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a chat with bob

May 17, 2011

[In celebration of the news that DIA Beacon will install Robert Irwin’s Excursus: Homage to the Square(cubed) here is the unpublished result of a chat i had the pleasure of having with Bob back in 1998 before the original installation opened in Chelsea]

“I got run out of L.A. about fifteen years ago,” Robert Irwin is saying while taking off his Yankees cap. He orders a coca-cola and continues to explain how he wound up in San Diego after playing the horses and following the race circuit around southern California.

In fact, everything about Irwin has this easy, almost breezy air. Maybe it comes from all that swing dancing he used to do in the old days, but you get a definite sense that he’s light on his feet. And yet, after a while, there appears there might just have been a sense of purpose to everything he’s done. Consider his explanation of what handicapping the races meant to his practice of art:

“I grew up in L.A. which is a fairly unsophisticated place, or it was at that time, or at least I was a pretty unsophisticated person. So, in a way, at the racetrack I got two things: one was real discipline and second is the fact that you have to think something all the way through which is something we don’t usually do in our lives.”

He also learned something about that often mystifying term “intentionality” that stops most people from enjoying a good book on phenomenology:

“When information is really complex, which is the way it is most of the time, then it is also totally corruptible. That is you can make it do anything you want it to do, you can make it appear to be, or look, the way you want it to look. At the races, of course, that is why everyone has a different opinion even though theoretically they all have the same information.

“The only thing I really do is make people aware that they have this power. I am not trying to tell them what they should do with it or how they should handle it, but make them aware of themselves and the power that they are.”

So when the discipline and experience he gained at the track finally found its way into his studio, he began asking questions, investigating the properties of light and space and wondering what exactly the nature of perception is. He moved from Abstract-Expressionism to Minimal works and was soon questioning the frame as well as the very canvas itself. Next thing you know he’s mounting white disks on the wall and lighting them so that the boundaries between the object and its surrounding are no longer perceptible.

Dogged in his pursuits, it’s no surprise that in 1970 he gave up the posture of the traditional artist, ditched his studio, hopped in his convertible and started cruising. There were stops in the desert to take note of the curve of the horizon, or a particular effect arising from the play between light and matter. Then Irwin began taking up the challenges posed by the notion of public art. Undaunted by the many aborted projects he invested his time and money in, he has been able to create several perceptually subversive works throughout the U.S. and Europe. But until 1995 no museum would buy one and many of the installations he was commissioned to do are no longer in existence or have been the victims of neglect or ignorance.

His apparent immunity to both fatigue and frustration perhaps has to do with his view of the purpose of art:

“The pure subject of art has something to do with the human potential—how we perceive and know the world. That is the actual subject of art. All the other actions of art are how we address that and what kind of response comes from that. The role of the artist essentially never ends because the subject is infinite.”

Never one to pass on a coca-cola or a sincere dialogue, he also found the time to accept invitations to speak at various colleges, where he encouraged the students and engaged them in dialogues on the nature of perception and the purpose of art.

You could say that Irwin’s art, like his life, is socratic. It’s a constant dialogue where each new discovery, every solution leads to another set of questions and a fresh sense of wonder. He doesn’t lay claim to the answer, let alone proclaim any solution to the world’s ills. That’s not what Bob is about. But what he does do is ask questions, present challenges and create elegant works of art that allow us to return to our original ground of wonder. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine Bob engaged in a dialogue with his four-year-old daughter, as perplexed as she is with each “Why?”.

Anyway, a lot has happened over the years but the long and short of it is that Bob’s turning seventy this year. A couple of years back he had a major retrospective of his work tour the U.S. and Europe and he has recently completed the commission of a lifetime—the Lower Central Garden at the new Getty Center in Brentwood, California. Luckily he’s got as much energy as his daughter and he’s created a new installation at the Dia Center for the Arts entitled Excursus: Homage to the Square(cubed). Using scrim and florescent lights, Bob has transformed what, to most of us, is simply the third floor into a maze of luminous chambers.

There is something incongruous about describing one of Irwin’s installations. As Irwin himself knows only too well his pieces are not easily captured by word or film. Excursus: Homage to the Square(cubed), like all of his recent work, is site-dependent and deals with the actual moment of perception itself, before the habit of words comes bubbling back. You realize that it needs to be experienced to be understood—understood, not grasped. For as Bob himself says:

“What I like is that when you get in the middle, or at least when I do, instead of getting to a point where you feel ‘alright, now I’ve got it,’ instead it’s always running away from you. It gets more complex the longer I’m in here.

“Everything I do in New York becomes less phenomenal and more intellectual. I guess it’s just the nature of the place. The second part is going to be very seductive. This one (Part 1: Prologue: x18cubed) is sort of to lure them in. It’s a little more formal, a little more rigid, to get them in here, then I want to seduce the fuck out of them.”

As simple and subtle as it is, there is a formal elegance to the piece and an apparent infinity of discoveries to be made. The colors of the light gels echo the metallic gray of the freight elevator and the blue of the light bulbs unlit upon the ceiling. People become phantoms only to re-appear before you in all their miraculous physicality. The white brick walls seem to gently waver between effacement and materiality. On and on it goes. As ethereal as the space may be, you find yourself really there. Not rooted in the world, not weighed down nor carried by the current of life, but part and parcel of the world. You discover you are the very current not of life but of living, where each answer is simply and elegantly another question.

copyright 1998 Michael Tweed

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. roxana permalink
    May 23, 2011 7:39 am

    wonderfully written, a delight to read!

  2. May 23, 2011 7:45 am

    kind of you to say, thank you.

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