Sunday, October 18, 2009


I am reading a wonderful book called "seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees - Over Thirty years of Conversations with Robert Irwin" by Lawrence Weschler. Irwin is a California artist whose early work in Abstract Expressionism attracted the attention of art critics and galleries.

During his high school years he was fascinated with cars, and worked on cars with a Zen-like intensity. He would finish and refinish small sections that no one would ever see. Later, he pointed back to these years as the beginning of the care he put into his paintings as a mature artist. When he was young,he travelled around Europe for a time and ended up on Ibiza, a small island on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. There he spent eight months living alone in a small cabin, not talking to anyone.

He described what happened on Ibiza, saying that usually when you get bored “you plug yourself in somewhere: you call somebody up, you pick up a magazine, a book, you go to a movie, anything.” These things help to form your identity and the sense that you are alive. But he did none of that, and as he put it, he pulled out all the usual plugs and at first it was painful, having none of those distractions. But when he got all the plugs pulled out, it became “serene, it’s terrific. It just becomes really pleasant, because you’re out, you’re all the way out.” He was no longer thinking about things in the usual sense, but his thoughts became pure ideas, “stripped of any worldly ambitions or motives.”

After this experience, Irwin went back to his normal life in California, got married and continued making art and building up his reputation. In 1957, at the age of twenty-nine, he had a show at the prestigious Felix Landau gallery in Los Angeles and he had a chance to have a good look at what he had been doing. When he saw all his work hanging, he realized the paintings did not hold up. The opening was painful because the people who came told him how wonderful the show was, but he knew in his heart his paintings were worthless to himself. He stopped doing what he had been doing. That was the beginning, he said, of his real education.

It took ten or twenty year before Irwin absorbed what happened to him on Ibiza. He began following his curiosity with an intensity and persistence that he has continued to this day. The way I read Irwin, it seems to me that grappling with “root questions” about ”basic relationships of the three or four primary aspects of existence in the world: being-in-time, for example, space, presence” freed him so that he was able to push way past where he had gone with his art in the past.

I’m only a third of the way through this book, but one of the pleasures of it is discovering how this artist thinks. He is so articulate and clear about himself and his work that he is able to let us in on how he evolved from when he first started working as an artist to the present, though I have not yet read to the point in the book that goes into his later work. I like the format of the book, the way Lawrence Weschler ties together the long quotes by the artist. I had expected the book would be in an interview format, but Weschler is adept at tying together and illuminating Irwin’s accounts of his life and work. More about this book as I continue to read.

1 comment:

  1. I like the way you read so many artist's biographies Jane and I love the way you are so stimulated and inspired by what you read and write about your thoughts so well.
    That is a fabulous title of the Robert Irwin book,"Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees." I just wrote a post about writing yet another artist's statement. Perhaps it's related to this statement. Maybe the 'naming' is what the writing of the statement is...and why it's so difficult to write an artist's statement.