by Lawrence Weschler

Robert Irwin, Untitled, 1967-1970

“It had been a long journey,” Robert Irwin summarizes, “starting out from my more or less naive approach as a painter to now be arriving at a point where, to some degree, I had dismantled the whole thing: image, line, frame, focus, transcendability. I’d dismantled the art endeavor, but in the process I’d dismantled myself. My questions had now become way in excess of any answers that I had or even any possibilities. And it seemed to me that, if I continued doing what I was doing, I was simply never going to get to my questions. So I really had a decision to make at that point, and it was a fairly radical one in my life. I cut the knot. I got rid of the studio, sold all the things I owned; and without knowing what I was going to do with myself or how I was going to spend my time, I simply stopped being an artist in those senses. I just quit.”

“For some reason, I started heading out into the Mojave, early morning drives out of the city to the end of the road. At first just a day at a time, and then later, on out into Arizona or south toward Mexico. I began pursuing a line of inquiry, or anyway retrieved the one I was already on.”

“The Southwest desert attracted me because it was the area with the least kinds of identifications or connotations. It’s a place where you can go along for a long while and nothing seems to be happening. And then all of a sudden it takes on an almost magical quality. Then twenty minutes later, it will simply stop. I began wondering why, what those events were really about, because they were so close to my interests, the quality of phenomena.”

“In the beginning, I proceeded in a very awkward and obvious way. Say for example, there are a lot of things that just visually contradict your expectations; they just will not fall into perspective: foreground becomes background, background becomes foreground, or the land seems to stand up on end rather than lay flat. So I began to mark those events. I found that there were certain continuing situations: if I returned to them a year later, I could find the same place, and essentially the same energy would be there. I am talking about my ability to perceive what was going on around me, that there was something very ‘tactilely,’ tangibly existent in this one particular area. All that really mattered was the place’s presence. In other words, if I’d taken you out to a place like that, what you would have perceived was yourself perceiving.”

“Still, I had the problem of how any of this could be brought to bear on what we call art. How was I going to deal with these situations? Was I going to take photos? Make plans, draw maps? How about loading people onto buses and dragging them out there to show it to them? Somehow, everything that was really important got lost in that kind of translation.”

What Irwin ended up doing with his desert situations was nothing. He didn’t even take his friends out to see them. “I don’t even describe them to anyone.” Irwin chose to absorb the lessons of the desert.

Although the desert offered Irwin lessons in presence, it had not solved his problem of how to proceed on a daily basis or how to continue thinking without the use of physical means. “So what I did, simply as a way of getting myself out of the dilemma I was in, was that I said I would go anywhere, anytime, for anybody, for anything. I made myself available-and I made it for free.”

As useful as Irwin’s appearances were to those exposed to them, they were perhaps more useful to the artist himself. They helped keep him grounded-in the world-during a period when his primary researches were becoming increasingly abstract and ethereal. “The ideas I came to be dealing with were getting real obscure, even for me, to the point where I was beginning to wonder exactly what and how I practiced in the world.”

“There are such sophisticated systems of orthodoxy and they’re so beautifully developed-not just the orthodoxies of painting and sculpture, but the superstructures of museums, galleries, collecting, criticism and so forth - that when you decide to try and operate outside of those systems you really have a problem, because everything is set up to induct that which is already within the paradigm or within the orthodoxy. And if you should ever actually question these orthodoxies, the first thing you have to face is that there actually is no process by which your information can in fact be inducted. So you’re forced to operate in a contradiction, which means that if you want to deal with the culture at all, you will have to deal at least in part with its present currency. Thus, for example, I’ll go out and engage people in dialogue, although on another level dialogue is a complete contradiction to what I’m really interested in, which is the process of unmediated perception.”

“I can paint this square here at Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, and doing so creates a remarkable perceptual space, but why bother? There are hundreds of shadow squares just as remarkable all up and down the block. The point is to attend to them.”

And that, of course, was just about as far as you could go on a particular line of aesthetic inquiry, for it implied not only the dematerialization of the art object, but the virtual evaporation of the artist’s role qua artist.

“… perception as the essential subject of art.”


[Robert Irwin (September 12, 1928, Long Beach, California, USA). Since his first solo exhibition at the Landau Gallery, Los Angeles in 1957, he has exhibited widely in galleries and museums in North America and abroad. Irwin received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984. In 1993, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, initiated a major retrospective of his work, which traveled to Paris, Madrid, and Cologne. Irwin’s numerous public projects such as the monumental garden designed for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, involve light, space, and human perception.]