Phenomenal Presence: Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin

The books stacked by my bed may appear to be pliantly passive, but don’t be fooled: the daily jostling that rotates one to the top spot is a highly competitive challenge. Feelings have been hurt, I can sense it, when that slim volume of finely chiseled poetry gets usurped by, dare I say it, non-fiction. There’s something touchingly poignant about being shunted aside—especially after having provided hours of sensuous pleasure—by a brazen and confident competitor whose voluptuous content titillates the mind into delirium.

The latest interloper to command control of my bedstand stack is Seeing Is Forgetting: The Name of the Thing One Sees, A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, by Lawrence Weschler. I’ve quoted from this book on this blog before (see my posting on May 12, 2008), and have read parts of it in the past. But as is the case with so many things in life, timing is everything. This book fell back into my hands recently, and I can’t put it down. I’m smitten. No doubt the other bedside volumes are murmuring their frustration with an infatuation that is lasting a little too long. Sorry, but this one is so seductive and provocative, and it is speaking to me right down to my bones.

During my formative years growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Robert Irwin—along with his cohorts Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price et al—were running their own art solar system out of Southern California with no fealty paid to that putative (and to some degree, self-anointed) center of the art world, New York. Their approach was insouciant, non-pedigree, fresh. As a young artist living outside the power grid of the East Coast, I was compelled by their confidence and transgressive points of view. And what a willful proclivity to be persnickety! For example, Irwin forbade any photographic reproduction of his work for a number of years, convinced that a photograph can only convey image, not presence. Cataloging and marketing be damned. I remember thinking, wow. Those guys were just so…cool.

Now, years later, I am reading the “story about the story” of Irwin and his crew during that extremely important period in their artistic evolution. What keeps striking me is how extraordinarily aligned I am with many of the issues they championed. I didn’t fully comprehend the full import as a much younger artist. Now seems to be the time when I am most able to understand, really understand, what Irwin was saying.

So many salient quotes could be offered here from this fascinating book. I’m sure I’ll be posting more from Weschler’s account in the weeks to come. But here is a start to give you some sense of Irwin’s point of view:

Irwin sometimes singles out a particular achievement of Willem de Kooning’s. “Really the best abstract expressionist paintings ever—in my opinion the best single ones—were an at-the-time recent series of large paintings by de Kooning. And one of the things about them is that they have this quality: it’s as if they were done in ten minutes. They look utterly spontaneous. A few simple gestures just explode on the canvas. But the control is amazing! The stroke stops and the paint splashes, but with the precision of the lace on a Vermeer collar. I mean, having done those kinds of paintings and tried to get that kind of freshness, I know the guy was really a master. He really knew what he was doing.”

And another:

“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.

More to come, to be sure.

4 Replies to “Phenomenal Presence: Robert Irwin”

  1. Elatia Harris says:

    Okay, I’ll read this book.

    I first met Robert Irwin in 1970, when the then-director of the then-Pasadena Museum of Art was installing two Irwin pieces in his home. One was a greyish white cast acrylic disc about 6 ft. in diameter, slightly curved, with a polished metal band across it. Quite astonishing. Underneath it was a waterbed, the same color, the same size. Irwin knew about this juxtaposition and was considered too cool to care. I learned he had made himself quite independent of the art world’s financial knocks by getting his living from betting on horses. What was his secret? He always bet to win.

    In the early 80’s, I attended his 50th birthday party, and actually got to sit beside him. By then, he was — to look at — the genius straight from Central Casting: the beard, the far-seeing blue gaze, level no matter what it found. I was familiar with his famous prohibition of the camera wherever his work was shown, and I wanted to draw him out a bit about it. He told me that, years from now, he didn’t want the reputation of his work, or any interest people had in it, to depend on there being good shots of it easily obtained. That was the way we knew the world, including the Taj Mahal, he said, and there was really something wrong with that, something he refused to participate in. What must he think of the Internet?

  2. Both quotes are great but that second one, in particular, took hold. Amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  3. E, great vignette about Irwin. Thank you for sharing it here. And Ybonesy, I’m glad you connected with that second quote–I am still feeling it after 10 reads.

  4. […] applied and obligatory meaning. It’s Irwin’s memorable phrase that I referenced in an earlier posting—phenomenal presence. As Weschler posts in describing Irwin’s line canvases: They only work […]

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