Irwin Kremen: Beyond Black Mountain (1966 to 2006)
Through June 17
Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University

There is a Kabalistic notion that at the moment of one’s death, all one’s days come together at the locus of the soul. “Gather Your Days” is the term for this phenomenon; it is also the title of a work by Irwin Kremen in his current exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke. Kremen, who holds no mystical or religious beliefs, sees this exhibition as perhaps as close as one might come to such an experience.

Irwin Kremen: Beyond Black Mountain (1966 to 2006) is an opportunity to enter a unique world of making and seeing. In 1966, at the age of 41, Irwin Kremen began to make art. Kremen was a psychology professor at Duke with a full academic calendar and family life, but he found a way to begin a 40-plus year journey that has produced an astonishing body of work. Kremen was clearly inspired and energized by his friendship with modern luminaries such as Merce Cunningham and John Cage (Cage’s notorious “silent piece,” 433, is dedicated to Kremen). And he was also profoundly encouraged by Italian artist Italo Valenti. But ultimately Kremen cultivated a highly personal and innovative approach to artmaking that is all his own. He calls it “work-of-my-kind.”

Upon entering the Nasher’s lobby you will first see the large sculptures of steel, aluminum and wood that represent Kremen’s most recent collaborative venture with sculptor William Noland. The epic scale of these forceful and spatially mutable works is in notable contrast to what one encounters in the exhibition space. It is in some ways difficult to reconcile the small scale of Kremen’s collages with their impact. They require a degree of patience, a kind of reorienting of one’s own rhythms. This is not a show you can jet through and get. But if you give yourself some time, the pieces begin to convey a feeling of the infinite.

“The Unsung No. 2” (1989) is a small collage of paper and another undetermined material, referred to as “paper vinyl (?).” A stain of ochre grounds the base of the composition, which opens upward into grays with some blue passages. A deeper gray along the topmost edge frames the upper section. Continue to look and paper seams begin to show themselves cutting across the surface of the piece. There is play between straight cuts and torn edges. Further investigation brings into view the scars, specks and grime of the surface itself, the suggestion of screen-printed letters. The work seems never to stop offering information or essence. This experience of being able to go deeper and deeper into a piece is overwhelmingly true of almost all of the collage works.

Kremen’s materials are a key element of his work. They come from multiple locations and sources, harvested with precision and zeal. The archival care and technique wielded by Kremen in relation to these materials suggests that they have not so much been found as rescued. In some cases they even feel like they’ve been mined; Kremen’s sensitivity to color and his capacity to build painterly surfaces can produce an almost gem-like glow, as seen in some of the more brightly colored pieces such as “Retinal Splash” (1977) or “Luxe No. 2” (1989/2004). Another key element of Kremen’s work is his collage technique, which seems to have stemmed from an impulse to preserve and value his materials. Rather than gluing or pasting, Kremen painstakingly builds his compositions and traces what he calls a “schematic.” He then adheres thin Japanese paper against the back of each fragment and assembles them with paper “hinges.” The result is an almost sculptural experience of the materialsedges are allowed their autonomy. This method incorporates the use of magnifying lenses and fine tools, some of which Kremen has forged himself.

Kremen’s singular approach to constructing these works contributes to the powerful intentionality and sense of the monumental in small, ostensibly simple compositions such as “Junctures” (1979). “Junctures” measures 5 3/8 x 4 5/8 inches and consists of a black central rectangular shape built out of paper fragments, surrounded by a torn frame of blue. The materials are paper and paint, although as in much of Kremen’s work, it’s hard to discern where one medium ends and another begins. Kremen allows the white underside of the paper to reveal tears and delineate shapes, which offers dimension as well as a sense of age. In this way many of Kremen’s collages begin to resonate as artifacts, bearing the traits of ancient archeological finds.

While Kremen refuses metaphor or attendant meaning in connection with the rest of his oeuvre (but for the Re’eh seriessee below), it is difficult not to see or feel themes emerge as one makes one’s way through this exhibition. And if there were a dominant single theme, it might be about the desire to hold and frame the joy of visual essences as they flash by us, to preserve and also to transform them, to create works that simultaneously celebrate and mourn the press of days and the experience of sentient life.

The Re’eh series

Irwin Kremen maintains that his work has no metaphoric or symbolic content. The one exception is the Re’eh series, which is displayed in its own separate room in the exhibition space. The Re’eh series stands as a rupture, self-described by Kremen as a shock when the first of the series “appeared” to him. In the winter of 1980 Kremen created a piece that undercut his preconceptions about what “work-of-his-kind” was supposed to be. In this piece, “Im Lager,” Kremen recognized imagery that echoed the horrors of Nazi Germany. In Kremen’s own words:

I knew that it had to do with the Holocaust, knew it with immediacy. Those stripes! And that shape with its broken Hebrew word! Torah scroll, tombstone? At once, the stripes that were worn in the camps and a scroll whose script is entombed in the same stripes! What else, if not both the camps and the world that the camps destroyed!

And while he had invested himself in the idea that his work was never to be “about” anything, he recognized the need to create a series that would follow the trajectory begun in that seminal work, a monument to victims of the Holocaust. Thus the Re’eh series, which includes works with such titles as “Broken Words,” “The Inconsolable” and the starkly grim “Transport,” constitutes an anomaly in Kremen’s output. But the series also serves as a cornerstone, even the soul of the exhibition. Each piece in the Re’eh series speaks in multiple layers, grappling with the unspeakable. The series also speaks to a kind of artistic courageto relinquish preconceptions in the act of making. Amy White