If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear as it is, infinite.
Maurice Tuchman, the enterprising curator for modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, had been with the museum only two years when he conceived, in 1966, the notion of matching established, practicing artists with corporate sponsors who could provide access to the most sophisticated technology of the day. He was curious to see what the results would be. Tuchman’s curiosity was not widely shared, but finally, after he had done a great deal of prodding, he was able to enlist the wary cooperation of thirty-seven companies (more than two hundred had declined), and he set about getting in touch with artists and effecting the various matches. Andy Warhol, for example, was paired with Cowles Communications, Tony Smith with the Container Corporation of America, and Claes Oldenburg with Walt Disney Productions; Robert Rauschenberg began exploring the acoustic physics of mud baths with engineers at Teledyne, and Jean Dubuffet tackled problems concerning monumental scale with the research division of the American Cement Corporation. Most of the artists, in one way or another, took the opportunity afforded them by the program to enhance through the application of advanced technology the kind of work they were already doing. They ended up producing bigger, more elaborate, more sophisticated objects—objects that then made up Tuchman’s Art and Technology show at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1971. Oldenburg’s huge, lascivious “Icebag” throbbed and undulated at the entrance; inside, Rauschenberg’s “Mud-Muse” belched and Warhol’s three-dimensional flowered shower curtain streamed.
One of the first people Tuchman had attempted to enlist, early in 1968, was Robert Irwin, a leading Southern California artist, who was at that time in transition from a period of painting metallic discs to one in which he was fashioning acrylic columns. Tuchman suggested that the proposed exhibition might give Irwin an opportunity to work with scientists at transcending some of the technical difficulties involved. But, to his surprise, he found Irwin not the least bit responsive to such an approach. “I told him,” Irwin recalled several years later, “that I had no interest in producing a short-term object, a large, winking, blinking version of what I was then doing.” Irwin was, on the other hand, quite interested in the broader sorts of cross-disciplinary interaction the Art and Technology project might offer. “At that time, I was beginning to think about using energy in my work, as opposed to matter, and that meant dealing with light and sound and other kinds of energy forms. So the idea that I might be able to talk about some physicists not about hardware or things of that sort but, rather, about how they actually thought about those ideas of space and energy and matter, what their approach was to the whole question, their mental picture—that seemed to me to be something really worth doing. So I told Maurice that what I wanted was an opportunity to find someone who would be interested in exploring that kind of exchange, and not someone or some industry intent on making something. I felt that what you could make in six weeks or in two months for an exhibition would really be essentially what you already knew—I mean, you would simply act out or develop something that was already essentially resolved, except maybe technically—and that this was too rich an opportunity and too interesting a situation to put that kind of deadline on it. And, to his credit, Maurice went along with me.”
At the time, Irwin had just turned forty. Born not too far away, in Long Beach, in 1928, into a lower-middle-class family with no artistic pretensions, Irwin had nevertheless been “plagued,” as he later characterized it, with natural ability, an easy facility in drawing which allowed him to
skim effortlessly through art school without ever having to confront any serious questions. Indeed, he didn’t face any serious questions until some years later, when, in 1957, just before the opening of the first significant show of his work—at the Felix Landau Gallery, in Los Angeles— he was thunderstruck with dissatisfaction over what he had been producing. His education, he insists, began then. During the middle and late fifties, he gravitated toward the Ferus group, a brash fraternity of L.A. artists (including Billy Al Bengston, Ed Kienholz, Ed Moses, John Altoon, and Craig Kauffman), as cocky as they were isolated, who had ranged themselves around a precarious avant-garde gallery by that name. It was through them that Irwin was first exposed to the work of New York’s Abstract Expressionists; and by the late fifties Irwin himself was producing large, richly impastoed abstract canvases.
But already he was beginning to be bothered by the arbitrary, undisciplined character of his endeavor. “In those days,” he recalls, “you just got yourself in a good Zen mood and emoted. But six months after the ‘emotion’ of my involvement with those paintings, much of what I had done just didn’t seem necessary.” In early attempts to tackle the problem, he contracted the canvas and simplified the marks, attempting to exercise greater control over a more circumscribed space and theme. It gradually became apparent, however, that his real conflict was with the tendency of any abstract design to read as image (as swan, say, or cloud, or face); what he was after was pure physicality.
During the sixties, therefore, Irwin systematically pursued the mystery of aesthetic presence, dismantling the activity of painting through a series of progressive questionings—or, more properly phrased, bringings-into-question—at each stage stripping away the inessential elements of the art act while simultaneously opening up his perceptions to a whole range of experience that had previously been excluded. “Is it possible to paint a painting without image?” he wondered in 1960, and over the next three years he endeavored to do just that. During a period of intense activity—holed up in his studio for fifteen-hour days, seven days a week, for months on end—he produced ten canvases, each with two straight lines hand-splayed over a monotone ground, into which they virtually disappeared. Although the lines’ placement had been painstakingly calibrated for the most neutral effect, each canvas still read as “a painting of two lines,” and Irwin next wondered, “Is it possible to paint a painting without subject and without linear mark?” The result, between 1964 and 1966, was a series of ten large, slightly bowed, white canvases overspread with a fine peppering of tiny dots in two opposing colors. The dots seemed to cancel each other out, halating around the edges; the paintings vibrated with an uncanny energy. But although these paintings had successfully resolved the question they had addressed, Irwin felt they were compromised by the frame itself, the rectangle that arbitrarily bound them in and likewise bound out the varied world of phenomena around them. “Is it possible to paint a painting without frame?” Irwin then mused, and the resultant investigations produced a series of remarkable disc paintings (1966-67). A convex white disc was thrust out about two feet from the wall, hovering, and when Irwin played floodlights on it from each of the four corners, projecting a four-leaf clover of shadows onto the white wall behind, it was extremely difficult to fathom where the gray-white disc left off and the mothy shadows began. The shield itself read alternately as flat, bulging, or collapsed, and even from virtual profile the truth was elusive. The entire space seemed to float. While these discs had effectively eliminated the frame from the art object, they still required an attitude of focus; they still demanded of the viewer a heightened level of attention aimed at one area of the room. Irwin, meanwhile, had become fascinated with everything else that was going on in the room anyway.
