BY Eugenia Bell in Frieze | 01 OCT 08
Featured in
Issue 118

Coast to Coast

A new, expanded edition of Lawrence Weschler’s classic, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin is a cause for celebration

BY Eugenia Bell in Frieze | 01 OCT 08

Getty Center garden, designed by Robert Irwin (2006)

In 1991, when I moved from the East Coast to Southern California, I carried exactly one book with me (if you don’t count a second-hand road atlas, purloined from my boyfriend’s housemate). At the time California didn’t seem particularly far from Pennsylvania, where I’d attended university, or from New York, where I grew up. And while it did seem strange to leave the comfort of one coast for the mysteries of another, it felt easily, recklessly, within reach. For me, as for many, California held some sense of limitless possibility – even if in my case that translated to ‘graduate school’. I’d never been away from the East Coast for any length of time before. The New York of my first-generation American mother was inviolate: it represented culture, cosmopolitanism and, most importantly, the place where her people were. Her vision of California was populated by hippies, drug addicts and UFO abductees. Of course, I went.

Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin (1982) was at once the only guide I needed to the state (or at least a portion thereof) and a thorough introduction to an artist I’d only just recently been exposed to. On arrival in sunny San Diego the love affair with both commenced. Considering what a product of California Irwin is, wide swathes of Weschler’s book aren’t even about the state, though inasmuch as it’s about Irwin’s fascination with cars, perhaps it is. (And the author and artist do spend a lot of time driving around together, primarily in pursuit of the ideal fountain Coke.) There’s Irwin’s years of army service in Europe, his self-imposed solitary confinement on Ibiza in the mid-1950s and his extended tour with his 1977 retrospective from the Whitney towards the end of the first edition of the book. It was during that early period in Europe that Irwin was – perhaps unknowingly – becoming an artist. It is clear that Irwin was very swiftly, and without hesitation, both absorbing the art-historical canon and dispensing with it at that time. One exchange between the artist and Weschler about the Europe years captures the essence of his perfectly blasé attitude: ‘After going through the Louvre 20 times, and the National Museum and the Prado and whatever – I can’t remember the names of the ones in Amsterdam and Florence – well, after a while it got to the point where I’d enter a room and just twirl around and go to the next one and twirl around … I mean it got to the point where if I ever saw another fucking brown painting … I was so fucking tired of brown paintings.’ And, of the Renaissance: ‘Man, are you kidding?’

Irwin’s insouciance and nonchalance are infectious, and re-reading Seeing is Forgetting … reminds me that this most influential book is also, perhaps inadvertently, one of the funniest. Weschler’s ability to concede the book to Irwin does not just attest to his ear for the artist’s fluid, if sometimes off-key, dialogue but also confirms that retaining such oddities is often finer than anything a biographer could conjure (it is worth noting that this remarkable book was also Weschler’s first). Allowing a subject’s voice so boldly to guide a biography is Weschler’s speciality, and it’s a formula that has served him well. His subsequent books, Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (1995), about David Wilson, the founder of Los Angeles’ legendary, intelligent, hoax-filled Museum of Jurassic Technology, and Boggs (1999), a profile of and record of various shenanigans with J.S.G. Boggs, the money artist, were wonderfully restrained – all subject, no ego. Weschler somehow doesn’t just write about his subjects but weaves in and out of them.

The University of California Press has just published an expanded edition of Seeing is Forgetting …, picking up the story in 1985: Irwin is living in a Las Vegas high-rise, has been reading Immanuel Kant and has not yet met Richard Meier. In a clever bit of marketing the Press is pairing the reissue with Weschler’s similar series of conversations with David Hockney (True to Life, 2008), casting the books as a conversation between the two artists, who, apparently, have never met. While the California connection (Hockney moved to Los Angeles in 1979, where his swimming-pool paintings came to define the Los Angeles light) is obvious if slightly tenuous, given the divergent nature of the artists’ work and milieu), one can’t help but appreciate Weschler’s deftness: befriending and publicly examining an artist who, for a time, famously did not allow photographic reproduction of his work alongside the artist who took reproduction of, and in, his work to an extreme.

Seeing is Forgetting … may be not just the best biography of an artist out there but also one of the best books on contemporary art-making, recording the transcendence and introspection of working in isolation and the foibles of collaboration. Irwin’s obsessive, months-long search for a seamless foundation for his sublime discs leads him – no surprise – to a metal fabricator in Los Angeles who does custom-shaping for racing cars. Long after the first edition of the book was well established, Weschler continued to navigate Irwin’s career, with the artist at the wheel. Inevitably the road led to the Getty Center and the artist’s fraught relationship with Richard Meier during the design of museum and garden. For a man whose commitment to the universe of inquiry is legion, the intricacies of a garden may not be so surprising a detour, but at the time handing the reins of what was either a glorified landscaping gig or the most important garden design in the USA to a Conceptual artist (someone Weschler accurately refers to as ‘fruitfully contradictory’) must have been mystifying. Not all of the collaboration associated with the garden was as prickly as that with Meier, whose style he found nothing less than overpowering. If a demilitarized zone had to be established on the Getty grounds between Meier and Irwin, the artist nevertheless sings the praises of other collaborators. Entering the project, Irwin admittedly knew nothing about plants, trees, flowers and shrubbery. Weschler categorizes Irwin’s approach to the garden as stemming from a desire for pure beauty, but it is more like pure dilettantism, in the best sense of the word. Richard Naranjo, the head groundskeeper at the Getty’s Malibu campus, would become Irwin’s closest ally in the design of the new garden. Naranjo relates a trip to a garden centre during which Irwin pointed at a scraggly tree and said, ‘Richard, I want that tree’ – to which he’d replied, ‘Bob, that tree is dying’.

Ten years after the opening of the gardens Irwin has decided to retire from the plant business. He visited them weekly, shepherded them along and has emerged from the turbulence of that project whole. But why are we still talking about Irwin, or at least, why revisit him? In addition to celebrating his clear-eyed, graceful ageing, along with a graceful body of work, Irwin is refreshing, even – especially – in his 80th year. What controversy he’s encountered, he has courted himself and has at least made interesting.

There isn’t a day since I left California that I don’t think about it. Apparently other exiles feel the same way: in Weschler’s meditation ‘The Light of LA’ (1998) he is struck, 20 years after leaving the city, by the magical quality of his home town’s aura while watching the now legendary televised coverage of the O.J. Simpson car chase. My California was not Hockney’s; it probably wasn’t Irwin’s either, but the way California shaped me, and the way Weschler’s book shaped my experience of it, may have found some parallel on a recent day in Chelsea, New York. The artist Byron Kim has taken an image of an Irwin disc (itself appropriated from a poor reproduction published in Kirk Varnedoe’s Pictures of Nothing 2006) as the source for a painting (Irwin’s Disc, 2008) recently shown at Max Protetch. (Funnily enough, Kim has, in the past, made elaborate landscape photo collages à la Hockney.) Kim’s painting represents the disc as some failed attempt at transcendence – grey, shadowy, still. The light and space that swayed Irwin and drew other artists of that movement to Southern California, dictated its production and are intrinsic to its viewing aren’t of the silty desert hue that I imagined when I first encountered Irwin, but more akin to what novelist Dana Spiotta described, in her novel Lightning Field (2001), as ‘a fighting orange […] a cracked Southern California creepiness that came from the desert and sun and all its golden promise. You could feel Manson at the edges.’ Perfect weather, she adds, ‘for an exit’.

Eugenia Bell is design editor of frieze