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“Untitled,” by Robert Irwin (1963–65)

The warning comes near the very end of the exhibition, like a “spoiler alert!” tag or “BEWARE OF DOG” sign. The marker urges viewers to pause in the penultimate gallery. “In the next room, your perceptions will be challenged,” the sign reads. “For this reason, we ask you to touch nothing. It is very important that you experience the exhibition with your eyes.”

The text could be museum boilerplate: Don’t touch the art, look at things around you. But the latest exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden warrants a note of caution. “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change,” a new survey at the Hirshhorn, is a masterful, uncompromising show that most certainly will challenge viewers’ perceptions. It is by far the best Hirshhorn exhibit in a decade, a sequel of sorts to the 2006 survey of Hiroshi Sugimoto. More than a merely successful show, “All the Rules Will Change” is a provocative thesis about what museum shows should do. Viewers: take warning.

Since the late 1950s, Irwin has worked like an architect, taking painting apart and reassembling its constituent parts. He is the leading light of the Light and Space movement, California’s most important contemporary art export of the last 50 years. However, “All the Rules Will Change” is not a retrospective of Irwin’s career or a survey of Light and Space installations. Instead, it’s a fairly narrow look at a handful of artworks the artist made between 1958 and 1970.

“Ocean Park” by Robert Irwin (1960–61)

Viewers who know Irwin by his later neon works won’t recognize the craggy oil paintings that kick off the show. His work begins where Abstract Expressionism ends. Irwin saw the dominant mode of painting at the time as a means to an end. From the very start, Irwin worked to reformulate the relationship between artist and viewer.  With mid-century painting, that relationship was passive or immersive: A viewer might get caught up in a Jackson Pollock painting, but it’s a one-way street. Irwin gave the audience more license. His first mature works (and the earliest works on view at the Hirshhorn) were his so-called “Hand-Held” paintings: small-scale square paintings in hand-crafted frames that were meant to be grasped by viewers. (Sadly, at the Hirshhorn, these works are displayed securely in a vitrine.) The abstractions, although elegant, were nearly an afterthought in terms of their narrative content. Ab-Ex was a convenient medium for looking more closely at painting itself.

“All the Rules Will Change” is an argument about the deliberate transition in Irwin’s work—from conventional abstraction to something formalist, essentialist, and minimalist. Evelyn Hankins, the curator for the exhibit, traces Irwin’s origin story by following his use of line in these early works. “Ocean Park” (1960–61), one of Irwin’s so-called “Pick-Up Stick” works, dwells on a cluster of horizontal lines. This large-scale square abstraction draws on Philip Guston and Clyfford Still, stylistically, and it will come as a comfort for people who feel at home with post-war painting. In the following sequences—Hankins sorts them into “Early Line” and “Late Line” categories—the thick impasto style falls away, leaving only line and color field.

Hankins makes a convincing case about the way Irwin systematically reduced painting to its barest elements, eventually arriving, in the late 1960s, at shaped acrylic discs, his most mysterious paintings—if that is even the word for them. (More on those in a moment.) What’s so stunning about “All the Rules Will Change” is the economy with which Hankins proves her point. There’s only a handful of representative works from each of Irwin’s series. They are arranged rhythmically—and gorgeously—on a series of high walls that divide the circular Hirshhorn space into successive chambers. The set-up is concussive, forcing viewers to confront one muscular painting after another. The effect is most pronounced with Irwin’s barely-there “Dot” paintings. These may be the most sensate works in the entire show. They’re stressful, in fact: paintings that are so subtle that the viewer struggles to even see them. Hang more than one of these paintings on a single wall in a visitor’s field of vision, and the “Dot” painting trance would be broken.

Installation view of “Untitled” by Robert Irwin (1969)

The Hirshhorn has never looked so good, and it is a testament to Irwin’s career that even his earliest works are so attentive to their surroundings. That’s not by accident: Staff from both the Hirshhorn and Irwin’s studio collaborated to produce the conditions that make Irwin’s work possible. Under precise lighting, for example, the edges of Irwin’s acrylic discs disappear completely—but those conditions must be exact. Everything is illuminated expertly in this show, down to the title text on the gallery walls.

“All the Rules Will Change” might not be possible in any other museum. “Square the Circle,” a massive site-specific installation in the final gallery—the one that comes with a warning sign—certainly couldn’t happen anywhere else. For this piece, Irwin essentially walled off the interior arc of gallery space with a 120-foot span of sheer scrim. (In geometry, this straight-line segment intersecting a circle is called a “chord.”) The piece, which is invisible from certain angles, echoes the 1977 scrim installation that Irwin built in the former Whitney Museum of American Art (now the Met Breuer). For the Hirshhorn, it’s an effortless translation of architectural space into an act of seeing.

But there’s something more important than a site-specific work at play (and a tremendous one at that). So much is made of the difficulties of the Hirshhorn space that it’s refreshing to see an artist who has genuinely taken it as an opportunity. The admiration is mutual: Not many museum spaces could afford the percussive sequencing of paintings devised by the Hirshhorn to dramatize each painting. “Square the Circle” is a mesmerizing piece, and not just because of its large scale. The thrum of this work will stick with viewers for a long time.

“All the Rules Will Change” reads as pushback against the kind of spectacle that has overwhelmed the art world in the early 21st century—the slide that Carsten Höller built through the New Museum, the light show that James Turrell brought to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the music video that Doug Aitken projected on the exterior of the Hirshhorn. “Square the Circle” is more subtle than all those works, but the real difference is that Irwin’s installation is purchased by the rest of the exhibit. The installation is the natural culmination of the ideas teased out by Irwin’s early works. “Square the Circle” is, as Hal Foster describes in his book, The Art-Architecture Complex, an example of the “sensuous particularity of experience in the here-and-now”—the sort of work that resists the “stunned subjectivity and arrested sociality supported by spectacle.” It’s anti-spectacle: an antidote to so much of what’s wrong in the contemporary art sphere today.

Installation view of “Pier II” by Robert Irwin (1960–61)

At the same time, Irwin’s influence can be seen in some of the most spectacle-friendly artists working today, namely Anish Kapoor and Olafur Eliasson. The gravity of Light and Space is so strong that a retrospective of these works could easily resemble a scene at the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair. The Hirshhorn has circumnavigated the most prominent and obvious parts of Irwin’s catalog to uncover his earliest contribution to painting—and it is a powerful find.