Irwin’s commitment was slowing shifting to the pure activity of inquiry. Questions that had initially served him as vehicles toward answers were becoming compelling in their own right. He was becoming less interested in what we perceive or how we perceive than in the very wonder
that we perceive at all. It wasn’t so much that he wanted his viewers to perceive anything in particular as that he wanted them to perceive themselves perceiving. He was not placing tall, prismatic acrylic columns in empty white rooms, not out of any sculptural concern but, rather, because of the transformation these columns could effect when, invisible, they suddenly gleamed at the periphery of the visitor’s awareness. Irwin increasingly felt himself to be forging toward the periphery of traditional art practice, and he was becoming convinced that there, along the borderland, his concerns were dovetailing with those of practitioners in other disciplines (psychologists, architects, sociologists, mathematicians, physicists—all working at the peripheries of their fields). He began to call this interpenetration of pure inquiry “the dialogue of immanence.” And it was in this light that Irwin redefined and then grasped at Tuchman’s offer.
In August, 1968, Tuchman began the process of finding a corporate match for Irwin. The artist toured Lockheed’s Rye Canyon research center as well as its Burbank production complex (it was at Rye Canyon that Irwin first encountered a kind of echo-free chamber that would subsequently consume his interest). Then, accompanied by Caltech’s famous Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman, Irwin visited I.B.M.’s enormous San Jose facilities, and afterward the pair returned to Southern California and spent several days at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where scientists were busy tracking Mariner 5 and preparing for two of the Mars missions. Although nothing came of either of his tours, Irwin found his conversations with Feynman especially rewarding.
During that summer, Irwin also entered into an intense dialogue with James Turrell, a young artist who had recently completed studies in psychology at Pomona College. Turrell was already providing Irwin with a great deal of intellectual background for his investigations, and now Irwin invited him to collaborate on his Art and Technology effort. In November, 1968, Tuchman approached the Garrett AiResearch Corporation and arranged for Irwin and Turrell to tour its Life Sciences Department, where much of the workd on the environmental-control systems for NASA’s manned space flights was being pursued. (The moon landing was less than a year off.) And it was during this tour that Irwin met Dr. Ed Wortz, the head of that lab.
There exists a photograph of one of their first meetings. Irwin is sporting a neat Edwardian beard, his hair is moderately long at the sides, and he looks very hip. Wortz, by contrast, has short- cropped hair, is wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and a striped tie, and, with four pens visible in his breast pocket, looks very square. In fact, he might be any one of those flight-operations engineers who used to scurry about in the background during Walter Cronkite’s live telecasts from Mission Control in Houston. The contrast between the two men is of particular interest because nowadays Irwin is clean-shaven and seems utterly staid (he might easily have just walked off the neighborhood golf course), whereas Wortz, who has dropped out of the space program to become a Gestalt psychotherapist and is quite active at the Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles, looks anything but square, right down to a gray-flecked curly beard. It is as if the two had traded existences.
“So I was in my lab at El Segundo one day when I got a call from the corporate office and they said they were sending over one of the corporation P.R. guys with two artists,” Wortz recalled not long ago. “I said, ‘Gee, guys, thanks a lot, that’s just what I need.’” Up to that point, Wortz, who had received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas and gone to do research on such issues as “The Effects of Centrifugation on Lung Volume as a Function of Differing Gas Compositions and Pressures,” had had virtually no exposure to art and even less interest in it. He was not looking forward to his afternoon. “So an hour later,” Wortz continued, “in walked Bob Irwin and Jim Turrell—and it was love at first sight. I don’t think any of us could believe how well we got on. From there, one thing just led to another.”
“The thing that fascinated me about Wortz,” Irwin has said, “was that he could handle more information with less difficulty and less prejudice than anyone I’d ever met. I mean, I would be sitting in his office—which I started doing with increasing regularity—having this conversation about philosophic or aesthetic attitudes, and someone would come in … They did much of the physiological work for the lunar explorations—how much energy it took to walk up a twenty- degree grade wearing a space suit with a twenty-pound pack on your back in a certain gravitational situation. That kind of thing. Anyway, people would walk in and ask him about some very complicated mathematical formula or some other technical problem; he’d discuss it with them, make a decision on it, state it back to them in astoundingly simple terms, and then come right back to talking with me, without skipping a beat! And his attitude toward the most technical or the most sophisticated kinds of information, or toward the kinds of things I was dealing with, or toward the possibility of monsters in Loch Ness—he would handle them all with no variance, no prejudice. He would handle all of them equally. And I really found that fascinating.
As it turned out, the three men, each in his own way, were interested in essentially the same thing—man’s perceptual sense of his environment. Apart from that, they had no special irons in the fire, no particular ambitions. Irwin has said, “We decided that all we wanted to find out was how two radically separate disciplines could interact, what could be the grounds. There was no way that I was going to find out everything Wortz knew the way he had—in other words, bit by bit, going to school, learning all the technical data. And there was really no need. The question was, is it possible for me to understand how and in what way he puts his questions and structures his information?”
At first, they met just for discussions; they toyed with the question of how they might eventually “make art” out of their deliberations, not so much with the intention of producing anything as with the aim of focusing their considerations. Turrell compiled thorough notes, and excerpts from them were subsequently published as part of an exhaustively detailed “Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: 1967-1971.” Those notes, in some places, suggest many of the positions Irwin was to consolidate during the seventies. For example:
If we define art as part of the realm of experience, we can assume that after a viewer looks at a piece he “leaves” with the art, because the “art” has been experienced.
We are dealing with the limits of an experience—not for instance with the limits of painting. We have chosen that experience out of the realm of experience to be defined as “art,” because having this label it is given special attention. Perhaps this is all “art” means—this Frame of Mind.
The object of art may be to seek the elimination of the necessity of it.
The works of previous artists have come from their own experiences or insights but haven’t given the experience itself. They had set themselves up as a sort of interpreter to the layman. . . Our interest is in a form where you realize that the media are just perception.
All art is experience, yet all experience is not art. The artist chooses from experience that which he defines out as art possible because it is has not yet been experienced enough, or because it needs to be experienced more.
All art-world distinctions are meaningless.
From hours of conversation, Irwin, Turrell, and Wortz drifted into experimental projects. Irwin was eager to resume playing with the kind of echo-free chamber he’d seen at Rye Canyon. “An anechoic chamber is a totally sound-dampened, light-blackened room,” he explains. “The one we ended up using, at U.C.L.A., was a particularly fine one; it was suspended within another soundproof room and isolated from any sounds being bounced through the earth—a jackhammer five miles away, or something. Nothing went into that space. And no light at all. We would go in there, one at a time, and sit in a chair in the middle. Then they’d shut out the lights and close the door and you’d just be there. You had no visual or audio input at all, other than what you might produce yourself. You might begin to have some retinal replay or hear your own body—hear the electrical energy of your brain, the beat of your heart, all that sort of thing. We got so that we could spend maybe six or eight hours in there at a time, each of us, testing the acuity of our powers of perception. There were all kinds of interesting things about being in there which we observed, but the most dramatic had to do with how the world appeared when you stepped out. After I’d sat in there for six hours, for instance, and then got up and walked back home down the same street I’d come in on, the trees were still trees, and the street was still a street, and the houses were still houses, but the world did not look the same—it was very, very noticeably altered.”
