Well, almost. Eight out of ten. Taking two weeks off from reading is probably not the best strategy for reading ten books in ten weeks, but I still had a great time trying. And I realize that I ended up in a very different place from where I began. Certainly the books that I finished weren’t all the books I set out to read, but this year I decided that I really wanted to have a flexible list and to see where my interests led me–hence, all the memoirs I plowed through, especially in the first few weeks.
But the greatest surprise of all was the book I got in the swap with Daniela, seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees by Lawrence Weschler. This is an extraordinary book about the artist Robert Irwin, originally written 25 years ago at the height of Irwin’s career, and recently updated and expanded. But before I get too far into describing the book, I have to say that I know very little about art or art history,. Art had always been the one subject in elementary school that I got C’s and D’s in, even though I tried really hard–I would still be sweating at the easel while all my classmates were already washing their brushes, desperately trying to make my picture look like something more than indistinct blobs in drab, runny colors. I could never understand how to translate what I saw into the components of a picture, the shapes and lines that anybody who has any kind of artistic ability understands right away as being the structure of a visual composition. And ironically, I grew up in New York’s SoHo, an area that had been full of artists and galleries (and now is mostly high-end chain stores like J. Crew and Michael Kors), many of our family friends were painters and sculptors, and usual Saturday excursions would be to MOMA or the Met, instead of the mall (there wasn’t one). So what I lack in ability, I have had to make up in imagination, in pretending to understand what I see, and this has served me well over the years, since I love nothing better than seeing art, even more now than going to concerts, even if I have to make up a context for what is before me from what I know about music and literary history.
And so reading Weschler’s book about Robert Irwin has been a revelation. I feel as if I am beginning to have a vocabulary for this pivotal point in the art world, the post-abstract expressionism that is typically ascribed to Irwin, but which I had a hard time understanding previously. Describing the kind of work the California-based Irwin (who taught at UC Irvine, though many years before I was there) was doing in the late ’60’s, Weschler writes, “The art is what happened to the viewer.” This is a way of describing the importance Irwin places on perception–that the “thingness” of an art object is the least important thing about it. What matters much more is how the viewing of that object affects the viewer, and all the other sense-perceptions that the art object elicits. There is a connection between the art and the viewer that the artist sets in motion, and in order for the art to “succeed,” it must be experienced not as something apart from the setting, the room, the environment, but instead as something organically part of it.
This is not so far from what was happening in poetry with the Language poets who were concerned not with presenting the reader with a poem as an object, but instead a poem as an experience that the reader undergoes, that the poem’s “meaning” shifts and can’t be fixed, that language is imperfect and open to infinite questioning, all of which becomes the experience of the poem. And that the poem does not exist without the reader to “enact” it, to bring it to life from the imprisonment of the printed page.
To Irwin, “The art is what has happened to the viewer.” This idea, too, connects with the conceptualism of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low. It is so incredibly easy to overlook the importance of the viewer (or the reader in poetry), the person for whom the art must exist, especially when that art is challenging in its minimalism, as much of Irwin’s art is. When presented with an art object that is no more than a taped line on the floor, as in Irwin’s Black Line Volume, shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 1975, a viewer must make a conscious decision not to deride the effort or become angry that something so minimal is called “art,” but instead has to let the perceptual experience of being in a geometric space that has boundaries that shift and recede in an elegant trompe l’oeil effect guide one’s assessments and appreciation. Irwin, as Weschler notes, asks the viewer not simply to view but to exist in the space he creates and to see in a new way: “Art existed not in objects but in a way of seeing.”
This is perhaps the most radical concept an artist could ever come up with: It’s not about the art, it’s about the seeing. The art as object is not the point. In fact, one could think of all of Irwin’s work as being about art that is escaping from the frame, that there is no division between the art and the environment in which it exists.
Weschler also describes the enormous differences between the West and East coast art scenes in the late ’60’s and ’70’s, and since I spent fourteen years in the LA/Orange County area, I could really identify with the kind of lifestyle that made Irwin the kind of West coast artist that he was– car culture, the ease in living, vast landscapes, the special slant of the sunlight and the way that golden light would filter across the sky. And with the way Irwin supported himself–so typically laid-back Californian–with betting on horses, which he developed into a highly-studied practice that made him enough to live on between commissions. What a character! There aren’t many people like this anywhere, even in the arts, and yet Irwin has also been a crucially important teacher and mentor to many younger artists, so that this transformational approach to art will continue to flourish in the next generation.
I am so glad that this book appeared on my doorstep. I have gained so much in reading it, and if I, with my sub-minimal artistic ability, can understand these concepts in the development of post abstract-expressionism, than anyone can. I would greatly recommend Weschler’s book to anyone curious about the art in the late ’60’s and ’70’s, and even more than that, the revolution in the way art became not art but seeing.
And so another ten weeks have passed, but I’m still reading. I have to get to Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, and I must finish The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, which I picked up in Amsterdam after a visit to the Van Gogh Museum–it will be fascinating to compare Irwin’s concepts with Van Gogh’s–and then Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams, and then this month’s Poetry Magazine, and then Word by Word.…the books will never end……