Several months back, when I heard that the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles was preparing to launch a major touring retrospective of the work of the contemporary artist Robert Irwin this June (the first such exercise since 197, when the Whitney attempted a less complete version), I was initially confounded, for the idea of a Robert Irwin retrospective veritable basks in contradiction. The essence of Irwin’s work is experience—how it presents itself at the moment it is being experienced—but most of that work, certainly the work of the last two decades, isn’t really there to be experienced, because it no longer exists (it was intended to last only a week or a month) or because it never existed (it never even got built) or because, even if it does still exist, it can’t be transported from place to place to be reëxperienced. And the reason it can’t be transported from place to place is that—perhaps more than with the work of any other artist—it simply is the place.
Photographs exist—diagrams, blueprints, models. But, in a profound sense, these have nothing whatever to do with the work. For a long time, back during the sixties, Irwin forbade the photographing of his work—and this was when he was still making objects (painting and disks) of the sort that at least have been photographed. Photographs, he felt, would inevitably capture nothing of what the work was about and everything that it wasn’t. Photographs, that is, could at best convey the work’s image but never its presence. And presence—immediate, phenomenal experience; not a metaphor for presence but presence itself—has with ever-growing urgency been the focus of Irwin’s concern.
Words exist—anecdotes, analyses, recapitulations—and, indeed, it is one of the many paradoxes surrounding this particular master of the ineffable that he himself is immensely loquacious, even garrulous, expansively opinionated, at times prolix. But the point is that the work is all about the sort of attention that precedes verbalization. In 1982, when I completed a biography of Irwin, I adapted a line of Paul Valéry’s (“Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees”) as the book’s title, in part because that kind of struck-dumb attentiveness was precisely the sort of experience to which Irwin’s works were increasingly aspiring, but also because my text constituted a record of all the usual components of artmaking—image, line, focus, frame, signature, naming, the requirement of making itself—that Irwin had had sequentially to jettison, to bracket out, to forget, before he himself was able to see. Being here now is what Irwin is all about—getting here now, and not talking about it. And yet “getting here” breeds talk—his, ours—and there is in Irwin’s work all sorts of stuff to talk about. As I say, the entire enterprise basks in contradiction.
Irwin himself is one of the most interestingly and fruitfully contradictory figures on the art scene today, as I quickly recalled not long ago when I flew out to San Diego to visit him. Which is to say, he has hardly changed at all. Los Angeles has changed, or so he was telling me as we eased out of the airport parking lot in his 1982 Cadillac, a sleek black boat of a car. (In 1982, in L.A., he had been driving a 1972 silver Cadillac.) The traffic has got completely out of hand up there, and the freeways are perpetually clogged, he explained, and that condition eliminated one of the chief attractions the place used to hold for him. He left L.A. about ten years ago, in part to get away from the traffic and in part to get away from the jabber of the art scene, settling first in Las Vegas, and eventually in San Diego. “One of the nice things about this place,” he was saying—but then we suddenly veered into the parking lot of a Winchell’s doughnut shop, and he said, “Just a second, right back.” He hopped out of the car, entered the shop, and emerged a few seconds later, bearing two cups of Coke, one of which he handed to me. Irwin is never really at home in any new city until he has tracked down the place with the perfectly calibrated Cokes—a project that usually takes several weeks of assiduous field research. “As you can see, I’ve found my source,” he said. He re-started the car. “One of the nice things about San Diego is that I’ve managed to find a neighborhood that’s an awful lot like L.A. in the fifties,” he went on: “Very laid-back and stable. A lot of my neighbors work nearby, in the sailmaking shops and the other businesses nestled along the water. As you can see”—we were now approaching the Point Loma district, straddling the hills that overlook the mouth of San Diego Bay—“real nice in-and-out. You can wake up in the morning, walk out on the deck, and see what kind of day it’s going to be. It could easily make you happy if you didn’t watch yourself.”
The Cadillac coasted into a small underground garage. We got out and took the elevator to the apartment building’s third (top) floor and then strolled along an airy exterior walkway to the apartment that he shares with Adele Feinstein, his wife of three years. (She was away that week, visiting relatives back East.) A profusion of thriving cacti and other succulents crowded the welcome mat at his front door. The apartment itself was bright, white, wonderfully airy, with wide windows facing the bay, mirrors multiplying the wide bay view, unexpected skylights pouring forth their own airy spray of sky. A sliding glass door opening out onto a narrow balcony had the look of being kept permanently open. More cacti spread across the balcony deck. There was, as before, elsewhere, no art on the walls—not Irwin’s own and not anybody else’s. There were, as there had been in his Los Angeles quarters, several Plexiglas vitrines containing an astonishing array of mounted butterflies, in an almost delirious variety of hues and patterns. But the main impression was of the bay—the great, wide bowl of light.