All three of the men experienced the same world shift—a phenomenon whose intensity so amazed them that they subsequently designed a battery of experimental tests and administered them to twenty-five volunteer subjects, almost all of whom testified to the same perceptions. “For a few hours after you came out,” Irwin insists, “you really did become more conscious—not just that leaves move but that everything has a kind of aura, that nothing is wholly static, that color itself emanates a kind of energy. You noted each individual leaf, each individual tree. You picked up things that you normally blocked out. I think what happens is that in our ordinary lives we move through the world with a strong expectation-fit ratio, which we use as much to block out information as to gather it in—and for good reason, most of the time. We block out information that is not critical to our activity. Otherwise, we might well become immobilized. But after a while, you know, you do that repeatedly, day after day after day, and the world begins to take on a fairly uniform look. So what the anechoic chamber was helping us to see was the extreme complexity and richness of our sense mechanism and how little of it we use most of the time. We edit severely, so that in time we see only what we expect to see.”
The anechoic experience provoked other explorations. The trio concocted ganz fields, which Irwin describes as “visual fields in which there are no objects you can take hold of with your eye; that is, three hundred and sixty degrees of homogeneous color—in our case white—which suggests the sensation you might experience by sticking your head inside a giant, evenly lit Ping- Pong ball.” The monitored alpha waves, interrupted each other’s sleep, practiced meditation. They reproduced an experiment they’d heard about in which they were able to confirm that Carlsberg Elephant Beer tastes best when drunk within the aural context of a particular tone (650 Hz.), and that varying the pitch only slightly either way significantly alters the flavor of the brew. Irwin, who was fascinated by the ability of the two eyes to integrate their separate perceptions, mastered a technique for separating their focus. “I can still do it any time I want,” he claims. “It
takes a few minutes’ concentration, but I can just separate them—for example having one eye register foreground and the other background.”
Years later, Wortz speculated on Irwin’s special interest in the sense-deprivation experiments. “As I gradually learned about his artistic history,” he said, “I came to understand that Bob had been working with sense deprivation long before he entered that anechoic space. Really, that’s what he must have been doing during those months when he spent hours on end holed up in his studio staring at two lines on a canvas. And that discipline brought him a very special kind of knowledge. I mean, Bob really understands a line. I don’t understand a line, but I am firmly convinced that he does. He understands it deep in his nervous system. He understands it from his cortex right down his spinal column.
In August of 1969, when the three men had been working together for nine months, and were beginning to consider specific plans for translating their experiences into an installation at the museum show, Turrell suddenly dropped out of the collaboration. To this day, Irwin is baffled by the occurrence, and somewhat hurt. It is not unlike other cases in which younger artists have jumped abruptly and furiously free of his powerful gravitational field. Turrell has played down the significance of the project. “I don’t know that anything really startling came out of the whole thing,” he told the museum chroniclers. “I sometimes feel I’ve found some things out, but they don’t apply to anyone else unless he came to them in the same way.” Free of the project, Turrell went on to a highly original artistic career of his own.
Irwin is considerably less circumspect in his evaluation of the collaboration. “The biggest product of our Art and Technology thing is the effect we had on each other,” he has said. “I radically changed Ed Wortz’s life, and he radically changed mine.”
There was no clear moment when the Art and Technology collaboration between Irwin and Wortz came to a conclusion—the two men just moved into other ventures together. In the fall of 1969, Wortz was asked by NASA to begin studying the concept of habitability as an adjunct to the planning of long-term manned-space-flight projects. He invited Irwin to participate, and the two decided to start out by convening a National Symposium on Habitability—a gathering of psychologists, doctors, planners, architects, engineers, academics, and humanists who felt they could help explore this virgin territory. The symposium was held in May of 1970. Volume IV of the collected papers of the symposium includes a sequence of photographs that show a grungy, dilapidated back alley (the scene is beachfront Venice, California) and a bus pulling to a stop and disgorging a group of well-dressed professional types who then wander down the alley and file through a hole that has been knocked into one of the walls (bricks and debris spill back into the alley). The professionals look incredulous.
“What happened was this,” Wortz has explained. “First, we housed all the participants at the International Hotel, right by the airport, which had a fairly standard configuration. Then we bused everybody the first morning to this alley behind Market Street, off-loaded them, and they all had to meander down this alley, through a hole in the wall, and into this really pristine environment. That was Bob’s studio at the time, and, as is typical of him, he had spent weeks preparing it— without either financial renumeration or art-world recognition—simply because he’d got turned on by the idea. Anyway, that first day, as they entered, there were these big two-foot-diameter white tubes alone the entire width of the other end of the room, floor to ceiling. It was very elegant, very pristine. The interior had various platforms and raised islands but no chairs. The fact that everyone had to sit on the floor or the platforms immediately moved the situation into a considerably more informal mode. Some of the participants read papers they had prepared, and that afternoon the gathering broke up into smaller groups. In the evening, we bused them back to
the hotel. The next day, when they returned, all the tubes had been removed and in their place, across the entire width of the room, hung a thin, translucent film, which allowed outside light and shadows to flow into the space. The third day, that film was gone, and the room simply opened right onto the street. So the people on the street—drunks and beach bums and young kids—just drifted right into the symposium. The afternoon sessions were held in about five different environments, designed for smaller groups. Bob designed one that was completely white and had no edges at all. It was brilliantly lit, and it was very interesting, because when you were in there you had to pay attention to the other people. If you didn’t—if you looked away from someone’s face—you soon began to get nauseated. Larry bell, another L.A. artist, who had once been one of Irwin’s students and who shared an interest in light and perception, designed a space that was so oppressive that it was never used. People would just go in, turn around, and leave. It was basically a black room with one bare light bulb hanging in the middle. Larry made another room, whose walls were angled in such a way as to render the space extremely reverberant, so that people kept having to scoot their chairs closer and closer together in order to hear one another. So all these different rooms had very interesting effects on people’s behavior, and the upshot of it all was that at the end of the conference we asked them what effect the environments had had on their behavior and they all said they hadn’t noticed any. Which told us something about the ‘experts’ we were dealing with.”
