PRINT November 1993


TOO OFTEN, TOO MANY of us talk one theory but live another. In his rigorous examination of the possibilities of perception, and his always renewed wonder before the world and the open act of seeing, Robert Irwin’s career exemplifies the committed, moral, nondogmatic union of theory and practice. In his current traveling retrospective, as installed at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art this summer, the viewer experienced his most recent work first; but the exhibition also featured a selection of Irwin’s early Abstract Expressionist–inspired works (including a wonderful display of his “handheld” paintings, which, however, one was not allowed to touch), his line and dot paintings, the light discs, the cast-acrylic columns, and finally a series of photographs and plans documenting, first, the explorations of interior and exterior space that for some link Irwin with the Light and Space movement, and, second, the realized and unrealized projects that demonstrate his recent commitment to “art in public places” (a descriptive term he distinguishes emphatically from “public art”).

Animating the retrospective, in accord with the respect and delight Irwin feels toward the uniqueness and contingency of each site, were three new works. Entering MoCA’s Spartan red-sandstone building, one passed through Two Radial Bowers, each made of 50 12-foot rebars (bamboo was the material of choice, but it didn’t work) alternating with bars of shorter length and constructed to fan out as they rose so as to hold a great mass of deep pink bougainvillea that took two years to grow and dripped down over the rigid metal supports. The other two new pieces did not duplicate but were literally and titularly in the spirit of earlier Irwin works that dynamized “empty” rooms by challenging their accepted planes through linear demarcation, or through the use of sheer linen scrim. “Scrim Light Volume”: created in the spirit of work from 1970/1980 such as “Slant Light Volume,” 1971 was a double-V-shaped scrim wall with an open entrance that bisected the main gallery, destabilizing the space and making the viewers on the other side of the gauze from oneself into fragile, shifting shapes. For me the most wonderful experience in the exhibition—perhaps because its isolation gave it a rigor and integrity that the other works could not achieve gathered together—was “5 Openings: 2+3”: created in the spirit of work from 1970/1980 such as “Black Line Volume,” 1975–76 ( MCA, Chicago): in a large white room lit by a scrim-softened skylight, and with a blond-hardwood floor in which a large center square had been bleached to a lighter color, the walls were cut with openings that precisely framed contingent activity in the galleries around them. Experiencing the room meant oscillating between a sense of asceticism and exacting geometry and a sense of the sensuous quality of light and wood and the beauty of random configurations.

I talked with Irwin at his San Diego home in July 1993, not long after the opening of the retrospective in Los Angeles. The conversation was lively and far-ranging, opening out from our shared appreciation of existential phenomenology: the philosophy and method that focus on the structures of experience as lived by embodied persons “being in the world,” and that insist that any description of objective, worldly phenomena must include the subjective, human perception of it and thus is always open, quite concretely, to revision.

VIVIAN SOBCHACK: Why is it, do you think, that people often equate technical precision with coldness? The passionate rigor of working something out, which I find extraordinarily apparent in your work, is hardly cold.

ROBERT IRWIN: I’ve had to wrestle with that, because the thing about being an Abstract Expressionist, which is how I cut my teeth (though it was strictly borrowed), was that it was a very passionate kind of act. I mean you’d equate painting with a kind of Zen preparedness, eat the right foods the night before, sweep the studio in the morning, sort your brushes out. . . . And then there was a great outpouring of emotion, and the painting would kind of come to a peak and you’d pass out [laughter]. It was a marvelous sort of activity. But when I looked back I thought, There are so many things here that are out of control. So I took the grand scale of Abstract Expressionism down to where I could control every stroke, in the small “handheld” paintings. Later, in the line paintings, I found out that with 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 gestures I could create as much energy, as much presence, as I was previously doing with 20. And then, in the dot paintings, I dispensed with the gesture altogether. And this passion for making everything work was misinterpreted as coldness.

The dot paintings were a real genuine pain in the ass to do. I got tremendous headaches. If the dots were too uniform you were aware of a pattern, if they were too irregular you would start to get focal points, and I was essentially trying to suspend the eye, to create this field of energy. So to get them somewhere in between was complicated. Of course, in the middle of all this reduction, I thought, What am I doing? Here I am, 30 years old, and I’m painting dots. I mean, this is it? And then I compared that with the fun and excitement of doing Abstract Expressionism. But this thing of discipline—it’s probably necessary, as the path to get through the superficiality of emotive painting to something more emotional, direct, and spontaneous.

