I am out of range for several weeks. I will be back to musing, both fast and slow, on June 1.
For updates in the interim:
By Deborah Barlow
Robert Irwin holds a particular place in the California annals of contemporary art, and he holds a particular place for me personally. He figured larger than life during my formative years as an artist coming of age on the west coast. I watched as he worked his way through an intense exploration into painting and as he ended up being more interested in the nature of perception than in objects themselves. By the late 60’s he didn’t even want his work to be photographed: Art should only be accessed through direct experience. You have to see an Irwin to “see” it.
“Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change” is currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. It is the first exhibit to focus on his evolution as an artist during that period of intensity “when, in full experimental mode, he was shifting the emphasis of his own art from psychic encounters to physical ones, from precious objects to environments, places of contemplation” (Holland Cotter, in the New York Times.) “Images, he soon realized, were a problem. They implied messages to be deciphered, narratives to be read, and he wanted to get away from all that. He wanted to stay abstract, but also to grow more expansive.”
In 1970, Irwin stopped making objects altogether. He closed his studio and engaged in site-specific installations only, ones that were perception-altering. In an interview recorded at LACMA in 1973 (it runs in a loop at the exhibit), Irwin talks about the new “beyond painting” projects that were compelling him at that point in time, from working with NASA to urban environmental design. Many know him for his iconic work in conceptualizing the Dia:Beacon facility and in developing the extraordinary gardens that encompass the Getty Center.
For example, this passage from Seeing Is Forgetting: The Name of the Thing One Sees, A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, by Lawrence Weschler, speaks to that search for the essential:
“The big challenge for me,” he recalls, “starting around then, the ‘less is more’ challenge, was simply always to try to maximize the energy, the physicality of the painting, and to minimize the imagery. It could all be looked at essentially as turning the entire question upside down: moving away from the literate, conceptual rationale and really reestablishing the inquiry on the perceptual, tactile level. Nobody quite understood that at the time, because they were still thinking in image terms and in terms of literate connotations. When they talked about a painting, they translated it into subject matter, in a way, but it’s not only about that. It’s about presence, phenomenal presence. And it’s hard: if you don’t see it, you just don’t see it; it just ain’t there. You can talk yourself blue in the face to somebody, and if they don’t see it, they just don’t see it. But once you start seeing it, it has a level of reality exactly the same as the imagery—no more, no less. And basically, that’s what I’m still after today. All my work since then has been an exploration of phenomenal presence.
While my work takes a very different form and may not appear to be in alignment with Irwin’s aesthetic, I resonate deeply with his point of view and the way he languages his art making. His phrase, “phenomenal presence” is one I come back to again and again. (At the bottom of this post is a list of links to earlier Slow Muse posts that focused on Irwin’s writings and point of view.)
The Hirschhorn show is an extraordinary walk through Irwin’s intensely considered journey, one that brings the viewer closer to how he evolved his intention and his gifts. The show is well curated and memorable. It runs through September 5.
More from Cotter’s review:
In 1970 he did something ultra-discreet [at the Museum of Modern Art]: He changed the dimensions of a small gallery by partly lowering the ceiling with a stretch of white scrim. Other, far grander commissions followed over the next 45 years, for site-specific installations in museums, government buildings, airports and parks. When [curator] Ms. Hankins requested a new piece to conclude this show, which will not travel, he returned to the simplicity of the 1970 model. He left the last large gallery in the Hirshhorn’s circling sequence empty but for one element: a floor-to-ceiling white scrim that stretches the length of one wall and gives the illusion of straightening its curve.
The change is both so subtle and so fundamental that it can take even an observant eye time to see it, the way rules can be hard to recognize until long after they’re broken. We accept as a given that art — “great” art — is permanent, precious, the product of personal power, to which Mr. Irwin says: No. He proposes, instead, that art is mutable and conditional. Its materials are ordinary (fabrics, space, light). Its power lies neither in the hand of the maker nor in the eye of the perceiver, but in the meeting, on springy, shifting, flowering ground, between the two.