“There’s a real magical quality to this bay,” Irwin was now saying. In the distance, one the water’s far shore, the skyscrapers of downtown San Diego glistened in the afternoon sun, and beyond them loomed the low brown mountains of Mexico. “And the main feature of it is its absolute silence. This is a terrifically busy harbor. The Navy has the place churning all the time. I can sit here and watch the fleet coming in and going out at all hours of the day. Sometimes one of the big carriers will float in—so big, so close you feel you could just lean out and touch it. It seems to take up the entire visual field. And not a sound. Absolute silence. I don’t know why—maybe it has to do with the surrounding topography, the baffle of the hills—but it’s as if the bay just swallowed up all the noise.” A flock of pelicans floated by in the mid-distance; closer in, a hummingbird darted and froze before a feeder dangling from the balcony’s rafters.
Irwin’s broad, slightly angled drafting table faced the view, and, as usual, it was teeming with drawings for new projects. That day, he was working on a proposal for a roundabout in a new residential subdivision outside Las Vegas. He was proposing to place a gently sloping mound at the roundabout’s center, and for the top of the mound—“Look at this here,” he said. He pulled out some blown-up photographs of a desert hillscape. “I was taking a walk a few weeks ago in the desert, and I began climbing this hill, and suddenly there these things were: an entire ridge, hundreds of yards, of these towering reddish-black monoliths, wedged, jammed one up against another, like a procession of elders, like Stonehenge, like Easter Island. Incredible things: look at the subtle gradations of color. It turned out that they were all part of a quarry. I came down the hill, tracked the quarry guy down, and made a deal: tied up the entire ridge. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them, but I’ve been eying this mound in Las Vegas.”
Stacked on the floor about his drafting table were books on desert rocks and samples of desert rocks. Reference works on landscaping (everything from Xeriscapes to bougainvillea) were piled on top of manuals on civil engineering. Under a table behind him Irwin had piled drawing tubes, vaguely sorted by project. Large zippered folios and Federal Express envelopes leaned against the wall, along with a bolt of diaphanous white scrim and a rolled swath of lavender narrow-gauge chain-link fencing.
Our conversation ranged easily from one recent or forthcoming project to the next, but the project that Irwin kept returning to was Miami International Airport.
“That one started the way most of them do,” Irwin recalled as he went over to the pile, pulled out a few of the tubes, and started to unfurl the scrolls inside. “They’d got themselves into a jam, and now they were calling out for help. It was another one of those legally mandated one-per-cent-for-art situations which seem to constitute the basis for most of the public art that gets done nowadays. Invariably, it all happens fairly late in the game, when most of the construction and design decisions have been made, and usually they just want some statue or monolith, or something, they can jam into the middle of the place so that they can say there, they’ve done it, they’ve made the requisite bow to culture. In fact, in this case they already had their object—a huge James Rosenquist called ‘Star Thief,’ or something. And everything was going along just fine until Frank Borman, the ex-astronaut, who was heading Eastern Airlines still existed and Miami was one of its busiest airports. Anyway, Borman saw this mural and supposedly proclaimed, ‘I never saw any slab of bacon flying around in outer space’—a quote that, incidentally, he denies making. But, whatever he said, the whole thing collapsed, and now they were back to starters.”
That was the point at which Irwin was called in. “The county arts commission was headed at the tie by an interesting lady named Patricia Fuller, and she saw this as an occasion for a dialogue,” he said. “So she sent me an invitation. Now, I get a lot of invitations these days. I get them all the time, and there’s generally something a little forlorn about them, because usually the project ends up consuming a lot of time and work and then falling through, for one reason or another. Still, it’s what I do. I’m like a fire horse. The bell rings and I’m off to the races, champing at the bit.”
Irwin accepted the invitation. “This was an interesting situation,” he told me. “I went and looked it over, and afterward I kept on thinking about it. The airport was chaotic, incredibly chaotic. One thing it sure as hell didn’t need was more clutter, another object—art. What it was crying out for, though, was an over-all approach. It seemed a perfect occasion for looking at the situation of public art generally, which is in similar disarray. An airport was a perfect late-twentieth-century case study—teeming with transience and cross-purposes and disarray. In truth, the whole challenge was so vast it was almost forbidding.”
Irwin went on, “For a good while, though, I had been longing for something exactly like this. I mean, I had been stumbling along, doing relatively small projects here and there, picking up all these little insights along the way. And Miami was now affording me an opportunity to take stock. It was a little like making the transition from doing little paintings to doing big paintings. It can be a very scary prospect. But one day you just have to take a big canvas, tack it to the wall, and take a whack at it. And that’s what Miami became for me.”
Patricia Fuller soon moved on to other venues, but Irwin persuaded her successor, Cesar Trasobares, and the airport’s director, Dick Judy, to allow him to invite two of his longtime friends and collaborators, Coy Howard and Ed Wortz, in for a visit. The three of them holed up in the airport hotel for a week, roaming the place, exploring the city, analyzing the situation, and dissecting its possibilities.
Part of the challenge was that of airport architecture itself. Irwin asked me, “Have you ever noticed how there have been hardly any successful airport structures over the past several decades—especially when you compare what’s been built with the achievement of railroad architecture toward the end of the last century? Several of those urban train stations, with their vaulted interiors, were incredible buildings—the girding, the light, the sense of space, the sense of occasion. Trains were wonderfully powerful metaphors—of time and distance and journey, of setting out and return, of anticipation and adventure—and the architecture gloried in that.