Had someone asked Irwin in 1965 how he viewed the relationship between his activity and that of a scientist, he might well have replied that he saw none whatsoever, or that he saw the two enterprises as diametrical opposites. By 1970, however, having spend a couple of years working with scientific researchers, he had developed a rich sense of the interpenetration of the two endeavors. “Take a chemist, for example,” he said one afternoon recently. “He starts out with a hypothesis about what might be created if he combines a few chemicals, and he begins by simply doing trial and error. He tries two-thirds of this and one-third of that, and marks down the result: that doesn’t work. He tries one-third of something else, and the he tries one-quarter and three- quarters, and he proceeds ont hat basis, a sort of yes-no trial and error. What the artist does is essentially the same. In other words, what you do when you start to do a painting is that you start out with a basic idea, a hypothesis of what you’re setting out to do—a figurative painting, or nonfigurative, or whatever. Say you’re going to paint a figurative painting of that model over there and the trees outside behind her and the oranges on the table. It’s just a million yes-no decisions. You try something in the painting, you look at it, and you say, “Nnn-no.’ You sort of erase it, and you move it around a little bit, put in a new line—you go through a million weighings. It’s the same thing—the only difference is the character of the product. Let’s say at a particular point the scientist gets what he set out to get, he arrives at what he projected would happen if he mixed the particular right combination of chemicals the right way. The same thing is true of the artist: when he finally gets the right combination, he stops—he knows he’s finished.”
Wortz once described Irwin as “not unlike those scientists who work in their little cubbyholes for years and years on experiments, and sometimes the experiments work, and sometimes they don’t.” And he added, “I remember one time when Bob had a piece of work that he was ready for me to see, and I went over. He had rented a funny kind of garage with a little slit door; you crawled through the door into this really ancient garage, and in the middle of it was this ultra- pristine wall. It was about four feet tall and two feet thick and went all the way across the space. He was talking to me about the size of the wall, the thickness, what worked with it, what didn’t. There it was, months of work, and maybe three people saw it. A few days later, he demolished it. Then he built another one, and later he demolished that. I don’t think he ever made one of those for display anywhere, and they were so beautiful. It took me a while to understand . . . I mean, here he was, an artist, and how could he not show his work? To understand that what he was doing was pure research.”
To Irwin, the ways in which science and art differ are as revealing as their similarities. “Once the scientist is finished, you can look back over his notes and find the precise sequence of yes-no weighings which brought him to his solution—it’s all quite logical,” he has said. “The artist, on the other hand, keeps no such record—although historians would love it if he did. Rather, he literally paints over his errors. Six months later, when you ask him, ‘Why did you stop there?’ and he replies, ‘Well, because it felt right,’ his answer may not seem acceptable from a logical point of view—I mean, it seems as if he’d just chanced on the final version—but in fact it’s quite reasonable. Given the basic fundamentals, he’s tried just about every damn combination possible, every way possible, until he’s finally arrived at what makes sense to him. The critical difference is that the scientist measures by means of an external logical process and makes his decision finally on whether it fits that process in terms of various external abstract measures, whereas the artist measures by means of his intuition, his feeling—in other words, he uses himself as the measure.”
For several years before the Art and Technology project claimed his attention, Irwin had been having less and less to show for his labors. From his origins as a robust young Abstract Expressionist during the late fifties, he had gradually pared back his painterly activities during the sixties, systematically dispensing, step by step, with the usual artistic requirements of image, line, frame, and focus; with the seventies, permanence and even signature were coming into question. Throughout this journey, Irwin had been beset by critics who lambasted it as a descending spiral into pure negation—and, indeed, the work certainly was at all times lean, austere, reticent, sometimes almost mute. From the work, you might expect to meet a stark, obsessively cerebral creator. The artist you do meet, however, is anything but dour. An infectiously jovial man in his early fifties, Irwin gives the impression of being considerably younger, perhaps because he has something of a baby face—more precisely, a baby head, for his head is strikingly large, with a high, broad forehead and soft, benevolent features, and is perched atop a relatively thin neck, which in turn opens out into a solid, almost hefty frame. There is a touch of mischievous delight about him, even in his serious moods. His hair is thinning on top and graying out to the sides, but his body is still in very good shape; he downs a fistful of vitamins every morning and jogs a ritual five miles in the afternoon.
One day, in the study of Irwin’s home, in Westwood, I asked him if he had any notion what his obvious sense of well-being had grown out of, and he replied, without hesitation, “High school. Or, more generally, just the experience of growing up in Southwest Los Angeles, which was a fairly unusual experience—obviously turns out it must have been a very unusual experience, because it produced a fairly interesting, rich activity. All of us at Ferus in the fifties and sixties grew up with basically the same background. For example, conversation was running sarcasm— you never gave anybody a straight answer. You played games all the time, and where that comes from I don’t know. But, man, I can be in Michigan, or in Europe, or anywhere, and I can spot a Southern California person—West L.A. especially—a mile away. We start a conversation and it’s like I’ve been talking to this personal all my life, and I’ve never met him before! There was a whole freewheeling attitude about the world, very footloose, and everybody in Southwest Los Angeles had it. From the time you were fifteen, you were an independent operator, and the world was your oyster. Maybe you didn’t have much, but the world was always on the upside. It was really a rich place to grow up.”
For the past several years, one of Irwin’s closest friends has been Joan Tewkesbury, the scenarist and director, whose credits include the screenplay for Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” Partly at her
instigation, Irwin once wrote “The Green and the White,” a screenplay about life at his school, Dorsey High, during the early forties (the school’s colors lend the script its title). This wistful memoir teems with boisterous characters—Spider, Cannonball, Cat, Mole, Blinky, and so forth— but the protagonist, Eddie Black, “his hair in a pompadour with a slight ducktail,” is Irwin himself. The screenplay’s tone is raucous, but the incessant banter is simultaneously glib and heartfelt.
I asked Irwin if he’d take me on a drive around his old haunts, and he agreed to. As we were walking out to the car, he offered some further speculation on his L.A. youth: “I mean, people talk about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn, and they always dwell on the dark side. I hear all that, and I grant that it makes for good drama, makes for good writing, and makes for good intellects, in a sense. Well, apparently this made for good artists. Because we had nothing to do with all that—no dark side, none of that struggle. Everything was just a flow.”
We climbed into Irwin’s sleek silver 1973 Cadillac Coupe de Ville—one of the few luxuries he allows himself within an otherwise Spartan life style. In one fluid motion, he selected a cassette from a box on the floor, popped it into his tape deck (Benny Goodman filled the car’s interior), slid back the sunroof, and eased out of the driveway. Soon we pulled out into Wilshire and then quickly cloverleafed over to the San Diego Freeway, southbound, in the direction of the airport. We were heading toward one of those amorphous, undifferentiated communities that make up the mid-Los Angeles sprawl: not really a suburb but not the central city, either; not really poor but by no means well endowed. Irwin spent his adolescence on the southeastern edge of Baldwin Hills, just north of Inglewood.
