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Weschler’s Robert Irwin

February 8, 2008

Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees is a chronicling of the life and work of Southern California based artist Robert Irwin written by Lawrence Weschler. The work documents the evolution of Irwin’s early work as it congealed into Abstract Expressionism in the late 1950s on through to his later Conceptual work in the 1970s. Honed from extensive interviews with the artist, Weschler gets inside of the artists head, exploring interior motivation and contextualizing the work and evolution of ideas into the fabric of Irwin’s daily life. Weschler’s writing so fully inhabits Irwin’s work that at certain points I half expected to discover I was reading some sort of Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, where I would later discover Irwin had in fact written the biography himself as some statement on artist’s presence. Obviously this is just my fancy, but it illustrates the author’s ability to connect his prose with the ideas the artist was discussing and illuminate the process. The work glides seamlessly through the artist’s words and ideas, so that one is almost unaware of the synthesis of multiple interviews and source material taking place. It reads smooth almost like a novel, even in chapters that were more theory based.


One of the main ideas in Irwin’s work that excited me was his notion of presence in his work. While discussing his transition away from his Abstract Expressionism and what he refers to as literary work, he talked about this form of presence. “Imagery for me constituted representation, “re-presentation,” a second order of reality, whereas I was after a first order of presence” (61). He became interested in creating work that wasn’t tied to associated or literary ways of reading meaning.

Phrased simply, the moment a painting read as an image of something (a swan, say, or a cloud or a cow jumping over the moon), it no longer presented itself purely as an energy field in it own right. It behaved like a psychologist’s ink blot in a Rorschach test, summoning all manner of projected associations, and this Rorschach effect knocked down the physicality of its presence (61).

Much of my art training is closely tied to semiotics and exploring inherent and associative meaning in visual work. Looking for how things carry meaning is second nature for me at this point. Add to the mix an ongoing interest in Jungian studies and myth building, and one has a glimpse at my tendencies towards reading meaning into the mundane. My literary analysis often focuses on finding the images in a passage or in utilizing close reading tools. Irwin’s approach to work could essentially be described as turning my approach inside out.

That being said there is something vital in Irwin’s focus on experiential reasoning. Who could argue with wanting to connect to a first order of presence as opposed to a secondary order of reality? It’s so ambitious and beautiful. His obsession with a state of being as experience, and the physicality of the moment lend themselves to a truly engaged experience of the world. I would be interested in bringing this more present approach to my writing and exploring how it translates into a writing practice. Where would writing lead that is more concerned with experience of the moment, as opposed to writing that is more associative in nature? I am eager to explore this search for essence in elements of my manuscript and think that it could be an interesting counterbalance to a more subtext and metaphor driven approach.

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2 comments

  1. […] Posts Thomas Hirschhorn’s Monuments and DisplaysWeschler’s Robert IrwinHolden […]


  2. […] ordering of cause and effect, but what do other people think? Barth also gets points for bringing Robert Irwin into the […]



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