With airports, because most people are actually afraid of flying, I suppose, it’s as if architecture became keyed to downplaying and disguising, and even masking, the essential nature of the experience. The buildings became nondescript, their interiors like shopping malls, or like living rooms, for God’s sake. It was as if the designers were doing everything possible to keep you from seeing the airplanes as they arrived and departed—you almost had to make a special effort.
The entries into the planes themselves were completely swathed in those windowless sheaths—you were, in effect, invited to move from one living room into another. God forbid you should noticed you’d entered a plane. I mean, think about it. Name a single distinguished airport building of the last twenty years. The United terminal in Chicago, maybe. And what’s that? It’s a railway station!”
Beyond that generic problem, the Miami airport had problems of its own. Built mostly during the fifties, it was plagued by low ceilings and cramped corridors that tended to defy renovation.
It was tremendously crowded, one of the busiest terminals in the country. “Actually, it’s a terrific people place,” Irwin continued. “You’ve got the New York-Florida vacation axis. All the people heading out to the Caribbean, or radiating out through the Southeast. It’s the main air gateway to Latin America, so you’ve got people going to and from there, making connections to all over the country and on to Europe. For some reason, because of the timetables for the Latin-America connections, there can be unusually long layovers between flights. So you’ve got all these people just milling around, waiting. A great place for people-watching. Only, it’s completely disorganized, and it doesn’t really lend itself to that sort of activity at all.”
Beyond that, Miami’s airport, like most airports, is completely without a sense of place. “It could just as well have been in Cleveland, for all the local cues it was giving off,” Irwin said. “South Florida is one of the richest areas of the country in terms of history and geography and flora and fauna and the quality of the light and general civic liveliness and public myths. Tremendously suggestive. It’s just that none of it seems to have suggested anything to the airport’s planners.”
Irwin and his friends delved deep into the character of the place and spent many hours exploring the character of its opportunities. They thought a lot about the divergence in the ways that an artist, on the one hand, and an architect-designer, on the other, usually approach such challenges. The architect-designer’s main goals, after all, are to solve problems and minimize anxiety, whereas the artist wants to celebrate opportunities and maximize richness. Each, of course, subsumes the other’s goals as his own secondary motives, and it ought to be possible to make the two complement each other, especially if they are allowed to collaborate at the outset. “Artists need to be in there from the start, making the argument for quality,” Irwin now insisted, jabbing a finger at one of his charts. “The key to this thing is, for example, if you give an engineer a set of criteria which does not include a quality quotient, as it were—that is, if this sense of the quality, the character of the place, is not a part of his original motivation—he will then basically put the road straight down the middle. He has no reason to curve it. But if I can convince him that quality is absolutely a worthwhile thing and we can work out a way in which the road can be efficient and also wander down by the river, then we essentially have both: he provides quality in that the road works, I provide quality in that it passes by the river. In that way, art gets built into the criteria from the beginning rather than being added on afterward. In many cases, it may no cost any more, or just a bit more, for the road to wander by the river. As opposed to, say, giving the artist one per cent afterward—which is, hell, just tokenism to the nth degree. The best they’re going to be able to do is put in a few doodads.
“But if you affect this whole process from the beginning by putting in place some quality criteria and you look around and ask yourself who in this society are trained to make this argument for quality, the only ones that I can think of are artists. We’re the only ones with no real rationale for being except developing aesthetics, or quality—we have no other function. So our key role in our society right now—and what we’re really talking about here is translating values into dollars—is for artists to make winning arguments for why considerations of quality are absolutely necessary.”
Irwin pointed out that any given site in the airport—the baggage claim, the security checks, the corridors, the parking-lot kiosks, the check-in counters—partook of different combinations of requirements, and the contributions of designers and artists needed to be blended accordingly.
But the opportunities for artistic contribution were enormous, even after the fact.
Irwin worked on his Miami scheme for months—indeed, for years—developing arguments, formulating specific proposals, and, perhaps most crucial, winning the trust of airport officials, particularly that of Dick Judy. “When I first arrived,” Irwin said, “I’m sure he wondered, Who is this guy, this artist, being foisted on me by those crazy art bureaucrats downtown? What standing could I claim in his eyes? What authority would I command? Non. I was nobody. I was worse than nobody—I was an irritant.” In time, however, Irwin did seem to win Judy’s regard. Judy came to welcome his visits and listen to his arguments ever more intently.
Eventually, Irwin presented the arts commission and the airport’s board with a detailed three-part proposal. To being with, he offered an elaborate master plan, entirely reconceiving and revamping the flow of human traffic through the airport, from automotive approach through aerial dispatch and back. He then highlighted dozens of sites throughout this newly conceived facility where individual artists could be invited to work with designers on ways of enriching the specific qualitative features of the separate sites; he outlined a procedure for identifying artists and matching them to sites; and he prepared a sheaf of impressionistic memos to be sent to the participating artists, offering information (and inspiration) on everything from South Florida history to climate conditions, quality of light, and diversity of native flora. Finally, he selected a single site for himself, in many ways the linchpin of the whole conception: he was proposing to tear out a dilapidated two-story garage at the center of the entire facility, surrounded by the entries to all the various terminals, and to replace it with a lush cypress grove. The grove would be layered, with varied native ferns, and with birds rising from a marshy lake below. Above, in the canopy, pedestrian skyways would link the terminals to one another and to the relocated parking structure beyond. Scattered throughout, there would be benches and cafes—zones for quiet contemplation during those notoriously long layovers.
