End of the Road

Peter Campbell

  • Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin by Lawrence Weschler
    California, 212 pp, £11.25, June 1982, ISBN 0 520 04595 5
  • Scenes in America Deserta by Reyner Banham
    Thames and Hudson, 228 pp, £8.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 500 01292 X
  • Megastructure by Reyner Banham
    Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £5.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 500 27205 0

Charlatans spread scepticism. Frauds unmasked make critics look fools. When new work looks very simple, and very easy to do, eyes narrow and muttering starts about the emperor’s new clothes. The gap, between those willing to take risks and those unwilling to look fools, widens. Lawrence Weschler’s life of the Californian artist Robert Irwin is the best description I know of why spending months deciding how to put two orange lines on an orange square, or why offering a strip of black tape round the skirting of a gallery as your contribution to an exhibition, could be serious, intellectually-taxing activities. Enough critics have seen in Irwin’s work what he said he was trying to put there for communication at some level to have been established. For us, the success of what he has done is something which must be taken on trust. Much of Irwin’s work was ephemeral; those pieces now in public galleries are, we are told, displayed in ways which nullify the effects they were made to produce. Photographs are beside the point. The works depend on those things – scale, texture, the third dimension – which photography can record but not recreate. Yet the life would have been worth writing even if the work was not worth seeing.

Irwin has met with incomprehension and various sorts of anger. His mother is tolerantly bemused: ‘About ten years ago there was a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a group of us from the neighbourhood went down, and everyone was very complimentary, but I knew that deep down they were going “Oh, Dear.” But, you know, even though I don’t understand it, I still see the beauty in it. Bob’s never done anything unpleasant to look at.’ Dismissive irritation coloured a conversation Weschler overheard in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: ‘The young woman, gesturing with a sweep of her arm, sighed in mock-exasperation: “See, this is what I mean.” ’ It seems ‘she was just sick and tired of having museum walls cluttered with empty white canvases.’ At an opening in Pasadena a woman who had just given the museum a million dollars made a frontal attack. Irwin reports it:

Later that evening this lady came up to me and told me, literally told me that I was not to do this kind of thing any more, that I was no longer to perform in this way ... She just insisted that the whole thing was absolutely un-Christian and anti-American ... I was to cease and desist. Well, in the direct confrontation, I didn’t react at first. I just listened and thought: ‘How weird.’ Eventually I turned round and walked away. When I got half-way across this big crowded room, she started shouting: ‘Don’t you dare walk away from me like that!’ So I spun round and yelled: ‘Fuck you, lady!’ And she just fainted. They literally had to carry her out.

Before producing the minimalist canvases which got these responses Irwin worked through a series of styles which recapitulate a complete strand in American painting. Figuration was replaced by semi-abstraction. This was followed by Abstract Expressionism, then by colour-field painting, conceptual art and land art. As each step can seem a wilful rejection of complexity and richness, the reasons for the moves Irwin made must justify as well as explain. Set out in Weschler’s book (much of it is direct quotation from interviews with Irwin), they are convincing. Irwin’s story is one of aesthetic claustrophobia, of attempts to break out of the limits set by his own work.

Like a climber seeking more difficult pitches, or a mystic trying for more complete forgetfulness of self, Irwin has looked for a way of making works of art which deal with perception, but not with things perceived. Redness that is not a red thing, but redness pure and simple. An art which points at, but does not transform its subject-matter. Sometimes he seems to be trying to illustrate philosophical abstractions, and the wrongheadedness of that enterprise need not invalidate the work: like a climber or a contemplative, the maker may come to think that the only way of fully understanding what he is doing is to have done it. Irwin says of his work in the early Sixties: ‘With those late line paintings the process was intimate with the solution. I sometimes wonder whether anyone in the world has seen those paintings but me.’

