Monday, November 16, 2009

More on Robert Irwin and “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees”

For Robert Irwin, the California artist I mentioned in an earlier blog, at a certain point in his career following his curiosity became more important than his ambition, and according to Lawrence Weschler whose interviews are the “meat” of this book, Irwin has continued on that path.

In the 1960s, he encountered so many questions in his work and these questions drove him in his investigations of painting. He realized that our culture is geared toward answers, not questions, and it is performance that counts. As he said, “I find it very precarious for a culture only to be able to measure performance and never to be able to credit the questions themselves.” (page 90) Irwin pursued answers to his questions in painting and when he made a discovery he moved on to something else, to the frustration of his dealer who had to educate his public all over again when Irwin’s painting changed dramatically.

Over the years, periodically Irwin took a break from the world, and by all appearances spent time doing “nothing,” but the way I see it, he was allowing his whole being to reconstitute. He seemed to be really good at knowing what he needed to do at any given time.

I’m skipping huge swaths of his career, but eventually Irwin realized that he did not want his painting to be a metaphor for something. He did not want viewers to look at it and say, oh, that reminds me of a tree or a this or a that. He wanted his work to be IT, to be a presence for the viewer, and not a metaphor for a presence. He began working in empty rooms, and worked meticulously on the surfaces of the walls, creating spaces that reacted to light in certain ways. He used natural light, electric light and/or scrim as a medium to create a certain kind of atmosphere and light. Many people would go into these spaces, and turn around and come out because they thought the room was empty. For the people who could actually “see” and not just “look,” these rooms became an experience in perception of something they had not experienced before.

Eventually Irwin began making proposals for installations and works in public spaces. If the photos in this book are an accurate indication, one of the most spectacular of his works is the Central Garden at the Getty Center in California. He chose hundreds of grasses, flowers, shrubs, trees and ground covers to sculpt a landscape that included paths and water running down a slope to a pool at the bottom. It was enormous undertaking, but he was not content to simply design this garden, but he was present daily to work with the people doing all the landscaping and planting.

The people in charge of the Getty wanted to put up a plaque, and Irwin resisted. In the end, he agreed to the following inscribed on a pair of little stones: “Ever present, never twice the same” and on the other side of the stone “Ever changing, never less than whole” along with his name and date - Robert Irwin December 1997.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

International Festival of Authors

The annual International Festival of Authors at Toronto’s Harbourfront is such a splendid source of pleasure and inspiration, whether you are a reader of books or a writer.

I attended four of the “Round Tables” of the festival, groups of writers talking about the writing process and their own books. I particularly enjoyed sitting in on the conversation between three authors who wrote books in Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series, edited by John Ralston Saul: Mark Kingwell (biography of Glenn Gould), Daniel Poliquin (biography of RenĂ© Levesque) and Jane Urquhart (biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery). The conversation was moderated by Charlotte Gray who wrote a biography of Nellie McClung for the series.

It was fascinating to see how different each of the people were who were the subjects of the books. What they all had in common, however, is a struggle with a religious heritage, which had an impact in their emotional life and in their relationships with people close to them. This Penguin series is making a contribution to the discourse on Canada as a nation made up of people who are full of contradictions and care about contributing to the world through self-fulfillment.

The most memorable part of the ten-day festival for me was the opening night, a PEN Canada Benefit, a conversation between Diana Athill and Alice Munro, moderated by CBC host Bill Richardson, who I think has the funniest sense of humour on this earth. Athill (age 92) and Munro (age 78) had never met until last week, as they admired each other from afar.

Athill began working with AndrĂ© Deutsch when he founded his publishing house in the 1950s until the company ceased operation in the 1980s. She was the editor for such writers as Philip Roth, Jean Rhys and Mordecai Richler. She has written several novels, but during the last years she wrote her memoirs. Her “Somewhere Towards the End” is a brilliant book that does not shy away from what it is like to be old. She is sharp-witted and has the ability to marvel at what life brings to an individual, and yet sense how enormous is the whole of humanity on this planet.

Alice Munro, the eminent short story writer, once said that there is no such thing as an ordinary person, that everyone is fascinating. Even the most boring person is interesting if you are able to really see her or him.

Hearing these two women talk to each other, I felt I was in the presence of great wisdom, even though they both claimed that in their old age they do not feel wiser, but calmer.