Irwin’s audience seemed aghast at the sheer scale of the artist’s vision. He recalled me how, as he’d unfurled several detailed drawings of his proposed grove, he’d told them, “This garden seems like a major commitment. In all sorts of ways, it seems like an extravagance. But if, back in the planning stages, I’d proposed that you take Manhattan and block off all the area between Fifty-ninths and 110th Streets, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, and put a park there, you’d have been similarly appalled. You’d have told me, ‘Impossible, too costly, utterly impractical, out of the question.’ But if I’d then said, ‘You have to do it. That park will be the heart, the very lungs, of the entire city; it will be the quality, the character of the whole place. You don’t have a choice,’ eventually you just might have come around.”
They weren’t sure what to make of such arguments. Meanwhile, Irwin also had to buck a whole range of bureaucrats with entirely different agendas. “They had one guy there whose job was ‘liability management’—in other words, insurance,” Irwin recalled. “Everything had to go across his desk—sewerage, road construction, lighting, baggage retrieval—and his job was to make sure the city was never liable. And now here I was, coming along with this—what?—with art,
for heaven’s sake. Let me tell you, we shared no interests whatever. His principal interest was in seeing that nothing got done.” But Dick Judy, for his part, was becoming increasingly interested. He gave Irwin the go-ahead for a first group of artists, including Alexis Smith, Richard Fleischner, Alice Aycock, and Joseph Kosuth, to visit the airport and develop proposals.
By early 1989, he even seemed on the verge of giving the go-ahead to the entire scheme.
And then Judy, a veteran of more than twenty years of running the airport, one of the top people in international airport management, suddenly got fired. Or, rather, he “retired” on principle and under pressure, over some completely different issues. Three years of Irwin’s painstaking cultivation of respect and regard were blasted to irrelevance, and the project quickly unraveled.
“So that was that,” Irwin commented, with a sigh, and he began rolling up the diagrams and drawings and sliding them back into their tubes. “But it was a useful exercise, and one that helped me to crystallize my ideas on the future of art in public places. I always make that distinction between public art and art in public places—it’s a question of where you put the emphasis, where you located the source. The question is how you can take art out into the world.”
Miami was a staggeringly ambitious proposal, but one of the most astonishing things about it was its distance from the sort of thing Irwin had been doing ten, fifteen, twenty years earlier. Back then, he had dismantled the art act just about down to point zero. He had gone around saying that the way a tree’s shadow fell across a patch of lawn was now art enough for him.
He might frame that shadow with a piece of string, but he thought the piece of string was superfluous. And now here he was redesigning entire airports.
Could he have stopped, I asked him, back there at point zero? Would that have really been enough?
“Oh, absolutely,” he replied, without a moment’s hesitation.
Why hadn’t he?
“People respond to their own stimuli. What happened to me—and it’s why I have all these paradoxes today—is that I responded to the questions. There does come a point where you can simply withdraw from the world. But why do Zen monks teach? Why do they? If they’re in Nirvana, what is that need or desire? Well there’s a stimulus there. Simply as human beings in a human context. Let’s say I find total Nirvana, O.K? I’m at point zero, in a perfect state of mind, with no need to do anything, O.K.? But I don’t live in an enlightened world. So then come the questions, which inundate you the right away—there are a number of stimuli, a number of possible responses. I could have become a teacher of Zen, of zero-ness; in fact, I could have even done it with my paintings. I could still be painting those paintings. That’s something like what, say, Robert Ryman has done.
“But I was never really interested in zero-ness for its own sake. None of it was ever being done as a negation or a denial of the world. Those butterflies”—he pointed to the vitrines mounted on the wall—“it was during that very period when I was collecting them, corresponding with hobbyists all over the world, trading specimens. Amazing subculture. Sixteen hours a day, I’d be painting a cadmium-yellow line over a cadmium-yellow surface. Two hours per surface, seven days a week. At the end of two years, I emerged with ten canvases. And then the dots, even more minimal—no lines whatever. Even more backbreaking—physically excruciating work. Nothing but dots. And the entire time I was collecting these butterflies. I always wanted all that richness. I just didn’t know yet how to include it. It was never that I was denying it. I was merely holding it in abeyance.
“I ventured into zeroland because I was simply responding to the potential latent in a set of questions—the questions of modernism. I’m really interested in them. Without getting into a religious sort of zeal, or anything, I really think—I don’t think modernism was an accident.
I think it was an absolute necessary development of civilization. I think that ultimately it constitutes the next level. Not the final one, but we’re moving toward another level of sophistication, in which we still employ all the previous sophistications. Because that’s the critical thing about modernism: it’s not a rejection of other ideas; it’s simply an extension, an expansion, a compounding toward a greater complexity.”