The Irwin of the late Seventies whom Weschler describes is a contented man. Yet at that point his work seemed to have come to a dead end. He had run the line of the argument he was following until there was literally nothing to be done – no work to make. He was very happy, he said, to do nothing. It was partly a Californian contentment: ‘there was just a whole free-wheeling attitude about the world. From the time you were 15 you were an independent operator, and the world was your oyster.’ His former dealer, Irving Blum, had found Irwin ‘fiercly naive, enormously ambitious’, and said of this new serenity that he could not understand it: that the earlier Irwin who got into fist fights about what he believed in must still be there under the surface. But then Blum went back to the East Coast, to the New York art world of which Irwin says: ‘It’s like an echo chamber; its overwhelming sense of itself, of its past, of its present and its mission becomes utterly restricting.’ Blum also had to try to market the product: ‘Whenever Irwin did a series of works he pretty much exorcised them in his own head and then set another standard very quickly and another set of ambitions ... which was fine. Only, in the process, everyone who I had painfully developed in terms of a kind of sympathy to the earlier work couldn’t make heads or tails of the new. Being Irwin’s dealer during that period presented some extraordinary challenges.’

Irwin’s position is made more attractive when he suggests that art is too long, too personal, too chancy, the time needed to reach any conclusion too great, for it to be reasonably supported by money earned from the practice of it. (For substantial periods he made most of his living by betting on horses. One chapter in Weschler’s book considers in some detail the judgment that the punter uses, and how this compares with that of the artist.) This assertion of amateur status – and amateur virtue – is a (doubtless not entirely uncalculated) defusing tactic. The anger about Carl André’s bricks always came back to the money spent on them. It is interesting that almost the only Old Master mentioned by Irwin with approval is Vermeer – who also painted for himself not the market.

Irwin’s art is provincial, but he hankers after no capital. New York is an echo chamber, European cities are weighed down by their cultural pasts. Of Los Angeles, on the other hand, he says: ‘What I’ve always liked about this town, still do, is that it’s one of the least restrictive towns in the world.’ What others dislike in it pleases him: ‘No tradition, no history, no sense of city, no system of support, no core, no sense of urgency.’ Irwin’s pursuit of an art without history led him to Plato and Kant – to philosophy, not art history. And his education in art began with motor-cars, not drawing. Growing up in California in the Forties, he felt that the car was the ‘key pivotal item’. It had to be ‘real good because it had to have an edge on it ... it had much to do with being an absolute classic model with everything set up just right.’ Irwin describes his violent rage when a friend forced the glove compartment of Irwin’s car with a screwdriver. (The absence of outrage when, 20 years later, some of his ‘dot’ paintings came back from the Sao Paulo Biennale cut and stained marks the end of an era in his work. They had been finished with the same obsessive care as the car – ‘I was outrageously precious about them, outrageously; they were so hard to do, took so much time, were so tedious, I’d gotten so involved in them’ – and it was months before anyone had the courage to tell him about the damage. When he was told, he didn’t care. He was surprised at his own lack of feeling, but pleased to know that the tedium of high finish was over.) Nor was the work on cars just a matter of finish. In the making of a painting each brush mark changes the situation, the decision about what to do next is affected by the decision just made. Irwin took a New York critic to see a boy working on a car: ‘the kid was making decisions abut the frame, whether or not he was going to cad-plate certain bolts or whether he was going to buff-grind them, or whether he was going to leave them raw as they were. He was insulating and sound-proofing the doors, all kinds of things that no one would never know or see unless they were truly sophisticated in the area. But I mean real aesthetic decisions.’ The critic was unconvinced: Irwin put him out on the road and left him to find his own way back to town.

Irwin went from school to the army, to art school, and to Europe. His education was not much added to by the European galleries: ‘It would get to the point where I’d enter a room and just twirl around and go on to the next one and twirl and then the next one. I was so fucking tired of brown paintings.’ There came, however, a release from the weight of things already done: ‘suddenly there’s a huge chunk you don’t have to deal with any more.’ Europe also gave him the experience of solitude: ‘what was happening was that I was pulling all these plugs out, one at a time: books, language, social contacts. As you get down to the last plugs it’s like the Zen thing of having no ego. You really are bored and alone and vulnerable in the sense of having no supports. But when you get them all pulled out, a little period goes by, and then it’s absolutely serene, it’s terrific.’ He describes the end of this process, some months spent on Ibiza, where he finished up ‘just thinking about thinking’. With Europe and art school and the easy achievement of what his masters asked behind him, he began to work vigorously at making a reputation. He had his first one-man show in 1957.

