Staying Curious

Robert Irwin

The one and only Robert Irwin, saying it in his inimitable plain speak:

Some people call it “the inner life of the painting,” all that romantic stuff, and I guess that’s a way of talking about it. But shapes on a painting are just shapes on a canvas unless they start acting on each other and really, in a sense, multiplying. A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it. It’s a psychic build-up, but it’s also a pure energy build-up. And the good artists knew it, too. That’s what a good Vermeer has, or a raku cup, or a Stonehenge. And when they’ve got it, they just jump off the goddamn wall. They just, bam!

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.

I come back to these favorite quotes constantly, holding them as a talismanic reminder of what really matters in a creative practice. Those of us who are about that work make assessments every day, repeatedly. Is this coming together? Is this moving? Is it taking on a life of its own? Maybe you get some feedback, a review or a useful critique. But in the end the process is personal, private and subjective.

The same thing happens out in the world. Some work “jumps off the goddamn wall” at me, and some does not. Walking through a museum with a friend, we each assemble our list of those that speak to us. Sometimes we overlap, but I am often surprised by the variety. What’s more, my list changes a lot over time, depending on where my attention has been pulling me.

I know this proclivity to the subjective puts me on a slippery slope. The canonical approach—works that are chosen and blessed by those in power—serves as a steadying force in the world, providing standards and guidance in all the flux and chaos. Sometimes I am in alignment with that authoritative vetting process, and sometimes I am not.

Always in the back of my mind are the artists who slipped between the cracks completely but had, in the end, undeniable wall jumping genius: Van Gogh. Henry Darger. Francesca Woodman. Vivian Maier. Ken Price. Each of us could easily add a few more names to that “Overlooked but Great” list since there are so many.

Market forces come and go. So do fads and trends. What remains steady for me through it all is the commitment to just stay curious. It is the mindset I need in my studio and in the world. That one concept is the most powerful antidote I know to tendencies we all struggle with: narrowing categories, drifting into discouragement, thinking we have it all figured out. Staying curious keeps me looking, asking, learning and considering. Better at navigating than the straight up canonical, curiosity is my most valuable tool.

Staying curious with my own work: My latest painting, “Satha,” 66 x 72,” mixed media on linen

5 Replies to “Staying Curious”

  1. Love reading this & love seeing the painting, your work always inspires me!

  2. John Rawlings says:

    Those are words to live by. Thank you for this.

  3. First, “Satha” is beautiful (if I may use that term); I viewed your paintings at Chautauqua, and face-to-painting adds even more to the joy. Second, I’ve been photographing artists (writers, painters, etc) over 60 and asking about what keeps them creating. I don’t recall anyone, of the 20 or so I’ve photographed, saying anything about curiosity; I think they try to find something perhaps more “intellectual” to say, as if curiosity isn’t enough. But I think it’s a good foundation for what comes afterward. Gary Winogrand said something to the effect “I photograph because I want to see what something looks like photographed.” That approach keeps me going.

  4. I really like your painting.
    And this from Irwin: “A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it.” Your work has that interactive buildup, too.

  5. George Wingate says:

    My first response is a competitive one… can I match Barlow, Irwin, Blake, or Stonehenge?
    That impulse is the band aid on this artist’s never-healing wound. The only recourse is a bright hope, a sunny day of snowy melting freshets expressed into drab emotion. Nothing to do with yucky band aid or open wound.
    It is about necessity and not ego…I hope.
    (Mystic fish shimmering)

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