Listening to Irwin’s answer, I suddenly began to understand something about his work’s trajectory. The key movement in the history of the past several hundred years of art as far as he’s concerned—the essence of what he describes as the upsurge, the necessary upsurge,
of modernism—has been the collapse of figure and ground. Irwin often talks about the historical sequence that led to the compression of what was considered appropriate subject matter for a work of high art: initially, God alone; then Christ the man-God; then Christ the King; then this particular king, then this rich burgher; then the burgher’s maidservant in her red shawl; then the red shawl by itself; and, eventually, just the color red. Toward the end of this five-hundred-year compression, he argues, the subject and its surround, the figure and the ground, began collapsing into each other—a process that culminated in and was the essence of Cubism. But this process wasn’t accomplished through a bleaching out of the figure, through making the figure as undifferentiated as the ground around it. Rather, the ground was being heightened, was suddenly being attended to with all the focus previously reserved for the figure alone. The focus—the allowance for complexity—was being widened.
At a key moment in his own career (somewhere between his dot paintings of 1964 through 1966 and his disks of the following years), Irwin told me, he began to feel that such an ambition, such a dazzling achievement, could no longer be confined to or contained within the world of the painting alone: to do so was merely to render the painting a figure against the wall’s ground, whereas the whole point was to expand the viewer’s capacity for complexity still further.
In this sense, Irwin reasoned, the shadow that the painting cast had to be every bit as interesting—as loaded, phenomenally speaking—as anything going on inside the painting. Hence his own move out of the frame, onto seemingly blank walls and, presently, into near-empty rooms, construed as spheres for sublime aesthetic contemplation (or, rather, prior-to-contemplation: sublime attention, presence). The rooms weren’t in fact empty, or, at any rate, innocent of significant intrustion; their dimensions and lighting and textures had all been modulated in subtle ways that, ideally, increased the observer’s own sense of awareness without necessarily calling attention to themselves. But, even there, a problem remained, since the entire room still cried out to be thought of as a heightened figure amid the rest of the world’s ground.
This progression led Irwin himself to point zero—that moment of virtual self-effacement in terms of his conception of himself as an artist, as a maker of objects, or even as a meddler in rooms. Once he had reached that state, he was able to abandon rooms altogether and go out into the desert and experience a vista, without lifting a finger, without budging a pebble: that experience—enjoyed in all its richness and for all its complexity—contained every requisite element of the art act. He could come back into the city and delight himself in the way a random shadow fell across a random wall, savoring it to the point of total immersion. That was enough: that was more than enough.
Ten years later, though, and here Irwin was, lifting mountains, revamping entire airports, talking about recasting entire cities. How to account for such a staggering transformation? In a certain sense, hourglass-like, he had simply come out the other side: his ambitions had become as megalomaniacal as they had previously been spare. But in another sense—and this is what I was now beginning to realize—the progression had been seamless, continuous; and it all had to do with this business of figure and ground. Coming out the other side didn’t so much mean renouncing focus on the discrete art object (the figure, even the entire room as figure) as it meant pumping up awareness of that object’s surround, which is to say engaging the whole world, attending to it with all the intensity normally reserved for art objects. This is how self-effacement becomes almost messianic in its ambitions.
But softly—as least in Irwin’s case—softly. “If you asked me for the sum total, asked me,
‘What is your ambition?’” Irwin now said, “basically, the answer is just to make you a little more aware than you were the day before of how beautiful the world is. This isn’t saying that I know what the world should look like. It’s not that I’m rebuilding the world. What artists do is teach you how to exercise your own potential; they always have. That’s the one thread that goes all the way through. I mean, within that there are other strains—the Christian, say, or the Communist—where people claim to know somehow (and this is not even bad; on the best level, it’s well meant) how the world should be, and then they try to build it on the basis of some theory, which to me is a peculiar idea, like building your past into your future. What I’m saying is, God, it’s all already out there. With any new situation, all you’re trying to do is to tease out something of significance. You’re not trying to form it from the outside—you’re just trying to tease it out. The whole game is about attending and reasoning. In other words, you have to play as it lays and keeping it in play means you try to turn people on to themselves, making every moment as good as you can make it, but they’re responsible.
Turning people on to the world, in this view, means turning them on to the single most beautiful thing in the world: the human capacity, the human responsibility, for perception.”
Irwin’s ambition is at once spare and vast, as is his ego within that ambition: he himself wants to do merely the tiniest thing, but that just happens to be the only thing that matters. And it’s not even that he himself wants to do it. In his conversation, “I” and “you” regularly blur (“You’re not trying to form it from the outside”), and this is no mere rhetorical evasion. Sometimes he refers to a “dialogue of immanence,” by which he means the sense in which “certain questions become demanding and potentially answerable at a certain point in time, and how everyone involved on a particular level of asking questions, whether he’s a physicist or a philosopher or an artist, is essentially involved in asking the same questions.” He also calls this “the process of inquiry,” the sense that people at the peripheries of their various disciplines are all engaged in pursuing the same subject—and that every single person, at any moment, has the capacity to transport him or herself to that periphery. These categories of activity, of intention, are, for Irwin, profoundly egoless. “You,” “I,” “he,” “she” are all one. No signatures necessary, every signature superfluous.