Which is how I came upon phenomenology—backwards. I had gone through this whole process and then, being totally naive about situating what I was doing in any kind of historical or philosophical dialogue, I found I had to educate myself. To be a nonreader and the next day to sit down with Hegel—it’s a hilarious sort of task. But I became totally enamored, not so much with Hegel’s argument as with the quality of the ambition. To try to deal with what he did, and the rigorous methodology that was a great education.

VS: The dot paintings seem a phenomenological reduction, a stripping away to observe your own perceptual apparatus.

RI: You could say that perception begins with the tactile. I’m aware of cool, I’m aware of warm, and I distinguish between them; whether they’re good or bad requires a third equation. And understanding that—I perceive this, I organize that into some rhyme and reason, and then act on it—is as far as I’m concerned the primary creative activity.

VS: One aim that seems to unify your work is to make the perceiver aware of the malleability of perception, of perception as a choice-making activity.

RI: From a phenomenological viewpoint, to make the observer necessary to complete the quality quotient of art is probably the most human, the most emotional, the most sensory thing to do. When Malevich does a white-on-white painting and is accused of nihilism, he looks his public in the eye and tells them, Ah, but we have the world of pure feeling. The central issue of Modernism is radically stated right there: they were saying this nihilism of Modernism dehumanized, that it was cold and abstract, yet you could now argue that making the observer a critical player was the most humanistic move.

VS: Also the most historical move. In an article about your retrospective, a critic called you “stringently ahistorical,” and said that the present is for you a moment of timelessness. To me, the moment in your work hardly seems timeless.

RI: Timelessness or transcendence—those are marvelous ideas, but in my mind they’re pure abstractions. The fact is we live at a particular moment in time, with a whole history and sense of where we are. You cannot be ahistorical.

I mean I see myself, right now, as still a classic Modernist. Malevich’s statement supplies the philosophic ground, Mondrian in turn supplied the conceptual development, the Abstract Expressionists the new visual vocabulary and syntax, leaving me with the legacy of finding out how they work in real life. Hence the art in public places.

VS: The methods you use respond to the particular situation. Your mobilization of knowledge, having to negotiate somehow in a unique, contingent context, has to do with this issue of being prepared, of being responsive.

RI: One way of handling complex amounts of information is to develop a system, to cut it down to size. At the horse races, you say, Well, I’ll play all the horses in post-position one, and you’ve looked at the last twenty years and position one wins 25 percent of the time, so you’re going to win 25 percent of the time. You’ve found a consistency that you play, rather than just randomly pecking around. Systems are simplifications; they take something complex and try to give you a manageable way to look at it. But finally that whole methodology is marginal. The systems/models that people have developed to look at the mind—the abacus, the telephone switchboard, and now the computer—finally to work, the system would have to be as complex as the mind. A system is helpful in the beginning maybe, to keep you from getting your brains beat out, but finally it has no ability to address the real problem, which is dealing with this incredible amount of conditional information.

Horse betting is where I got my first philosophic lesson: that when information is infinitely complex, it becomes totally corruptible. That is, I can make it do or be whatever it is I wish it to be. In philosophy, this is the issue of intentionality.

VS: Your work activates perceptual complexity; you create a horizon, in a phenomenological sense, and the perceiver chooses, or keeps choosing, or changes choices, in relation to it.

RI: That’s what I want to do.

VS: Do you think James Turrell does this also?

RI: Yes, he does, but he puts a lot of ceremony in there, including a kind of religious or spiritual preparation. See to me, the best moments in our lives are, you’re going along, and all of a sudden it’s Wow! And then you wander around for a while saying, What was that? You know, you’re changed. To me, that moment is the moment when art can exist. And so, for me, two things: one is, I put the work however it makes the most sense, meaning however it is most available; and second, I try to keep it as uncluttered and direct as possible.

It was interesting to me that Bruce Nauman, Turrell, and I could not leave a room empty the same way [laughter]. And it’s true: essentially it’s an empty room, but how one comes upon it, how it happens, is totally different for each of us.

VS: Your work has gone through various phases and materials, but there is a coherence. In the retrospective we see the paintings and the light disks and the art in public places, yet we sense that coherence as a set of problems that relate. Through all your changes in media, though, what never drops out is your insistence on the work’s materiality.

