“If you ask me for the sum total, asked me ‘What is your ambition?’” Irwin now said, “basically, the answer is just to make you a little more aware than you were the day before of how beautiful the world is. That isn’t saying that I know what the world should look like. It’s not that I’m rebuilding the world. What artists do is to teach you how to exercise your own potential; they always have.”
Lawrence Weschler’s 1982 book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, (now available in an updated 2008 version) is a portrait that exemplifies the record we hope to read for an artist whose work is often impersonal. We begin to see how acutely individual and personal it all really is. Irwin sees and in turn finds opportunities to make us see. This book has been recommended to me for a very long time. Maybe because I didn’t know what was in store, I put it off. Had I known how engaging and insightful it was, I never would have waited so long.
In “Seeing”, we first meet Irwin the man, then Irwin the Artist, then Irwin the Philosopher. His formative years are described to point out how cherry Hot Rods, swing dancing and betting the ponies all play their part in his evolution. Then comes his first art world experiences which seem to go from 0-60 in a few pages. Part of the first Ferus Gallery roster, he drank and played like an AbEx painter. Then he divorced the paintings and started a process of redefining his painting and himself. That quest is beautifully and bluntly described. As Irwin evolves, we become aware of both his penchant for solitude and his ability to see what others do not bother to see. Certainly not the only light and space artist to mess with our conception of either, Robert Irwin is singular in the broad scope of his vision. The manifestations of his actual vision, not just conceptual practice but rightful vision, are compelling.
Rather than review, let me recommend the book. After one read through and another major review, I feel full of ideas about not just what’s in the book but how to write about art. I think anyone with an interest in making art or discussing art can embrace this book. It’s easily one of the greatest books on art I have read because of both Irwin’s practice and Weschler’s concision and editorial choices. It is eminently quotable and very easy to read. The few chapters that deal with phenomenology are more difficult but invite you into a difficult conversation nearly effortlessly
“Seeing” is a triumph of art writing. Weschler makes his subject a poet hero. Irwin’s work and words lend themselves well to this pursuit and both come out sounding prescient about where art is headed.