As we threaded in and out of traffic, the warm air swirling about us, I had ben flicking through the box of cassettes on the floor in front of me: Stan Kenton, Artie Shaw, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Al Hibbler, Erksine Hawkins. “That, of course, was a big part of those years,” Irwin said. “The incredible music, and the dancing. In fact, dancing became an important part of my financial picture. At first, when I was thirteen or so, I had no sense of rhythm at all. But I taught myself to dance by using the doorknob in the living room as my partner, and I got to be a pretty good dancer—good enough so that I could contest-dance. For a period, I was entering a contest almost every night of the week. There was a whole circuit: Monday was the Jungle Club, in Inglewood; Tuesday was the Dollhouse, out in the Valley; Wednesday was in Compton; Thursday was in Torrance; Friday was in Huntington Park. You contest-danced with a partner, of course. So you always had one regular partner and a few maybe that you were building up. Because a good partner was crucial: she could make or break you. Interestingly, you usually weren’t romantically involved with your dance partner. That was the thing about dancers, especially in terms of sex: got it all out dancing—that was their whole gig. It was just such a goddam pleasure. Everybody at the school I went to, Dorsey—everybody was really into dancing. We used to dance at lunchtime and then after school. The big step at the time was called the Lindy, which was kind of like the New Yorker, only smoother. The key movement was the shoulder twist, where the girl came directly at your and then you spun each other around and she went on out. When you got it going real smooth, you could get to the point where you were almost literally floating off the ground, acting as counterweights for each other. It was absolutely like flying—just a natural high. So at these contests there were maybe a half-dozen regular couples who made the circuit, and they’d alternate winning, depending on who the judges were. You’d come out one couple at a time. You’d be standing to the side and they’d say, ‘The next couple is Bob Irwin and Ginger Snap,’ or whatever, and you’d take her and throw her in the air, and she’d come down, you’d come boogying out on the side, and then you’d start your routine. And you could make a lot of money doing that. At my peak, I was bringing in upward of a hundred a week.”
In the meantime, we had left the freeway, negotiated a few low hills, and were now easing down toward the flatlands. We passed a skinny wedge of park—crabgrass, rest rooms, asphalt, a dried- out fountain—across the street from which loomed an old Art Deco movie house, now recast as a Jehovah’s Witnesses Assembly Hall, the letters “W-A-T-C-H-T-O-W-E-R” streaming down the face of its ornate tower. “So this here’s Leimert Park,” Irwin said, “and it was kind of the center of our social life—this and the drive-ins. Here’s the theater I worked at for several years. Next door there was a little restaurant called Tip’s, and I’d work there occasionally, too. That parking lot back there, which they shared, is where me and my buddies used to siphon gas out of unsuspecting vehicles. There was rationing in those days.”
This was the first time I’d ever heard him mention the war. Irwin was thirteen at the time of Pearl Harbor, and had just graduated from high school as the war ended. I asked him where he had been on December 7, 1941.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
I asked him about the day the war ended.
“Haven’t the slightest idea.”
I asked if part of the reason he and his friends were having such a fiercely good time was that they believed they were soon going to be shuttled off to war.
“Oh, no.” Irwin dismissed the speculation with a sweep of his hand. “Look. Look at it here. Look at how it is: calm, sunny, the palm trees. What is there to get all upset about?” He laughed. “This is reality. In other words, the war was not reality. The war wasn’t here. The war was someplace else. So any ideas you had about the war were all the things you manufactured in your head from newspapers and that. To me, this was reality—this was my reality right here.”
We had swung out of a business district and were now cruising along a pleasant residential street on the way toward Baldwin Hills. Irwin pointed to a house and said, “Right there is where one of my favorite girlfriends lived.” He paused, and added, “She was the champion. World champion. I could hardly get her out of the car afterwards. She would be absolutely unable to walk. That was my introduction—she was my first major sexual experience. So what I got was this total fantasy of what it was like, because she would literally pass out cold right in the middle of it.”
I asked how old they were.
“She’d be out like—bang! Sixteen. BANG! I mean, just out cold. No girl has ever passed out on my since, you know. I used to have to walk her—I’d park over in this alley and walk her up and down the block just to get her legs going so that she could walk into the house!”
Was that where one generally made out, in cars?
“Sure. The car was the key, the pivotal item in the whole ballgame. Everything was wrapped around the car. The car was your home away from home. And you put months and months into
getting it just right. Everything was thought out in terms of who you were, how you saw yourself, what your identity was.”
I asked him how cars expressed identity.
“Well, first of all, there were three, maybe four categories,” he said. “One was like Go. You built the thing—like my buddies the Cat and the Mole, they built things that were just rat-assed, but boy, they went out like a son of a bitch. The body could be almost falling off, you’d be sitting in an egg crate, but everything was in the engine, and that was very sanitary. Then there was Go- and-Show, which was like a car that went real good but wasn’t necessarily going to be in a class with what the Cat and the Mole could do, but it would look fine. It was a question of taking a car that was a classic model and then just doing the few right things with it to accentuate why it was a classic model—building it up to absolutely cherry condition. Then there was Show, and then there were the ones kind of like Chicano cars are now: lowered way down, everything exaggerated, blue lights under the fenders, angora socks on the window, seats that tilt back, all that sort of bad taste which has now achieved almost the level of a high style.
“Well, I was Category Two, Go-and-Show. Sort of a little bit of both. I mean, the car had to be real good, because it had to have an edge on it. On the other hand, Go-and-Show had much more to do with it being an absolutely classic model, with everything set up just right. I had a very hard time getting one in that condition, because those cars cost a lot of money, but that was my ambition. I remember one car, I laid on twenty coats of ruby-red maroon across the dash before I got it good and cherry.”
How many cars had he worked on his way through as an adolescent?
“Oh, not that many; about half a dozen. A little ’32 roadster, a ’34 five-window coupe . . . The first car I wanted was a ’32 B full-fendered roadster. It was Fred Gledhill’s car, and he was selling it. I didn’t have enough money, and that was the only time I ever asked my father for some money. I asked him for a hundred dollars, just as a loan, so I could make the down. And he wouldn’t or couldn’t lend it to me—I don’t know which. That was the biggest disappointment of my life up to that point. It may be to this day the biggest disappointment—I don’t think I’ve ever had a bigger one. I mean, we won the war and what have you.”
We had circled back to Leimbert Park and were now idling by the crabgrass. I asked Irwin whether his work on cars, more than any art classes he subsequently took, might be seen as the origin of his artistic vocation.