Slow Muse and Robert Irwin:
Joan Acocella, long standing dance and culture writer for the New Yorker, discusses how the path of a new idea comes into form in her recent article, A Nice Little Talk. She uses a set of conversations held between dancers as a good example of how furtive it can be. “Artists will sometimes talk about such matters, but in my experience they are less likely to do so in a regular interview, where an expert is asking them questions such as ‘Can you tell me about your process?’ Indeed, it’s likely that they are most forthcoming without a questioner altogether.”
That new idea, a bolt of inspiration, a “throughline” that just appears and carries us into new work—these are the ineffables most artists are looking for. Or waiting for. They are a class of experience that essentially lives outside our zone of control, and how they come to constellate in our creative lives is usually a surprise.
Here’s Acocella’s take on that peculiar path:
I think that most of us still believe that art originates in solitary inspiration, a sort of bolt to the brain, the way Jesus was beamed into the Virgin Mary in those paintings of the Annunciation. There is some empirical support here. If you talk to artists, they will often describe a feeling of openness, receptivity, that accompanied their getting a really good idea. But this is probably true of people in all fields, not just art. Also, chances are that they had had that idea for a long time, and that the feeling they are describing is actually one of release: the idea is freed from impediments, things that were dragging it down. In other words, what these people are experiencing is not the beginning of their piece but its middle, when they say to themselves that maybe it doesn’t have to be performed outdoors or nude or solo or whatever. Then, suddenly, everything that was awful before becomes O.K. In any case, it is amazing, sometimes, to hear artists tell you how many years they worked on an idea, how many times they laid it aside, how many versions they made, and tore up—or didn’t.
The incubation period of an idea—or an inchoate proclivity—is often unclear. Until it isn’t. Incubation and its mysteries are on my mind a lot these days as we await the arrival of my daughter Kellin‘s son Rhodes. After all, the birth of a child is a particular example of the release Acocella refers to.
I’m so happy to be showing my work with two artist friends whose work I admire greatly, Kay Canavino and Ramah Commanday. The idea of exhibiting with them seemed so appealing to me several years ago, and now we have a show that will travel to several locations over the next few years. The first venue for UNDER, ABOVE, EVERYWHERE: CELEBRATING MATERIALITY, will be at the Christopher Brodigan Gallery at Groton School in Massachusetts. Details about the show are below as well as a brief description of the exhibit and the artists.
I love seeing my paintings in conversation with Kay’s other worldly photographs and Ramah’s earthy vessels. My only regret is that I will not be able to join in at the artist reception on April 17. I am needed in Italy where my new grandson Rhodes is making his way onto the planet. That is its own sacred celebration of materiality after all.
The digital and the virtual have deeply penetrated contemporary culture and consciousness, often resulting a breezy disregard for the materiality that is so fundamental to life in the multiverse. The primary elements–air, space, water, minerals and fire, so essential to our sense of ourselves and the reality we share–are easily overlooked in the rush towards the sophisticated, the cerebral, the ephemeral. And yet materiality is the very counterpoint so desperately needed to bring a sense of balance to lives that are increasingly lived in artificial realities.
In this exhibit, three artists—a painter, a photographer and a ceramicist—comingle their individual methods and media to assemble a multi-dimensional celebration of the glorious materiality that is everywhere in the universe. Deborah Barlow engages with space and the atmosphere as a sourcebook for nonrepresentational paintings that speak to the expansiveness beyond the earth’s domain. Kay Canavino has developed an ingenious method of photographing the enigmatic and beguiling waterscapes that populate under the surface. Ramah Commanday constructs micro-geological worlds from clay, exploring how the processes of massive geological change—motion, heat, cooling—can be used to construct her planetary forms.
Together these artists invite the viewer to engage with the enchantment and the mystery of the under, the above, and the everywhere. This celebration of unabashed materiality—of our world as well as in each work of art—offers a rich reminder of what is essential to our nature.
UNDER, ABOVE, EVERYWHERE: Celebrating Materiality
April 5 – May 22, 2016
Christopher Brodigan Gallery
282 Farmers Row
Groton MA 01450
978 448 7637
Artist Reception: Sunday, April 17, 2-4pm
Gallery hours: Monday through Friday, 9-5
In writing about inspiration and meditation, musician and performer Amanda Palmer described the conundrum posed by those two concepts:
The songwriter in me struggles like mad when meditating. The rules of my conditioned art-mind say that nothing must stand in the way of a developing idea. When inspiration calls, follow. If I should be struggling with anything in my life, it should be taking that impossibly disciplined step from thought to pen to paper, from seed to full song.
