As the Whitney prepares to leave its Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue (not forever, one hopes), it has resurrected a work that showcases the landmark’s rather lovely, if Brutalist, architecture. Taking up most of the museum’s fourth floor, Robert Irwin’s installation Scrim veil has not been displayed since he created the piece for the same spot back in 1977. The work is simplicity itself: A wall-to-wall span of theater scrim stretches lengthwise across the gallery, dropping from the ceiling to a rigid, black metal bar hung at about eye level. A horizontal black stripe, painted at this same height, circumscribes the walls, while Breuer’s great trapezoidal window provides the only illumination. And that’s it.
Yet this bracing economy of means does something magical. Depending on the light outside and your point of view, the scrim can appear as a solid wall, as a slightly blurred vision of what lies behind it or as a dense but luminescent fog, dematerialized like a floating block of mist. The bisected interior no longer quite reads as a single entity, or even as two. It registers as a room and a half, perhaps, or as a room and its double, because the scrim sometimes seems to suggest a mirror, reflecting half of the gallery and its gridded, coffered ceiling. In contrast with the somewhat pandering, oddly Art Deco spectacle at the Guggenheim by James Turrell—Irwin’s erstwhile colleague in California’s Light and Space movement—Scrim veil is a perceptual and conceptual work of art that is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.—Joseph R. Wolin