And yet this egolessness of Irwin’s can at times seem positively egomaniacal. For instance,
a few minutes later we were talking about the idea of his having a retrospective. I reminded him of something that he had said to me more than ten years ago. At the time, we had been talking about the destruction by vandals of two of his dot paintings at the 1965 São Paulo Bienal—their tart self-abegation had evidently really irritated some viewers—and he had commented (as I quoted him in the book):
I suppose if I’d been in São Paulo while they were attacking the things, if I’d been right there, chances are I might have reacted strongly. But it had no reality for me. I mean, I’m told that some work I did for a few years back is destroyed. O.K., conceptually I can say, “Oh God, there goes so many months’ work, and there’s my economics for the next year, and there goes my place in the world historically.” You can run those through your heard and respond to them if you want. But they have no actual reality, or didn’t for me. I suppose I’m a terrible stepfather to the things I’ve done, but as far as I’m concerned, I have no children in the world. I can intellectualize that maybe they should be preserved. But I have a hard time assuming the importance of the thing. That’s a big difference between a West Coast artist and a European. A European artist really believes in himself as part of that historical tradition, that archive. They seem themselves as part of the stream of history, and they conduct themselves in that way, with a certain amount of importance and self-esteem and so forth. I guess people out there have gained that more now, but when I was growing up an artist there simply wasn’t any stream for you to orient yourself toward. Obviously, you think what you do is important, or you wouldn’t be pursuing it with the kind of intensity you do. But the minute I start thinking about making gestures about my historical role, I mean, I can’t do it, I have to start laughing, because there’s a certain humor in that.
Given all that, I asked now, why bother with a retrospective?
Irwin was silent for a few moments, and then said, “Maybe this is an illusion of my own making, but I saw an exhibition one time in New York of Mondrian’s entire career, and the thing that was amazing to me was that there was the full span of his career, from the flowers on out to the most incredible abstractions, and Mondrian was one of those few rare artists in which (a) there was this tremendous growth and change and (b) at the same time every step of it was there. I mean, whew! You could just see it, you could see how each step evolved from the one before, how there wasn’t any revolution, it was all a process of continually considered evolution, one that took him, step by step, all the way out. And I have a feeling that my work has some of the same character:
I’ve gone a fairly long distance and done it step by step, and every step is there, exhibited.
Maybe it’s a bit more difficult to see, since it’s not all in one medium, but it’s all there.”
Irwin paused, gazing out at the bay. A destroyer was cruising in silently, and sailboats were sprinting soundlessly about it. “And then there’s this business of leaving a decent record,”
he went on. “I’m in a pretty hilarious position in that most of my work of the past twenty years doesn’t even exits—most of it was never even built, and for the craziest variety of reasons.
One place, the patron dies; another, the whole company goes bankrupt. My proposal for the French Olympics: complete failure of communication. I’m offering them this delicate, wispy gesture and their people start engineering the thing to death; I’m offering them a butterfly and they’re engineering me an elephant. No wonder it falls through. Miami: the guy gets fired, or retires—whatever. I mean, it can get pretty comical. Here I am with this aesthetic utterly rooted in experience, and the pieces don’t even exist.
“Up to now, I haven’t cared all that much. I haven’t given history—or, anyway, my own place in history—all that much thought. But I’m increasingly coming to realize that the kind of thing I’m really interested in I’m never going to see in my lifetime. Even if I still have twenty good years head of me”—Irwin will be sixty-give this September—“I can see that the kind of vision and practice I’m working toward is generations off. Now, the previous generation left me a great record to work from—Mondrian, de Kooning. I didn’t have to spend a lifetime coming to know them; the record was there, waiting for me when I was ready to assimilate it. Whereas my stuff, my offering, for the most part simply isn’t going to be there to pass on, because—I don’t mean to sound grandiose about it—almost all my more recent steps have essentially been erased.
And I guess I just feel that one has a responsibility as a human being to leave a good record.
If I’d never seen a de Kooning except in a magazine, I’d have been operating from a bad record. Or like in ‘The Double Helix’—why were Watson and Crick able to beat Pauling to the discovery of the structure of DNA? Because they had the lady’s photographs and he didn’t. They were working from better information.”
He paused again, seeming to puzzle it all through. “Obviously, in a certain sense, doing a retrospective is a big step backward for me. I want to be over here—beyond Miami—and instead I’m back here, back in the very museums and galleries I forswore a long time ago. But it’s all part of the same crazy contradiction of my entire enterprise these days. Because not only do the projects I want to do in the outside world generally fall through, for one reason or another, but also my ties to my source, to the art world, are beginning to fray. I’m doubly estranged: I fall between; I’ve become invisible to both worlds. And this retrospective is finally about the art world. It’s about the fact that, despite my energy’s being focused over here, I remain tethered to my source, which is in the art world. And part of the thing about a tether is that when your theter gets tangled up you’ve got real problems: it starts spinning you in all sorts of bad directions; you’d better tend to it.
