The Sublime Is Hard to See On Your Phone: Agnes Martin and Seven Other Artists Whose Work Must Be Experienced IRL
The case for art that is profoundly irreproducible and un-Instagrammable in the internet age.
Right now, there is a room at the foot of the rotunda at the Guggenheim that, as you enter it from the ramp leading up the museum, appears to be hung with a dozen blank square canvases. It’s only upon entering the space that the subtleties distinguishing the paintings begin to emerge — blue, penciled lines and other muted marks that, as near-imperceptible as they appear to be, have made the exhibition in question, “Agnes Martin,” one of the institution’s most raved about shows in recent memory.
That the exhibition, which encompasses over 100 paintings by the late New Mexico-based artist, has found not only rapturous reviews — Holland Cotter of the New York Times called it “the most out-of-this-world-beautiful retrospective I’ve seen in this space in years” — but also noteworthy attendance numbers have made it something of an exception. As sublime as Martin’s works may be, they’re of the sort that can quite easily be swept under the rug in today’s social media-dominated landscape. The magic of Martin’s canvases — their scale and imperfections, the experience of climbing the rotunda to step through her career, the light that climb shines on her struggle with schizophrenia — is next to impossible to capture in official installation imagery, let alone on an iPhone. In the Instagram age, work of an irreproducible nature can mean work that goes missing in the public eye.
Fortunately, word has gotten around about the Martin retrospective, which is up until January. Here are seven other major artists with work currently on display that really can — and should — only be experienced in person, from Robert Irwin’s outdoor installation in Marfa to James Turrell’s newly reopened Skyspace at MoMA PS1. Make sure to get there before they disappear.
The California artist Robert Irwin has produced a steady stream of ambitious installations since the 70’s, but “Untitled (dawn to dusk)” at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, marks his latest, largest, and first-ever permanent installation at the ripe age of 88. Irwin worked for 17 years to transform the site — a long-abandoned army hospital encompassing 10,000 square feet of land — into a structure of his own devising: a complex open to the outdoors, with rectangular cut-outs that serve as extra-tall windows. Those, Irwin has said, are “the main event,” allowing light to pass through to his signature scrims indoors, turning the views of the big Texas sky into art. The experience changes not just with each visit, but often with each passing hour of daylight.
Buried in the ground floor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art behind a room full of Marcel Duchamp’s most celebrated works, another space contains what appears to be simply a dilapidated wooden door. It’s a portal of sorts, though its entrance is minuscule: a tiny, well-worn peephole, through which a strikingly realistic scene of a woman’s pale body splayed over a mass of brambles, amid an apparently moving waterfall, can be seen. Duchamp spent the last twenty years of his life working on the assemblage, Etant donnés, in secret. (He’d already publicly announced that he’d given up art for chess.) Twigs, clothespins, hair, piano hinges, a gas lamp, and even a cookie tin are just some of the components of one of Duchamp’s craftiest creations.
James Turrell’s experiential installations can get extremely personal — take his perceptual cells, chambers for one that visitors enter like an MRI for a personal light show — but the artist has also created widely accessible installations over his decades as a pioneer of the Light and Space movement, like his Quaker meeting houses in Houston and Philadelphia. Each features a so-called “Skyspace,” the first of which he constructed 40 years ago by simply taking a jackhammer to the roof of MoMA PS1. Like its ensuing counterparts, Meeting is striking not just for being a literal hole in an institution, but for being subjected to the elements, which can be experienced through the DIY skylight from the comfort of the teak wood seats below. In the decades since, technology has evolved, of course; after a three-year renovation, the original Skyspace now also features an automated LED light show, synchronized to the sunset each night so that the high-ceilinged space becomes washed in pastel pinks and blues.
After stealing the show at the Venice Biennale in 2015, and again earlier this year at MOCA Los Angeles, Hito Steyerl’s famed Factory of the Sun video installation has found a home in New York in “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016,” up at the Whitney Museum until February. And while much of its reputation does stem from how well the work photographs, images of the black and blue space, perfectly gridded from floor to ceiling, barely capture the experience of stepping inside, which is akin to walking into a life-sized video game. There’s the 22-minute film at its center, too, a mix of strange internet dance videos, documentary footage, and newsreels that function as a reminder of the German artist’s fixation on media and the dissemination of images. It’s all best taken in from the room’s set of reclining chairs.
Often stretching over six feet tall, the vast swaths of color that make up Mark Rothko’s canvases are especially impressive when grouped together. There are no less than 14 of his works in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, a nondenominational, meditative space that the collectors John and Dominique de Menil conceived of in 1964, at the same time they tapped the Russian-born painter to fill it with site-specific work. Rothko then spent the next two years on the mostly black canvases, saturating them with purples and maroons that would respond well to natural light. It was no surprise that he ended up clashing with several of the project’s architects, including Philip Johnson, over the design of the windowless, octagonal space before it opened in 1971. The experience, some have claimed, verges on the religious.
Much like James Turrell, Doug Wheeler established himself as a pioneer of the Light and Space movement decades ago in Southern California after a career in painting, though his work hasn’t had the same recognition since. That’s likely because Wheeler’s works are often even more ephemeral: He specializes in so-called “infinity environments,” elaborately constructed and innovatively lit spaces that only appeared in New York for the first time in 2012, marking his first solo exhibition in the city at the age of 72. But Wheeler seems fine with doing things his way: With a show approaching next year at the Guggenheim, Wheeler’s due for a return, though he’s requested that no imagery be available for publicity — so as to emphasize the necessity of experiencing it in person. PSAD Synthetic Desert III will be the first phsyical realization of the “Synthetic Desert” series that Wheeler conceived of in the ‘70s; for the Guggenheim, Wheeler has adapted each room into a “semi-anechoic chamber” devoid of ambient sound, and lit to create the illusion of infinite space.
For much of the last five decades of his life, the Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara started and completed a new canvas each day: the current date in straightforward white characters following the language and conventions of wherever he happened to be. Outfitted with individual boxes lined with newspaper from the location, each work clearly represents a specific moment in time, but together they are a reflection of life. The Kawara works in the collection at Dia: Beacon are so uniform that they appear stenciled, showcasing the level of craft Kawara honed through daily, dogged practice. Mostly, though, they drive home the artist’s level of dedication: each clearly represents only a glimpse of the hours he dedicated to the ritual throughout his life, from 1966 until his death in 2014.