beginning, middle, or end. There's no one point of entry," observes Kelly Kivland, associate curator at the Dia Art Foundation, describing Excursus: Homage to the Square³ by Robert Irwin. The installation opened at Dia: Beacon on June 1.

Excursus consists of 16 equal-sized rooms, connected by doorways. All the walls are made of fabric: a tightly woven, nearly sheer material Irwin discovered on a trip to Amsterdam in 1970. (In Holland it's used for curtains.) The rooms are open at the top, with no special flooring.

"Homage to the Square" was a series of influential paintings by Josef Albers (1888-1976) which examined the effects of color on a viewer. Excursus also manipulates color. In the middle of each "wall" is a sculpture made of two fluorescent lights wrapped in color gels—plastic sheets used to tint theatrical lighting. The color combinations are jarring, eccentric. They challenge you to decide if the colors "clash." (Can colors actually "clash"?) Many of the sculptures remind me of patterns on African dashikis.

Robert Irwin, who is 86, was the first visual artist to receive a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called "genius grant"), in 1984. He began as a painter in the 1940s, but gradually moved on to installation, and later landscaping. In fact, he designed the grounds of Dia: Beacon, as well as its main entrance and many of the windows.

Excursus is not really a maze; you can't get lost in it. There's no word for such a structure in English, though one possibility is "sedeci-locus" (Latin for "16 rooms"). Walking through this series of screens, one is just slightly disoriented. There's some of the anxiety of a child in a supermarket whose mother has walked into another aisle and who suddenly fears she is lost forever. (Am I the only person this ever happened to?) Excursus brings up such buried memories. Entering it is like seeing a high-priced psychoanalyst.

In such an exact geometrical structure, one notices the imperfections: small striations in the gels, how the staples attaching the scrim to the wooden supports are not perfectly aligned. (Irwin could have covered the staples, of course, but chose to leave them visible, evidence of the human touch in the assemblage.)

We expect walls to be solid, to block out the visual information in the next room, but these walls do not; they allow a gentle voyeurism. On the scrims are the shadowy forms of strangers. This art requires human trust. I can imagine a Hollywood movie in which a mad killer chases an innocent woman through this installation. You find yourself playing peekaboo with your fellow patrons—and also with friends, if you take separate pathways through the rooms. "The people moving through Excursus are very much a part of the work; the absence and presence of bodies moving becomes almost a completion of the work," remarks Kivland.

Though this show will be up for two years, it opened in June and has a summery feel. This is the season when we go camping and see the outside world as shadows and translucencies on the walls of our tents. In summertime women wear white cotton, just like the sedeci-locus.

Notes Toward a Conditional Art collects Irwin's essays, lettersm and notations on his artistic theories. If you visit Dia: Beacon, you may wish to study this book in the museum store—or see the show "blind," without explication. An excursus is a detailed investigation, usually in a book's appendix. Maybe this show explains itself?

Robert Irwin's Excursus: Homage to the Square³ will be on view at Dia: Beacon until 2017. (845) 440-0100; Diaart.org.

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  • Robert Irwin's Excursus: Homage to the Square³ will be on view at Dia: Beacon until 2017

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