Irwin’s Eerie, Mind-Bending Show; Smart Viennese Design

Visitors to the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art this summer may think that the institution has already packed up its crates and moved on to its new digs in the Meatpacking District.

Stepping into the eerie, darkened gallery, you need to let your eyes adjust to the only light source -- the room’s single west window.

Initially, the most striking thing is the evenly spaced line of three imposing security guards, whose dark silhouettes confront you in the cavernous space.

An air of totalitarianism lingers. Museum goers, mingling and murmuring, wonder if they’re allowed entry beyond the uniformed sentries.

Yet the guards are merely living “Caution: watch your head” signs for Robert Irwin’s minimalist installation “Scrim Veil -- Black Rectangle -- Natural Light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1977).”

Conceived and exhibited 36 years ago, Irwin’s seminal site-specific artwork has been pulled out of storage to be shown in Marcel Breuer’s building one last time.

A translucent white scrim, bisecting the entire gallery, hangs from the ceiling (ending just behind the guards’ heads). If you’re of average height or taller, you must duck to pass under. It’s akin to genuflecting.

Hazy Scrim

The hazy, mirage-like scrim is transparent directly in front of you and opaque when seen at an angle. Things go in and out of focus. Visibility, like the moon, travels with you.

Mottled granite floors, reflecting light, look wet, adding to the installation’s quality of being submerged. And a single thick black line painted at about eye level circles the gallery’s white walls. As you move, the horizon line appears to rise and fall, as if you were bobbing at sea.

Compared to James Turrell’s carnivalesque summer lightshow at the Guggenheim, Irwin’s gray scale may be too understated and reductive to hold New York’s attention.

If Turrell has given us Gothic reach and splendor, however, Irwin, stripping the Whitney nearly naked, has provided us with Romanesque austerity -- light at the end of the tunnel.

“Robert Irwin: Scrim Veil -- Black Rectangle -- Natural Light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1977)” runs through Sept. 1 at 945 Madison Ave. Information: +1-212-570-3600;

Koloman Moser

If you haven’t been to the Neue Galerie recently -- or if you haven’t ventured beyond the museum’s elegant Cafe Sabarsky -- take in the impressive decorative arts exhibit, “Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897-1907.”

Alongside founder Gustav Klimt, Moser was a proponent of the Vienna Secession, as well as cofounder, with Josef Hoffmann, of the Wiener Werkstatte. These movements absorbed the organic Art Nouveau style and pushed art and design toward cleaner, geometric abstract forms.

Neue Galerie’s monographic exhibition, a confluence of artistic sources and impulses, explodes with so much variety and creativity that it feels more like a group show.

Installed salon-style on Moser-designed wallpaper, and comprising graphic design, furniture, jewelry, metalwork, glassware and ceramics, it presents an imaginative omnivore who bridged the 19th and 20th centuries.

A woven-cane checkerboard armchair fuses Japanese with Neoplastic traditions. Other works leapfrog from Byzantine to Art Deco. Wallpaper designs prefigure textiles by Matisse and Dufy.

In other objects, such as silver inkwells and Easter eggs, Moser is speaking to us from the space age.

“Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897-1907” runs through Sept. 2 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 5th Ave. Information: +1-212-628-6200;

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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