RI: Yes, that’s in everything I do, immediate physical presence.

VS: My experience with the clear acrylic columns—the desire to touch them was overwhelming. There’s a kind of refraction of vision: you could be looking at them and see them, and not see them either. So they set up a kind of bodily disequilibrium. For the participant in your work there are moments of confrontation that throw one back through the event of merely being surprised to the wonder of perception. In the moment, it’s somehow got to do, to use a military phrase, with “being all one can be” [laughter].

RI: Of the first two Abstract Expressionist paintings I ever saw, one was by Philip Guston, it was pink and green and kind of scumbly. Next to it there was a huge painting by James Brooks, big black shape, big red shape, big green shape, white. And yet the Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall. I thought, How can this be? By everything measurable the Brooks should be the more powerful. But in the Brooks 2 plus 2 simply made 4, while in the Guston, 2 plus 2 made 10, 12, 15. There was a power there, there was this exchange of energy that made the Guston stand up and hum. And that was something I wanted to know about.

VS: That recalls that wonderful kind of exchange and reversibility or chiasmus that phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes about, the exchange between our environments and ourselves, in the fullest sense, that your work has consistently addressed. Given that we now live in an electronic world, haven’t our perceptions been transformed?

RI: All computer information has already been stepped on once. That is, everything has to be given the value 0 or 1. But human beings don’t start that way; we start with, say, warm and cool, with qualities. Computers quantify these qualities, make them a piece of the sign system. That works well for certain things, and computers do approximate a certain kind of intelligence, but finally, as a human being standing in the world, I don’t begin with 0s and 1s.

VS: Are you suggesting we have immediate experience, experience “unstepped on” by history and culture, or in some way uncodified?

RI: Think of a swinging pendulum: on one end we have totally codified experience, on the other we have the phenomenal world. If we didn’t have some direct contact with phenomena, there would never be change as we know it. Do we ever have an absolutely pure or direct moment? Probably not, but in a sense, that’s where real innovation occurs—just the brushing of that pure moment, by attending it. That’s what we mean by taking up a philosophic posture. Marx accused this philosophic openness of “baking no bread,” and in a sense he was right, but at the same time he was wrong: it is this un-reality-adapted posture of pure inquiry that is philosophy’s greatest strength. Unfortunately, our society has come to see philosophy as a discipline instead of as a way of going.

VS: The artificial-intelligence people have this utopian vision of human potential. It plays itself out in the virtual reality folks, and the people who see ultimate progress as humans becoming cyborgs, or downloading consciousness into machines.

RI: Which is why an articulation of the individual as a phenomenal being is at this moment an imperative. With the incredible successes of the physical sciences has come the view that they be all things. In the 19th century, this ambition fostered its opposite: Modernism began as a dropout from this view—it disengaged itself from this objective ambition, saying Hey, there are too many things that are not being accounted for here. And in turn, Modernism began establishing a subjective ground in “pure feeling.”

VS: But the human potential you’re talking about is also grounded in bodily perception.

RI: Mine is grounded in two and two making five. It’s a simple equation: in the quantitative realm two and two always makes four; in the qualitative realm, two and two never makes less than five. This energy is the phenomenal, and is made up of qualities that the individual perceiver must process and value. Plato looked at this range of information and determined that experiences of feelings were only half-truths, they were in constant change. So he cast feelings out of his deliberations. Actually, you can go back and read his texts quite differently, but the key is he was interpreted here as underwriting the logics of the hard sciences. Yet the differences between these logics and the reasoning of phenomenal beings are in our language: I can reason but I cannot logic. Clearly logic is external: I use logic. But I reason from my being in the world. Reason is larger than logic. One produces a quantitative reality, the other a qualitative reality. The significance of Modern art is its ability to attend the wonder of our potential to perceive the world phenomenally. That’s art’s true subject.

VS: Is that so of all artists?

RI: By degrees. Art has to come close to that “pure” experience that bothered you for a moment; it has to court that moment.

VS: It’s the words you’re using, “pure” or “almost pure,” that are making me uncomfortable.

RI: If you question such subjects as mind or the potential of human perception, they are of such complexity that they can only be thought of as infinite. That is, we begin by positing them as x. The term “pure” speaks to the motive necessary for such an inquiry as well as to the infinite potential.

In a hundred years the desire to lend more quality, more richness to our lives will lead us to create new methodologies that will enable us to make our social, cultural, and political decisions in a balanced way. That doesn’t mean we’ll be there, it will simply put us in a position to effect the balance.

