The Hirshhorn’s Robert Irwin exhibit includes an exclusive installation and earlier works. (Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

Artist Robert Irwin’s newest work, created specifically for the Hirshhorn, is almost impossible to describe. Evelyn Hankins, curator of “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change,” found that out when it came time to describe the piece for her exhibition’s catalog.

“You can’t write about this work,” Hankins says. “It’s beyond language. It’s a simple and elegant gesture that makes you see the [museum’s] architecture in totally different ways.”

That’s Irwin’s goal. The 87-year-old started his career as a painter in the traditional sense, but since the 1960s he’s been testing ways to create experiences for his audiences that challenge their perceptions.

“In 1970, he kind of painted himself out of a job,” Hankins says. “He didn’t want to make objects anymore, so he asked himself, ‘Can I be an artist without making objects?’ ”

These days, the San Diego-based artist works frequently with large swaths of scrim (a semi-transparent fabric often used to divide the stage in theatrical performances) and only creates pieces for very specific sites — part of the top floor of the Hirshhorn being the latest.

In addition to the nearly indescribable installation, called “Square the Circle,” the exhibition features an examination of Irwin’s career from 1958 to 1970. At the beginning of that period, Irwin experimented with abstract paintings that were intended to be picked up and held by the viewer. (At the Hirshhorn, these are unfortunately enclosed in glass display cases.) As time passed, his works became more conceptual as bright colors turned muted, and he did away with frames and started working more with light and shadow, making the border between the work and the wall it hung on disappear. But even as he veered from the traditional, Irwin always considered himself a painter.

“He was asking questions about the very conventions of painting,” Hankins says, all while “training himself to be a careful looker and perceiver.”

Most of Irwin’s later works are extremely difficult to describe (and to photograph, which is why you see only his earlier works on these pages). “Square the Circle,” a project more than two years in the making, consists of an extremely large piece of scrim that’s been meticulously placed and strategically lit. As you walk around it and take it in from different angles, you can get lost in the experience. It’s surprisingly captivating for something so simple and subtle, and it can leave you awestruck and a bit disoriented.
To Hankins, Irwin is a “visually engaged philosopher,” showing us the world from points of view we didn’t even know existed — and often leaving us at a loss for words.

Want to hear Robert Irwin talk about the philosophy behind his work? He’s giving a lecture Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Hirshhorn. Free tickets are available on a first-come, first-serve basis starting at 5:30 p.m. You can also catch a live webcast at hirshhorn.si.edu.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW; Thu. through Sept. 5, free.

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