I watch this mental boxing match take place with interest. In one corner sits a meditator, who calmly suggests that good ideas will linger if they are worthwhile. And so what if they don’t? The songs are not happening; only sitting is happening. In the other corner paces the crazed composer with the mind specifically cultivated to jump from image to word to melody in an effort to create a work of art that will move her fellow humans.
A perfect song, to me, is a captured moment of inspiration barely touched. When a good idea hits, it’s as if I’ve thrown a set of colored juggling balls in the air and taken a blurred (yet beautiful) photograph. If I develop that photo unaltered, I will have a perfect image. If I am convinced that I can get a better photo (just a little better) by juggling again before it gets dark and the light changes, I’m screwed. This is where sitting and art-making go hand in hand. Spending hour after hour laboring on finding the perfect line or the perfect arrangement of notes is about as productive as wandering the world seeking the perfect tree under which you’ll find enlightenment.
Her image speaks to so many aspects of creativity: the mind engaged versus the mind emptied, how to hold those moments when lightning strikes, how diddling can wear away at what has its own raw power, the illusion that there is a better tree or a better road.
She completes her exploration with this understanding: “Creativity isn’t necessarily an obstacle to meditation but, rather, its fruit…The moment of divine inspiration may strike at any time; the true meditation is to have the power and clarity to decide when, where, how, and even if I want to be struck.”
In one of the essays included in William Gibson‘s book, Distrust That Particular Flavor, he refers to the “personal micro-culture” that every artist creates around herself. “We [are] shaped as writers, I believe, not much by who our favorite writers are as by our general experience of fiction.”
That notion of a micro-culture extends beyond formative creativity and primal concepts like “anxiety of influence,” Harold Bloom‘s provocative theory about the poet’s need to break free of those who were most influential. It is a description that applies to so many aspects of our lives. We get pocketed into a particular strata with demographic, economic and social dimensions. We are taught and we are imbued—as if by osmosis—with ideas and beliefs that may or may not be well suited for us. But moving in and out of those micro-cultures isn’t a given.
Class consciousness—the English version—is a familiar and prevalent theme. The Thomas Cromwell series by Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies), is full of the problematic dynamics of a blacksmith’s son becoming the powerul confidante to a king. As Downton Abbey’s run in the U.S. came to an end last week, the show’s upstairs/downstairs setting in the mid-1920s offered premonitions of changes coming to the old order. But as we all know, class consciousness is still very deeply in tact in the English culture.
A recent production of H.M.S. Pinafore performed by Chicago’s high energy theater company The Hypocrites (at the American Repertory’s Oberon Theater through March 20), is yet another story based on a theme of class. In typical Hypocrite deconstructionist style, the cast and audience are blended together, gender roles are switched, and the set is a pajama party with lots of pillows and a slide. Fun abounds in this production, but the us/them, high brow/low brow themes still echo from the play’s 19th century roots. The revelation of two babies switched at birth, one high-born and the other a commoner, puts everything back in its proper place. Tip top.
Of course it isn’t just the English who have a long tradition of exclusion and class consciousness. August Wilson‘s brilliant How I Learned What I Learned, a memoir in monologue, (at the Huntington Theater in Boston through April 3) is a piercing view into the striated society of Wilson’s childhood in the disadvantaged Hill District of Pittsburgh. Wilson goes beyond the personal to the larger arcs that impact our lives:
My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century, and for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job. But since 1863, it’s been hell. It’s been hell because the ideas and attitudes that Americans had toward slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation’s psyche.
During a jarringly ugly political campaign season in the U.S., I keep asking what it will take to shift old patterns, to move away from the us/them dichotomy that underlies so much of the hate and rhetoric. Admittedly that is a question some would call naive. But it is larger than social systems, religion, race, economics. It speaks to what it will take to dismantle the crippling notion of separateness, from each other and from our planet. So that’s a question I will keep asking.
A few ideas have been perennially circulating in my thinking lately. One is that consensus reality is overrated. I am increasingly interested in connecting with what might be termed the invisible elements of life.