He concurred. “Of course. What’s going on in such situations is precisely an aesthetic activity. A lot of art critics, especially New York Artforum types, have a lot of trouble seeing the validity of such a contention. I once had a run-in with one of them about this; this was years later, in the middle of the Ferus period—say, about 1963. This guy was out here, one of the head honchoes, and he was upset because—What was it? Oh year, because one of our artists, Billy Al Bengston, was racing motorcycles at the time. This critic just dismissed that out of hand as a superficial, suicidal self-induglence. And I said, ‘You can’t do that.’ We got going and ended up arguing about folk art. He was one of those Marxist critics who like to think they’re deeply involved with the people, making great gestures and so forth, but they’re hardly in the world at all. Anyway, he was talking about potmaking and weaving and everything, and my feeling was that that was all historical art, not folk art. As far as I’m concerned, a folk art is taking a utilitarian object, something you use every day, and giving it overlays of your own personality, what it is you feel and so forth. You enhance it with your life. And a folk art right now would more appropriately be
in the area of something like a motorcycle. I mean, a motorcycle can be a lot more than just a machine that runs along; it can be a whole description of a personality and an aesthetic.
“Anyway, I looked it up in the paper, and I found an ad put in by a guy who was selling a hot rod and a motorcycle. And I took the critic out to this place. It was really fortunate, because it was exactly what I wanted. We arrived at this place in the Valley, in the middle of nowhere, and here’s this kid. He’s selling a hot rod and he’s got another he’s working on. He’s selling a ’32 coupe, and he’s got a ’29 roadster in the garage. The ’32 he was getting rid of was an absolute cherry. But what was more interesting—and I was able to show it to the critic—was that here was this ’29, absolutely dismantled, I mean completely apart, and the kid was making decisions about the frame, whether or not he was going to cad-plate certain bolts or was going to leave them raw, as they were; and he was insulating and soundproofing the doors. All kinds of things that no one would ever know or see unless he was truly a sophisticate in the area. But, I mean, real aesthetic decisions, truly aesthetic decisions. Here was a fifteen-year-old kid who wouldn’t know art from schmart, but you couldn’t talk about a more truly aesthetic activity that what he was doing. How should it look? What kind of relationship of its machinery to its social significance? I mean, all these things were being carefully weighed in terms of the aesthetics of how the thing should look. It was a perfect example.
“The critic simply denied it. Simply denied it: not important, unreal, untrue, doesn’t happen, doesn’t exist. See, he comes from a world, in New York, where automobiles are—what? Nothing. Right? I mean, no awareness, no sensitivity, no involvement. So he simply denied it: it doesn’t exist. Like that: ‘Not an issue.’ Which we argued about a little on the way back over the Sepulveda Pass. I said, ‘How can you deny it? You may not be interested, but how can you deny it? I mean, there it is, full-blown, right in front of you, and it’s obviously a folk art!’ Anyway, ‘No, no.’ So I finally just stopped the car and made him get out. I just flat left him there by the road, man, and drove off. Said, ‘See you later, Max.’” Irwin was by now laughing uproariously, relishing the memory of the incident. Calming himself, he continued, “’And that’s basically the last conversation we two have ever had.”
Irwin sighed. “Well,” he said, “I suppose all that’s left to show you is the high school.” He started up the car again, and we cruised through a flat business district for several blocks.
I remarked that, for all the tales of teen-age life that afternoon, the school itself had cropped up only rarely in his recollections.
“From the tenth grade on, I didn’t even have a notebook,” he said. “That shows how seriously I took school. If there was an assignment, I’d scribble it on some scrap of paper. School was essentially a place to go and meet. I went to school, and I went every day, because I was really having a good time—that’s where all the action was.”
We rounded a corner, and there was the school’s sign. “DORSEY HIGH. REGISTRATION, SEPTEMBER 11—SEE YOU SOON!” Irwin was pointing: “Over there, past the main entrance, there’s a large half circle, which is where we all danced during lunch and after school. And over here”—we sidled round toward the playing field, where squadrons of young men (most of them black) in green-and-white jerseys were friskily blocking and tackling each other in the late- afternoon sun—“this was the football field, scene of my many . . . whatever. I played end. We had a very good team, made the city finals. I was a good, solid participant, but hardly the star or anything.”
I wondered how on earth Irwin had had time for all of this; it sounded as if he had lived eighteen adolescences rather than one.
“Well,” he said, “we are talking about three years of high school”—as if that explained everything. He went on to describe how he’d been a floater. “I wasn’t really a member of any particular clique—I floated around among several. There were the guys who were into cars, others who were into girls, others into dancing, others into gambling—I just drifted among them, partaking of everything.”
I asked him about the gambling.
“Well, as you know, Hollywood Park race track is just a few miles back that way. We’re about equidistant here between the race track and the art museum. And there was one group of guys— they hung out over at this pool hall on Adams, and they were into dressing up, wearing suits and porkpie hats, the whole dude routine—who were heavily into gambling, and I hovered around them. Starting around tenth grade, we began going to the ninth race each day, because after the eighth race they just opened the gates and let you in free—otherwise, we couldn’t have bought tickets, because we were still too young. But all day we’d be listening to the race, getting to know the horses, trying to pick ‘em.”
Did he make any money?
“Well, in the very beginning I wasn’t making much—it was two-dollar bets. I didn’t really begin to make money gambling until I turned professional, which was years later. No, I’d win sometimes, lose sometimes. I don’t know whether in the long run I cam out ahead or behind, because I didn’t keep track. If I came out behind, because, for one thing, I could not afford to lose, and, for another, I never liked losing. I mean, losing is something I never took kindly to at all. It’s funny. You know the theory about a gambler’s really being in it for the losing? Well, that’s something that never entered my psyche. Losing—forgetting the money—was just no fun. To me, losing was not interesting. So if I’m losing I don’t play. I never gamble in Las Vegas. I mean, I love to shoot craps. It’s a great game, one of the great gambling games of all time. But basically you can’t win—you’re playing against the house, and it’s strictly percentages, strictly mathematics. You can be a better gambler, have a few winning streaks, but basically you can’t beat mathematics. You can beat other people, by playing better than they do. So any game where it’s man-oh-man, me-against-you—that’s my kind of gambling game.”
During the late sixties, Irwin supplemented his meager art income in part by teaching, but only for short periods. In those days, he claims, his principal source of income was playing the horses. Indeed, it might be said that, after his experiences with cars and his subsequent education at Ferus, horse racing, with its subtle interplay between logic and intuition, constituted the third most important element in the honing of Irwin’s aesthetic sensibility.
The sun was low in the sky no, and we were lazily meandering toward it, back toward the freeway and Irwin’s home. Our conversation was drifting casually. Somehow, gambling led to birth control. I asked Irwin what kids in his circle did about it, whether they worried about pregnancy much.