“Furthermore, you can go only as far as people are willing to entertain you. I can have the most far-out ideas, but if absolutely no one else takes them seriously I’m operating in a vacuum.
One of the reasons I taught all those years was that it’s very important that we all participate in the health of our disciplines. Whether or not I can get myself to take history seriously, I do take the health of my discipline very seriously. Disciplines can shrivel up and die if they’re not properly attended to. So, yes, with this whole retrospective exercise—or, for instance, with that scrim installation I did at the Pace Gallery’s SoHo branch last fall—all right, I’m not longer pursuing the questions. But this sort of contribution is important as well. It’s like the way Einstein sat down at one point and wrote a primer. At that point, he was no longer developing his own knowledge; he was accepting the fact that he was a human being in a human context and had some interest and some responsibility.”
I mentioned the way Valéry’s aphorism “Seeing is forgetting” had once served as an apt characterization of Irwin’s entre course up to a certain point. How would he encapsulate the period since? What would be a good title for the retrospective?
“You know, something came to mind the other day,” he replied. “Maybe not exactly what you have in mind, but I think it sums up the trajectory nicely: ‘From Malevich to Tatlin’”—Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) and Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953). “Those Russian Constructivists—spectacular moment, particularly between 1915 and 1920, tremendous burst of creative energy.
In a way, the work itself was quite crude. It’s just as I always say: As the questions go up, the performance level goes down—and that’s natural, since people don’t yet know how to act on those questions, they’re stumbling around in a fog—whereas when performance goes up the quality of the questions tends to go down. So, while the objects these guys came up with may not have been particularly sophisticated as objects—they weren’t Stellas, or anything—they were absolutely loaded in other ways. Man, we’re still feeding off their questions. Those guys were soaring.
“Malevich, of course, back around 1915 pared everything down to those empty white squares on their white ground. Everybody looked at those and moaned, ‘Oh no, everything we love is gone.” And instead he replied, ‘Ah, but we have found a desert of pure feeling!’—an incredibly philosophical thing to say. One could have easily equated those empty squares with the loss of God, the end of culture, the horror of death, and there’s a whole artistic tradition that, in effect, does that: the existentialist tradition. But I’m convinced that Malevich was drawing on the opposite tradition: the phenomenological. Instead of angst, he’s telling you, ‘Wonder! Wow!
A desert of pure feeling!’ And he’s not talking about emotion—or anyway, not just about emotion. He’s talking about texture, about experience, about quality, about taking the feel of things.”
I recalled the way Irwin used to talk about placing bets at the horse races—the principal source of his income back in the old days. He would start out by carefully surveying the quantifiable data, then blend in the more subtle, more intuitive, nonquantifiable kinds of information, then run this hand over the entire race, trying to get a feel for the whole, and only then would he make his stab and place his wager.
“See, Malevich was keying on experience,” Irwin said. “His was a desert in which experience is primary. If God is primary, then how you construct every argument is always referring back to God, because that’s the primary thing. But when he says ‘a desert of pure feeling,’ how I interpret that is, he’s saying, ‘I am primary the human being is primary, and I refer everything back to me.’ We’re talking not about the thing but, rather, about the source of the thing—the responsibility of the observer, the perceiver. This was a profoundly philosophical moment, and he was acting it out inside his studio, within the confines of his canvas. And what Tatlin was doing at almost that exact moment was trying to take that way of being out into the world—trying to fashion a thing-in-the-world based on that same euphoric sense of human potential. Sure, it was purely a gesture, and, by the way, one of the oldest gestures there are, one of the oldest metaphors: a tower”—
the Monument to the Third International (1919). “Ever since human beings have stood on the earth, they’ve been building mounds and towers. But it was the same way it as with the square: a pure gesture in the same way the square is a pure gesture. A gesture about soaring possibility: for a moment, all the chains were off and the human spirit was soaring.
“Now, of course, in one sense they’re the same, the square and the tower, but in another sense it’s a big trip, it’s a real journey. Because how, exactly, do you take those white squares—that ‘desert of pure feeling’—and project their spirit out into the world? In a sense, my dot paintings were my Malevich equivalents, and the things I’m trying to do now are my Tatlin equivalents.”
Malevich, Tatlin, Mondrian, de Kooning, Einstein, Watson, Crick, I found myself thinking: a farily pricey neighborhood in which Irwin keeps insisting on pitching his tent. But, again, his is a strangely egoless egomania: in claiming these masters as his colleagues, he’s not so much keying on his own importance as asserting the importance of the continuing dialogue. Irwin’s sensibility is immensely playful, but the play is absolutely serious. If he speaks of Einstein and Watson, he’s merely insisting that art has both the right and the obligation to stake its claims as high as any science. And if he mentions Mondrian or Malevich he’s merely insisting that artists today—the entire discipline—ought to cast their aspirations right up there with the heroes. Play it as it lays, and keep it in play.
