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.

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