“Well, we thought about it,” Irwin said. “But not a hell of a lot. You did one thing or another. Sometimes you just kept your fingers crossed. It just depended what the occasion was, who you were with. Got very lucky, I guess. Just plain lucky. Joan sometimes talks about all the girls at her high school, how half of them got pregnant and had to get married even before they graduated. In
my high school, I don’t remember anybody having to get married. No abortions that I can remember. So, sure, it was a concern, but not one that stopped you. Everybody was just lucky, or something. We lived a charmed life.”
By way of preparing for two exhibitions of his disc paintings in New York in 1968, Irwin spent days neutralizing the showing spaces—one of them at the Jewish Museum, the other at the Pace Gallery. He meticulously cleared the floors and repainted the walls. He even compensated for the shadows cast by stray guardrails. This activity, which he had undertaken solely as a way of removing distractions from the viewing experience—something he had often done, without any trouble, in Los Angeles—was, however, perceived by New York critics as an abrasive gesture, just to fetishistic to be ignored, and, indeed, in itself a distraction to any calm viewings of the pieces. Instead of being angered by this response, Irwin was fascinated by it. He came to feel that such critics were right: an activity that meant one thing in Los Angeles could mean something altogether different in New York. Context was everything.
“What I was becoming was critically involved with, there in the late sixties,” Irwin explained to me one afternoon recently, “was that whole mental structure which allows one to focus on particular things rather than other things—why, for example, one focuses on objects rather than light. Under what conditions, I started wondering, do we operate with art as a confined element in the world—in other words, how do we consider an object or a painting as an isolated event in this world, surrounded by the world by somehow not totally or directly attached to it, actually somehow superior to it? The art world is highly invested in the idea that you can take an object and set it in a room, and the interrelationships will be so strong and so meaningful that all the kinds of change that can take place in the object as a result of its being in a new environment will not critically affect the object. If that is the given assumption, then the object can be moved from one environment to another without being critically altered, which then gives rise to the illusion that it can be moved from culture to culture, that it has the ability to transcend its cultural specificity, which in turn gives rise to the ultimate illusion: that the object can transcend time. Because what is being claimed is that there exist certain objects isolated and meaningful enough to be transcendent, that they have the power to go on and on—that they are, as it were, timeless. Well, one of the things that I was becoming involved with at that point in playing artist was the growing suspicion that this breaking down of the edge, the idea of the painting’s moving into its environment—and there were many of us who were exploring that terrain—that this was putting the whole heightened rationale of the art object in doubt. There is simply no real separation line— only an intellectual one—between the object and its time-environment. They are completely interlocking: nothing can exist in the world independent of all the other things in the world. To me, the whole history of contemporary art starts out as a highly informed and highly sophisticated pictorial activity. But by the time I arrived on the scene, as a post-Abstract Expressionist, there was at least the possibility of looking at the world as a kind of continuum rather than as a collection of broken-up and isolated events.”
This idea dominated Irwin’s activity between 1968 and 1970. It was an implicit presence when, in early October of 1970, Irwin opened his Venice studio space for a showing of his “Skylight- Column” installation, one of his acrylic-column experiments. And then, later that month, it rose to the fore when Irwin traveled across the country to the Museum of Modern Art, where he made the first two gestures that, taken together, would constitute the decisive break of his mid-career.
In 1970, most of the curators at the Museum of Modern Art were involved in researching and compiling large-scale historical retrospectives, but one young curator, Jennifer Licht, was trying a more adventuresome approach. She noticed that a small room on the museum’s third floor, off to
the side from the Brancusis, was going to be empty for several months, and she sought museum approval for an installation by the controversial Robert Irwin. It was not readily forthcoming. She did, however, get confirmation that the room was going to remain empty. And so, more or less on her own initiative, she invited Irwin to perform a transformation of the space.
“In other words, the museum had not actually asked me to do it, nor had it appropriated any funds,” Irwin explained to me in his Westwood study late one afternoon. “It did not pay me to come to New York, and when I got there, there was no money to pay painters, electricians, carpenters, and so forth—so there was to be little assistance of that kind. In fact, it was worse than that: the painters, electricians, and carpenters were themselves not going to let me touch the room—you know, infringement on union prerogatives; it was their thing—so I had to arrange with them privately, on the side, before they’d let me do it. Furthermore, I wasn’t allowed to do certain things during museum hours. So what happened was that I began staying there late, along with my buddy Jack Brogan, who had been a technical consultant on several of my earlier projects. We spent about a week there, trying out all sorts of different solutions.”
There were no two ways about it: the room was an ugly room. It was jammed into one corner on the third floor, wrapped squat and L-shaped around a concealed fire staircase that protruded from one corner. Access was possible only from one side, through a narrow floor-to-ceiling passage at the base of the L. As Irwin recalls the space, the walls were “fat”—the kind of walls you’d find in a basement, bowed as if by too much weight. “So that was all kind of interesting,” Irwin said, “because there was no way that room was ever going to be beautiful. Its basic properties were just too clumsy.”
Irwin arrived in New York with the intention of reproducing one of his conventional bag of tricks—columns, low walls, whatever—based on his earlier Venice explorations. But none of them seemed to fit, or, at any rate, they couldn’t simply be stenciled onto the new conditions. The awkwardness of the room itself forced him toward the next phase of his endeavor: each installation from then on would have to arise out of the unique configurations presented by each new site. “Instead of my overlaying my ideas onto that space, that space overlaid itself onto me,” Irwin told me.
Irwin spent several nights just sitting there taking in the situation. Then he cleaned the walls, repaired the floor. He tried this and that, put things up and took them down. Finally, he made his decision. It consisted of three principal moves. The room’s ceiling was bisected by two banks of recessed fluorescent lights. “Actually, they had once been part of a set of skylights that ran the entire length of the museum, passing right over the various walls. They were about two feet wide and four feet deep, with an old-fashioned egg-crate-like filter at the bottom, about two inches thick. The museum people had long since stopped using them as skylights, so the egg crates were all dirty, and inside there were these fluorescent fixtures that ran the entire length of the museum. Well, I cleaned the skylights and then took two colors of light—a warm and a cool, a pinkish and a greenish white. I mean, if you had seen either by itself it would have just seemed white, the way this bulb over here seems white, even though it’s decidedly yellow. Anyway, there were eight fluorescent tubes altogether in the two banks, and I interspersed them, warm-cool-warm-cool. And when you put them side by side like that the pink one made the green look green, and vice versa. It was very strong—almost too strong, too romantic in a way—and yet a lot of people didn’t see it at all. The egg-crate filter tended to diffuse the light through the room into very subtle checkerboards of warm and cool, but these, in turn, naturally blended, and it was almost as if the room had a rainbow in it. That was the decisive gesture; everything else merely complemented it.”