“And, as I’ve been showing you, it’s not that easy a trip, it’s by now means obvious,” Irwin went on, pointing to the pile of scrolled diagrams and blueprints. “I mean, as long as you confined it to the studio, where you had it in a kind of laboratory circumstance, you could limit the paradoxes, make the world appear any way you wanted it to, as long as you didn’t expect anybody to agree. But the minute you put it under your arm and take it outside you run aground on all sorts of paradoxes—both the physical limitations and the limitations imposed by everybody else’s ambitions and requirements. So that, in a way, with this retrospective I’ve momentarily retreated halfway back into the lab.”
The trouble, I point out, is that the retrospective itself is not without its contradictions, not the least of them being the absurd limitations imposed by the necessary substitution of models and photographs and wall renderings for actual physical experience.
“Of course,” Irwin concurred. “Of course. And, on top of that, these are models of pieces in radically different media: light and sound; dirt; steel and glass; scrim; chain-link; cacti and bougainvillea. At each of the show’s stops”—it will move from L.A. to Cologne, Paris, Madrid, and finally to New York, to the Guggenheim, where it will alight in 1995—“I’ll be erecting at least one site-conditioned piece, but they will all be entirely different, each responding to the conditions of its specific site. And what are people going to think? There are only two things they can think. The first is to assume, from any normal art-world perspective, that I’ve gone totally eclectic, I’ve completely lost my rudder, I’m simply stealing ideas from everybody in sight. Or else—and maybe a few people will entertain me this far—they may take me seriously and assume that an entirely different aesthetic is operating here, and, if so, they may ask themselves, ‘What could it be?’
“I mean, in undertaking a retrospective at all I had to accept the idea of a dialogue with the art world, in all its peculiarities. And it’s a little bit like that book ‘Flatland,’ you know, where the author meticulously sets out this two-dimensional world, and then he introduces a visitor from the third dimension. The thing is, everything the visitor shows them can be explained away two-dimensionally. There’s not way you can introduce the third dimension to the second that can’t be rationalized away. The same thing applies to us here the idea of the fourth dimension. Basically, when you look at the art world, as a whole it’s a three-dimensional world—all its structures and practices are geared to three dimensions—and I’m basically trying to introduce a fourth dimension. I mean, I—we—There’s a group of us exploring the same terrain. And when we do it there is no fourth-dimension forum, no fourth-dimension language that is commonly spoken. I may not even speak the language very well myself at this stage, but I’m doing projects that have dimensions—ways of going—such that when I put them inside a building I’m trying to cram them back into a three-dimensional world, and they almost disappear. At best, if somebody’s paying attention, he or she might get just a brief intimation, a momentary trace, like a streak in a cloud chamber. But that’s it.”
When Einstein and Heisenberg talk about the fourth dimension, I pointed out, they’re talking about time.
“That’s what I’m talking about, too,” Irwin replied. “Exactly that. Time: experience. Einstein gives you all that stuff about time and trains coming toward you and going away, but it’s always in relation to you as the perceiver, the observer. Time is experience. Time is a non-thing; it has no physical properties—or it has infinite physical properties. I can point to its effects—the flower opens, the flower closes, the flower dies; or the way a clock metes out time; or the cadences, the rhythms of a voice—but I’m not pointing at time. Time is only understood in here.” He thumped his chest. “Or there.” He pointed at mine. “It’s totally experiential. And it’s the same way with quality: qualities reveal themselves to observers only across time.”
Paradoxically, it occurred to me, presence itself, immediacy—Irwin’s Holy Grail—reveals itself only across time, across the fourth dimension. You have to stop, shut up, and listen if you’re ever going to hear.
Outside, the sun was setting, and evening was coming on.
If you spend any time with Irwin, you’re likely to notice he has two quintessential gestures. He’ll be rolling along, expounding at length, and then, at a certain moment, he’ll being his hand up, thumb and fingers bunched together, like a tulip, which he then proceeds to open out, in a blossoming—his whole face opening, his eyebrows riding up his broad forehead, a bemused grin spreading across his face. It’s an easy, breezy gesture of openness and release. You’ve got to keep your sense of humor, he may say; at a certain point, you’ve just got to let things go. The tulip opening. All I’m saying—ppfff, the tulip opening—is that the wonder is still there. Then, at other times, his entire being will seem to focus, to concentrate: his face will scrunch up, his eyes will narrow, he’ll seem to throw all his body weight behind his arm as it screws an imaginary anchor into an invisible massif before him—a gesture gritty with determination. In fact, sometimes he’ll even grunt—mmmff. I mean, either you’re going to do it, and if you’re going to do it you’ve got to get in there and—mmmff—you’ve got to nail it. You really have to bite the bullet if you’re going to do philosophy; halfway doesn’t count for anything and there are no excuses. There are all sorts of excuses, and good ones, for not beating the shit out of yourself, but if you’re going to pursue certain lines of thought, take on certain tasks, well—mmmff—you’ve really got to make the commitment.
I talk about Irwin’s contradictions, and, in a sense, this is one of the core ones. Because here’s an artist who tries time and again to nail down beatitude. He wants to take all that bliss, all that serenity, all that wonder, and—damn it—he wants to batten it down. He wants to batten it down right and then—ppfff, the tulip opening—to simply let it go.