VS: Explain what you mean by methodologies.

RI: If you carry out a pure phenomenological reduction, as art did in the 19th century, and as I experienced it in my loss of painting, you also experience a loss in those old tried-and-true methods and institutions. We tend to forget in the light of their time-honored successes that we invented these institutions in the first place to serve our needs, and that there are times when we need to reinvent them, to put them in line with who we have become. It is precisely here, at this juncture, that we get our first glimpse of the kinds of change implied in Modern art.

Part of my dilemma is how to be part of the dialogue. It’s fine and dandy to do things out there, but it’s critical to leave a record that someone else can pick up. So I felt that this one time around, this so-called retrospective would be a reasonable exercise, even though it’s riddled with problems and could be a total compromise.

VS: It does seem the right rhetorical act, at least to initiate a dialogue. But the dilemma of course is that you broke frame a long time ago, and the museum itself is the frame.

RI: Absolutely true. All those things I did in the ’70s, basically no one’s ever seen them. I exist as some myth, which is the worst thing I could be, because I’m talking about reality, not myths. If you can’t experience the works they have no meaning.

VS: Experiencing one’s choice-making powers of perception gives one a sense of one’s own responsibility. That’s actually the core of political action.

RI: True. When you read philosophy, you start understanding the scope of thought, and the time it takes for a new thought to develop and mature and be brought into a social context. It is this process of subjective change that in turn requires a change in our social order. This is the real politics of art, not the appendaging of art practice to day-to-day political crises.

VS: It seems that the question for you is not of alternative exhibition spaces but of integrating your work into a worldly horizon. I’m drawn back to pictures of the Market Street installation, for example [in Venice, California, in 1980], and to what it might have been like just to come upon it. And in that experience of “coming upon,” the work can’t be framed as an alternative thing.

RI: What is key here is there was a natural confrontation, as opposed to having to take a trip to Mecca. That’s critical—that on the way to work you pass through this thing, and you have to deal with it. The issues now are, what would be the operative context for an extended art? And how do we make the leap necessary to deal with qualities in a functional realm? In general, artists are the only segment of the society that is exclusively educated to gain a subjective understanding of quality as a meaningful part of our lives. Finally it is up to us to make the arguments that thread this richness into the fabric of our predominantly quantitative lives.

VS: You recently did a piece in Pasadena?

RI: Yes, a plaza between the new police building and a nice old California Spanish building. The key here was to create a strong sense of place that tied the whole block together, but to do it with a very small budget. The solution needed to be economical. First I keyed the prominent steps of the architecture by making it a three-step-down recessed space, then I gained the scale of the plaza by planting a large double-trunk sycamore there. I then painted the back wall with layered colors over a freshly plastered wall, with the intent of letting the lye in the plaster leach through and patina the surface. This supplied the color and scale to pull the whole thing together.

Since it was a police-department plaza, I made a column using a catalogue granite lamppost, spun-cast rings, and a four-way eagle. I cast it in aluminum and painted it to look like bronze; with a blue light, it became a sentinel, signaling the plaza as a sanctuary. All this for about $16,000.

VS: Nothing like make do. . . .

RI: What’s painful is they’ve let the whole thing run down. All the plant material I took so much time to find and plant, some with my own money, they’ve just let it die.

VS: Ohhh. . . .

RI: It can be incredibly frustrating, and it would be much simpler just to go back to the studio and do what I used to do. And of course I can’t.

VS: Yet you seem not only optimistic, but happy.

RI: Yeah, I’m a real Pollyanna. I think I’ve got hold of a real thread of modern thought, and I’m committed to following it wherever it leads me. Right now it’s about attending, letting the site tell me what to do. You know there was a moment when I thought “nonobjective” would translate “nonobject,” but instead the issue centered itself not in object/nonobject but in how we perceive things in context. A four-way eagle? There are now times when I feel a cannon and a stack of cannonballs on the front lawn may be the appropriate response.

VS: So the unbridgeable gap between consciousness and the world is a totally false concept.

RI: It’s totally false. Exactly.

The Robert Irwin retrospective, curated by Richard Koshalek and Kerry Brougher for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, travels to the Kunstverein, Cologne, 15 March–15 May 1994; the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 22 June–30 September; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 31 January–17 April 1995; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, later in 1995.