“Seeing Is Forgetting The Name Of The Thing One Sees” by Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin was born in 1928 in Long Beach, California to Robert Irwin and Goldie Anderberg Irwin. After serving in the United States Army from 1946 to 1947, he attended several art institutes: Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles from 1948 to 1950, Jepson Art Institute in 1951, and Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles from 1952 to 1954. He spent the next two years living in Europe and North Africa. Between the years 1957-1958, he taught at the Chouinard Art Institute.

In 1977, Robert Irwin wrote the following about himself: “I began as a painter in the middle of nowhere with few questions… My first real question concerned the arbitrariness of my paintings… I used my paintings as a step-by-step process, each new series of works acting in direct response to those questions raised by the previous series. I first questioned the mark as meaning and then even as focus; I then questioned the frame as containment, the edge as the beginning and end of what I see… consider the possibility that nothing ever really transcends its immediate environment… I tried to respond directly to the quality of each situation I was in, not to change it wholesale into a new or ideal environment, but to attend directly to the nature of how it already was. How is it that a space could ever come to be considered empty when it is filled with real and tactile events?” (Robert Irwin, 1977) Robert Irwin’s notion of art derived from a series of experiential perceptions. As an abstract, open-minded thinker, he presented experience first as perception or sense. He concluded that a sense of knowing, or ability to identify, helped to clarify perception. For example,

“We know the sky’s blueness even before we know it as “blue”, let alone as “sky.”

He explained later that the conception of an abstract thought occurs in the mind, through the concept of self. Following, the physical form is then recognized, communicating the form to the community. Then, the Objective compound occurs, delineating behavioral norms and artistic norms, becoming identifiable. Then the boundaries and axioms introduce logic and reasoning and decisions can be made: either inductive or deductive. Formalism follows, proving and convincing a decision about the object being perceived. The study done by Irwin suggested that: “…all ideas and values have their roots in experience,… they can be held separate at any point and developed directly on the grounds of function and use, both that they in fact remain relative to the condition of both our subjective and objective being.” Robert Irwin’s philosophy defined his idea of art as a series of aesthetic inquiries, an opportunity for cultural innovation, a communicative interaction with society, and as compounded historical development.

In his book Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One SeesLawrence Weschler documents Irwin’s process from his early days as a youngster in Southern California to his emergence as a leader in the post-abstraction art world. Weschler describes the mystifying and often enchanting quality of these works in his book’s cover notes:

In May 1980, Robert Irwin returned to Market Street in Venice, California to the block where he had kept a studio until 1970, the year he abandoned studio work altogether. Melinda Wyatt was opening a gallery in the building next door to his former work space and invited Irwin to create an installation.
He cleaned out the large rectangular room, adjusted the skylights, painted the walls an even white, and then knocked out the wall facing the street, replacing it with a sheer, semi-transparent white scrim. The room seemed to change its aspect with the passing day: people came and sat on the opposite curb, watching, sometimes for hours at time.
The piece was up for two weeks in one of the more derelict beachfront neighborhoods of Los Angeles: no one so much as laid a hand on it.

Because of the ephemeral or subtle nature of his work, this book became not just an introduction but, for many artists and art students, the primary way that Robert Irwin’s work was experienced. He told Jori Finkel of the New York Times in 2007 that people still come up to him at lectures for book autographs. In that article, Michael Govan, the director of LACMA who previously commissioned Irwin to “design our experience” of Dia:Beacon” said he believes the book “has convinced more young people to become artists than the Velvet Underground has created rockers.”

Buy the book on Amazon.

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6 Comments on ““Seeing Is Forgetting The Name Of The Thing One Sees” by Robert Irwin”

  1. so true – let’s talk soon

  2. “He explained later that the conception of an abstract thought occurs in the mind, through the concept of self.”

    Wonderful article, but that one sentence is the crux…and so true. We relate everything we see in life to our concept of self, and how we see ourselves, our place in the world.

    Great article.

  3. Maha Kamel says:

    things came first then their names, same as seeing.. do names really matter? great article.. thanx for posting Frank!


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