The most awkward element in the room had been the far wall, the longest and most squat, opposite the entrance. Irwin addressed its presence by stretching a single strand of piano wire, taut, at eye level, parallel to and about a foot in front of the wall. He and Brogan devised a way of having the wire seem to pierce the walls on either side. “Then we painted the first six inches or so of the wire white at each end,” Irwin told me, “so that, even walking within a foot of it, you could not see the wire going into the wall. And I daubed a little bit of white at various other places as well, so that the wire seemed to come and go. You had this visual element that you couldn’t really hold in focus, no matter how hard you tried. It was just too slight. And yet, at the same time, you couldn’t ever really look at the back wall, either, because your eye was always getting caught up by this line. Your eye became suspended. And if you hadn’t had the subtle colorations to orient yourself by—and they were very metastable—then it would have been hard to tell where the wall was: it could have been two, four, ten, fifteen feet back. Your ability to focus on it and hold it in place had been destroyed.”
Finally, Irwin took a swath of white scrim—a sheer, translucent fabric—and stretched it horizontally about four feet down from the ceiling in an even plane halfway across the room. One bank of lights shimmered behind it, the other was exposed. As one entered the space, one was thus confronted with two distinct volumes of light (four feet above, and eight feet below). “That scrim, like the wire, tended to affect the space as a kind of defocusing element,” Irwin has explained. “It’s very hard to focus on that material—it sets up an ambiguity that makes everything do one of two things: become either ambiguous or razor-sharp by comparison. Like where a corner is will be very hard and extra clear. But where there’s just surface will be very ambiguous. So everything in that installation conspired to skew your expectations, to raise some and lower others, so that your perceptual mechanism became tilted, and you perceived the room as you otherwise might not have. And that was all that was there. There was nothing else besides that.”
There was not even any attribution. The museum—which had never been entirely enthusiastic about the project but, now that it was up, was going to do its best to standardize the phenomenon—put up a label, almost by force of habit, and Irwin had a friend at Pace go over and take it down. “I wanted to set it up as an opportunity that the spectator would have to deal with,” Irwin told me. “In other words, you had to decide whether the room was there. Well, you knew the room was there, but you had to decide whether what was there was intended—whether or not it was finished, you know—before you even got to the question of whether or not it was art. You had to deal with the simplest questions. Which I felt was rather nice, because not only didn’t we label it but we didn’t explain it in any way.”
Ironically, the more knowledgeable one was, it seemed, the less chance one had of “getting it.” Irwin said later, “A very naïve audience could simply walk in—people who had no criteria for determining whether it was art or not—and they could just like it or not, but they would immediately know what was going on and respond to it, one way or another. Whereas the more knowledgeable person—with his or her expectations about what it was supposed to be, and about what art was and should be—tended to have a great deal of trouble with it.”
Irwin had an opportunity to experience this peculiar phenomenon the very day he opened the room. “I was standing there that afternoon,” he recalls, “and next to me were my friends, the people who were on my side, who were rooting for me in the situation—people like Jenny Licht and Arnold Glimcher, the head of the Pace Gallery. They were seeing it for the first time, and they were kind of quiet. There was that nice awkward silence that’s in the air when people don’t quite know what to say or do. They were standing first on one foot and then on the other. I still had the area closed off with a divider, but it was slightly ajar, and this black kid, about fifteen
years old, peered around the corner and immediately said, ‘Yeah, wow, man, O.K., all right. Hey, baby, this is all right.’ He just came I the room and spun around—sort of walked around in a circle, revolving as he went—just sort of really reacting and responding to it. And then he asked me if I’d done it, and I said yeah, and he said, ‘That’s just fine, man, that’s all right, O.K.’ And then he said thanks and walked out, leaving, as I say, my friends there, a little bewildered as to what the hell to do. In all fairness, as the days went by they really warmed to the piece.”
Irwin, however, didn’t wait around. He left the next day, returning to Los Angeles. And then something very interesting happened: nothing. “It was kind of amazing,” Irwin told me. “There was no response at all. It was up there for three and a half months. There was no official announcement made of it, but, more curiously, no one even wrote about it, which is very interesting, considering that this was right in the middle of an art milieu where if you sneeze it gets recorded, dissected, and analyzed. Things like that are picked up automatically when you do something at the Museum of Modern Art. I mean, I know that a great number of people saw it. You just have to assume they did. Whether they saw it, I don’t know. But they were there—they went through it. And yet no one wrote a single word about it, which I found very interesting and, in a funny way, kind of flattering, because it really was not intended to lend itself to being dissected and analyzed. So, in effect, they responded without knowing they had responded. But still, I got a funny feeling at one point—a doubt whether I had done that piece at all. I had got no response, and the question of identity became very real.”
The “Skylight-Column” installation was still up in Irwin’s Venice studio the week he returned from New York, but he found that it didn’t make sense anymore. Something was wrong. For over a decade, he had been following a trajectory straight through, each question opening out onto the next—the lines to the dots, the dots to the discs, the discs to the columns—but after the Modern Art piece there occurred a fundamental transformation. He had been following the questions through; now he was about to follow them straight out.
“It had been a long journey,” Irwin told me. “Starting out from my more or less formal approach as a painter, I had now arrive at a point where, in a sense, I had dismantled the whole thing: image, line, frame, focus, transcendability. I’d been dismantling the art endeavor, but in the process I’d dismantled myself. My questions had now become way in excess of any answers that I had, or even any possibility of answers. And it seemed to me that if I continued doing what I was doing I was simply never going to get answers to my questions. I would simply do those things, maybe do them better, or I’d extend them, maybe make them richer. So I really had a decision to make at that point, and it was a fairly radical one in my life. See, I felt that if each day I got up and went down the street, basically the same street, and went into that studio, which was a room of a particular scale and size, and so on and so forth, and if I took with me all my expertise—and that’s something you can’t help doing in a situation like that, bring the things you’ve learned to be good at (and I’d learned a lot of techniques)—I would essentially continue to do the same thing. And I didn’t know exactly how to resolve that. But what I did was the simplest kind of thing—which was not an answer but I think fairly reasonable, given the dilemma—and that was to get rid of those habits and practices altogether. I cut the knot. I got rid of the studio, sold all the things I owned—all the equipment, all my stuff—and, without knowing what I was going to do with myself or how I was going to spend my time, I simply stopped being an artist in those senses. I just closed by studio and quit.”
(This is the first part of a two-part article.)