The other is that the perpetual 24/7 news cycle that permeates our lives is more destructive on our consciousness than we might suppose.
So when my friend Megan Hustad shared a link to this excerpt, by artist Carol Bove, from the book, Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life, I was heartened to find similar sentiments beautifully expressed.
Carol Bove on art making and the concept of “time and information management:”
I started to adjust my thinking about productivity so that it was no longer valued in and of itself. It strikes me as vulgar always to have to apply a cost/benefit analysis to days lived; it’s like understanding an exchange of gifts only as barter…
And there was more to it than that: I was able to begin the process of withdrawal from my culture’s ideology around the instrumentality of time, i.e. that you can use time. I think the ability to withdraw from consensus reality is one of the most important skills for an artist to learn because it helps her to recognize invisible forces.
Your time is not a separate thing from you; it’s not an instrument. Time is part of what you’re made from. Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” Everything that you do and think about is going to be in your artwork. The computer-science idea “garbage in, garbage out” applies to artists. This is something to consider when you’re choosing your habitual activities.
One question is, how do you create a way of being in the world that allows new things (ideas, information, people, places) into your life without letting everything in? I want to point out that your tolerance for media saturation might be lower than you realize. You need to conduct an open-ended search that doesn’t overwhelm you with information and at the same time doesn’t limit the search in a way that pre-determines your findings. That is a puzzle.
Like “chop wood, carry water,” Bove’s advice is about daily practice and an approach to living. And although this is stated simply, that doesn’t make it easy. Some codes are never completely cracked. We all just start from wherever we are.
Helpful thoughts when you’ve tipped into overload:
Now, everything gets dropped into our laps, and there are really only two responses…culling and surrender.
Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time…Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.”
It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to…If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.
From a previous post featuring Linda Holmes’s piece, The Sad, Beautiful Fact the We’re all Going to Miss Almost Everything.
I’m a passionate fan of Hilary Mantel‘s books, especially Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. In a profile of the author by Larissa Macfarquhar that appeared in the New Yorker in 2012, Mantel’s way of working rings familiar:
Difficult as it is for her to be loose, it is even more difficult for her to be lazy; but that, too, is something she has had to learn to become, because the best ideas come to her when her mind is idle…
Some days, she acts busy to convince herself, even though it is the days when she makes not a single mark on the paper which yield weeks and weeks of work. It is very hard to cede control. “I don’t think one ever quite learns to trust the process,” she says. “I feel, What if I wake up tomorrow and I can’t do it anymore? I know I’ll always be able to write, in the sense of having a robust style that’s sufficient to the occasion, and I know that books can be got onto the page by craft, but the thing that makes a phrase that fizzes on the paper—you always fear that may not be there any longer, because, after all, you did nothing to deserve it. You did nothing to contrive it. It’s just there. You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.”
Mantel cuts to the core fear of the process-driven creative life:
You did nothing to deserve it.
You did nothing to contrive it.
It’s just there.
You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.
Trusting the process—and the mind set it requires—is a longstanding theme for me, as it is for many artists. How refreshing to encounter a similar point of view from Mantel, someone so masterfully linear in her ability to blend historical accuracy with storytelling brilliance.
The “pocketed” fear she has encountered is often subtle and transparent, but it can inflict, influence, derail, detract. A few phrases have steadied me over the years:
Stay in a state of wonder.
Sit quietly and listen.
Disengage from the concepts of success and failure.
Love uncertainty and the unknown.
It’s about the work, not about you.
And posted here earlier but always worth a reread, this list was found in the papers of Richard Diebenkorn after his death in 1993. (Spelling and capitalization are left untouched.)
Notes to myself on beginning a painting
1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
5. Dont “discover” a subject — of any kind.
6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
6. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
7. Keep thinking about Polyanna.
8. Tolerate chaos.
9. Be careful only in a perverse way.
These last few weeks were spent in Oman, UAE and Sri Lanka. The ancient traditions—Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist—are deep and leave me feeling humbly outside a true understanding of these profound songlines. The eyes take it in, but they are just the first step in truly seeing.
Here are just a few images from this most recent journey.
Sita Eliya Temple, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. According to legend, this temple marks the spot where Sita (from the Ramayana) was held captive by her abductor, King Ravana. Some claim this is the only Sita temple in the world.