02/01/2008
          Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin Lawrence Weschler
          Review by Chris Warren

        • I am fascinated by the creative process. I am fascinated by physical manifestations born from the spark of an idea. I am fascinated by the complex psychology, rigorous philosophy and simple backbone evinced by those devotees of method. And I am blown-away by Robert Irwin.

          My first contact with Robert Irwin's work came in graduate school when a few friends and I drove from Philadelphia to Manhattan to visit the Dia Center for the Arts. There on an upper floor I encountered a truly shocking, yet subduing, experience. Irwin had taken over the entire level and divided into rooms demarcated with translucent scrim. I walked slowly, from space to space, enclosed but not, silent in presence yet bursting with internal applause, and in awe. I marveled at the solidity of light that slid through the Dia's industrial steel windows, tracing its way across two layers of the thin white fabric and gently landing on the concrete floor. My eyes were tickled by the subtlety of color emanating from the vertical fluorescent lights wrapped in gels. There must have been thirty others there at the same time, meandering like ghosts whitened by one, two, three layers of scrim, yet the space was absolutely quiet. This was the first time that I truly understood the word 'perception.' It came in a space filled with exacted simplicity.

          Since then I have tried to follow Irwin's work, both past and present, only to find that it is rarely photographed, as the medium cannot do the work justice. However, Lawrence Weschler's biography on the artist is a tremendous piece of writing that will give you much more appreciation for Irwin than any catalog ever could. Weschler spent years interviewing the artist, tracking down collaborators and researching the works. He exhibits an amazing understanding of Irwin's intentions and adds much needed commentary to keep the story straight while tracing the complex and highly personal evolution of the man and his art. From descriptions of Irwin's self-imposed eight month exile in Ibiza, to his two year long rigorous exercise (and again, exile) to create what amounted to twenty lines, Weschler gives us an in depth look at the zen-like disposition of the artist in his search for the perceptual (and hence, not conceptual). Irwin's diligence and rigor will stupefy even those most devoted to their process, and discussion of his material experimentation will act to spur imaginations. Robert Irwin supplies the majority of storytelling, however, and lets the reader in on often humorous tales of the art world from the point of view of a very personable and highly influential artist.

          In short, I highly recommend that anyone devoted to design, be it fine art or architecture, read this book. I also recommend that you travel to San Diego to see the first major exhibition of Irwin?s work since 1993, "Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries" at the MCASD through February 23rd.

          Note: The installation at the Dia Center was reviewed thoroughly, with an included history of the artist's work, in an article entitled "Robert Irwin's Doors of Perception" by Carol Diehl in Art in America magazine, December, 1999, findarticles.com

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