Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Robert Irwin and the Intersection of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan

42nd Street and 5th Avenue, New York, New York, April 17, 2011. Photo: 16 Miles

I am never one to turn down the breezy and beautiful train ride up to Dia:Beacon — unless, of course, a plush bus ride is available, as there was this weekend, thanks to Dia, which organized shuttle service to the performances of Robert Whitman's new piece, Passport, along the Hudson River, not far from the museum, on Saturday and Sunday. (The Saturday performance was canceled because of lightning.) The meeting point for the bus in Manhattan was the intersection of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, which sounded oddly familiar to me, though it took a while for me to figure out exactly why that was.

That intersection, 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, is the exact spot where Robert Irwin produced Black Plane, which involved painting the entire intersection with blacktop sealer as part of his 1977 solo show at the Whitney. A very young Ian Frazier reports from the scene of the creation of the work, on the evening of May 2, 1977, in the June 6 issue of the New Yorker:
"He [Irwin] could not take part in the painting himself, having returned to his house in Los Angeles, but the other night, at about eleven o'clock, Richard Marshall, the curator of the Irwin show, three other members of the Whitney staff, and two friends of the artist arrived at Forty-second and Fifth to paint the intersection. They had with them a permit from the Department of Highways, four five-gallon cans of Peerlux Acrylic Latex Blacktop Sealer, and six rollers with long handles. … They began to apply the sealer in long roller strokes, being careful not to get any on the white crosswalk lines. A photographer for the Whitney recorded the event with a Nikon camera with a Vivitar Auto/Thyristor flash. He had the crew pose dipping their rollers in one of the five-gallon cans."

Robert Irwin, Black Plane, installation at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, New York, May 2, 1977, reproduced in Art in America, July/August 1977. Photo: Warren Silverman

Unfortunately, I don't have that photograph, but I do have this beauty, pictured above, taken by Warren Silverman and printed in that year's summer issue of Art in America, which is conveniently accessible at the New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, located mere feet from the intersection. You can see at least some of Irwin's freshly sealed blacktop in the image, but it looks to me — though is impossible to be certain — like this was taken before the entire square was done. Frazier says that workers could only paint one quarter of the road at a time, allowing traffic to continue in at least one lane of each street, and the foreground here looks a great deal shinier than any other part of the intersection.

I imagined Black Plane as a classic example of Irwin's interest in the intimate details of minute perception: one black laid down on top of another, two different shades that are barely distinguishable, as in an Ad Reinhardt painting. But in a 2001 interview conducted at John Wesley's Greenwich Village apartment, Irwin tells then Chinati Foundation director Marianne Stockebrand, "I stepped outside the cherished frame of the museum and painted the graying plane of the intersection." It is black on gray, and definitively so, as this aerial photo provided to Chinati by the Whitney confirms, pictured below. It is a strange black square floating within Manhattan's grid. I never quite realized just how gray some stretches of New York's streets are. (The aerial shot is presented as a mirror image in the newsletter; I have reversed it so that it appears as it does in other official reproductions.)

Robert Irwin, Black Plane, May 2, 1977, reproduced in the Chinati Foundation newsletter, volume 6, December 2001, page 23. Photo: Whitney Museum of American Art

Few people actually saw the piece from the sky, of course. Breaking the institutional frame was the point of the work, as Irwin says above, and his biographer, Lawrence Weschler, concurs. "There are hundreds of shadow squares just as remarkable all up and down the block," Weschler imagines Irwin saying, in his brilliant biography of the artist, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (1982). "The point is to attend to them."

To return to the account in the New Yorker: Frazier registers one other strange parallel between that night in 1977 and the one this past Sunday, nearly 34 years later: a nearly full moon. Here's Frazier again:
"It was a balmy night with an almost full moon, and moonlight was reflected in the wet sealer. After the crew had painted a quarter of the intersection, they had to wait for it to dry before they could move the barricades, so they went to Pete Smith's Hall of Fame Bar, on Forty-second Street, for a while.

"What with painting the intersection a quarter at a time and waiting for the sealer to dry, 'Black Plane' was not finished until about three in the morning. At about one-thirty, a police car pulled up. A blond policewoman whose name tag said 'Petersen' got out. She walked over and looked at the barricades and the group with the rollers. 'What are you doing?' she said."

A more recent aerial view of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, New York. The black square in the intersection was, for a time, lined with a diagonal white grid. Photo: Google Maps

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