Heavy Like a Living Thing
This Continues to Be the Best Book About Art I've Ever Read
Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees
by Lawrence Weschler
(University of California Press) $17.95
The book is soft and heavy like a living thing, its pages slightly silkier than paper. It is called Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. It was published in 1982. On the cover is a photograph of a building with an arched brick overhang on an empty street. Two people in rich black silhouette stand under the archway with their backs to us, peering at a foggy area on the building where a picture window ought to be. They lean in, seeing something we can't make out.
"People came and sat on the opposite curb, watching, sometimes for hours at a time," says a note on the back of the book, describing the two-week 1980 installation where the artist Robert Irwin knocked out an exterior wall in a vacant building in Venice, California, and replaced it with a white scrim.
We will have to take the note's word for it. The effect is unphotographable. Also illegible are images of other artworks by Irwin on the glossy pages that usually form the candy center of an art book. In 1976, when Lawrence Weschler set out to write Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, he must have realized the book could have failed miserably, because Irwin's art is designed for live, personal perception, not photography or talk.
Which makes Seeing Is Forgetting not only the best book on an artist ever, but also the most unlikely candidate for being the best book on an artist ever.
The first time I saw Irwin's work in person was in 1997, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla. In an otherwise vacant gallery, three small squares had been cut out of the existing bank of windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The spaces held the real, lemony morning light, while the view through the surrounding windows was just a little darker. Aside from the basic ingenuity of Irwin's act, the feelings these simple openings incited in me were many and private; just then I was a native small-town upstate New Yorker who had come of age, fallen in love, and been embraced by a family of in-laws, all in glamorous California locales.
Neither the Seattle Art Museum nor the Henry Art Gallery has any Irwin; the Portland Art Museum has a disc. The Wrights have a column; let's hope they leave it to SAM. But Seattle's Nine Spaces, Nine Trees, installed outside the Public Safety Building on Fourth Avenue in 1983, is relocating to the Henry on the University of Washington campus. It will open in spring.
For someone whose art exists more in sensations and experiences than in language-ready thoughts, Irwin is superlatively well spoken. His diffuse art sits on quite firm intellectual ground. He tells tight, dense stories in long, unbroken lines. Instead of fighting him, Weschler made a biography that looks like a river of quotes with only passing stops on land, but is actually a highly developed artifice, with poetry and insight doing the steering. (Best is the transition from the grime and ketchup of the racetrack to the original white cube of the Museum of Modern Art.)
Weschler starts the book midstream, Irwin saying, "And then when I came back..." The quotes can go on for pages, and the pages go fast. Irwin is a Californian postwar character, marked by violent ambition and Zen serenity. He gets into fistfights with dealers. He leaves a powerful (unnamed) New York critic by the side of a dusty L.A. road. He holds days-long staring contests with his paintings to figure out what to do next. He wanders onto the island of Ibiza, rents a cabin, and stays eight months without exchanging a word with anyone.
On plain subjects—contest dancing or hot rods or horse betting (for several years he made most of his income at the track)—he is obsessive, entrenched, and philosophical; when it comes to the lofty realm of art, his thoughts are as clear and airy as his cut-out windows.
He's propelled by cycles of curiosity and boredom. First he makes beautifully realistic drawings and paintings (that his mother hangs on to and loves), then he breaks it down to abstract expressionism, strips away the gesture to lines and dots, unites the painting with its environment by making white discs that melt into their shadows and the walls, stops painting altogether and makes nearly invisible columns and subtly altered rooms, and, finally, works outdoors, in big, sweeping projects that become their own sensory universes. Following Irwin through his career, you ride along art history, too. All you do is read, and things become clear, like seeing your own bones.