On the day the exhibition opened he got to the gallery early: ‘I got that first really clear look at what I was doing, and it was terrible. My education, I think, started there.’ So he shifted to Abstract Expressionism. ‘At first it was mainly the competitive goad. I was confronting contemporaries whose work was manifestly superior to my own.’ These were big pictures – ‘very gestural, very runny’. ‘The process in creating that kind of canvas was 10 per cent action and 90 per cent ass-scratching. You’d make a stroke, then there was a flurry of activity in which you dealt with that. Then you lapsed into a period in which you tried to decide about what you’d just done. Was it interesting? Did it work?’ This was pleasurable but it wasn’t work on the frontiers. What could be done within Abstract Expressionism had been done, What next? The answer seemed to be a canvas that would read as one field. The very idea of imagery became anathema to him. ‘Imagery,’ Irwin says, ‘constituted a second order of reality, whereas I was after a first order of presence.’ At this point he realised that the straight line was the least ‘Rorschachable’ mark.

Between 1962 and 1964, he produced ten paintings – all really the same painting of two lines on a ground of the same colour. These were his ‘first successful attempt not to paint a painting’. He would sit for hours staring at a monotone canvas – all yellow perhaps, or all orange, with two lines of the same colour spread horizontally across it. He would then remove one and move it fractionally – an eighth of an inch perhaps, on a seven-foot canvas. It seemed to him that these tiny movements of the line changed the whole perceptual field. The canvas even looked to be a different colour. It was intense activity Also intensely boring, ‘I would look for fifteen minutes and then nod off, go to sleep. I’d look for half an hour, sleep for half an hour, look for half an hour. It was a pretty hilarious sort of activity.’

He was not the first person to make paintings like these. To him they were the end of a road he had taken: in the history of art they could be equated with the move Yves Klein, for example, had made when he painted entirely blue canvases, or the white on white paintings of Malevitch. Irwin claims he was ignorant of this, ‘If I had been smarter I might not have been able to do it ... you really run the risk of inventing the cotton gin all over again in the year 1960.’ What seems peculiar to Irwin is the pragmatism of his methods. It was not the idea that a plain-coloured canvas with the simplest of marks on it would look good: it was that this particular canvas, handled in this particular way, had an effect. The effects were so subtle that the lighting, the tiniest cracks in the wall, or smudges of paint on the studio floor, could nullify them. So the preparation of the viewing space became as important as the preparation of the picture. The rest of his career was concerned more and more with spaces, less and less with things in them. After the line paintings there were dot paintings – artificially lit so that, at the optimum viewing distance, the tone of parts of the paintings and of the wall matched.

But was it all worthwhile? ‘Wasn’t this thing of being an artist supposed to be interesting or entertaining, or at least fulfilling?’ he asks.

The thing about an abstract expressionist is that it was a very playful, joyful kind of work, in a way. But those dot paintings were just the opposite. They were the hardest thing I have ever done – physically unbelievable. I mean it was actually painful work to do. In addition here I was, this grown man, slaving away putting dots on a canvas, as my whole social life slipped away. Towards the end of it I had just about lost touch with everyone.

Having made paintings which were as close to being edgeless as he could make them, he set about trying to deal with space itself. It was not a question of looking at an object in space, but of becoming aware of a place – a special one, with particular significance. The artist’s role would, in the end, be to make small changes that would make you aware of what he had recognised – like an arrow saying ‘look at this.’ Irwin’s view was that artists in the past had used their experience to make works of art: the work of art mediated, it referred to the original experience, but did not re-create it. He wanted to deliver the experience that existed before the work of art was made. It is as though Wordsworth set about preparing people for trips to the Lake District, and saw the end of his work as being, not the poetry he wrote, and the reader’s response to it, but the feeling the reader would have when confronted with what had made him, Wordsworth, write the poetry in the first place. Irwin gave up his studio and began taking long drives into the desert.

The Southwest desert attracted me ... it’s a place you can go along for a long while and nothing seems to be happening. It’s all just flat desert, no particular events, no mountains or trees or rivers. And then suddenly it takes on an almost magical quality. It just suddenly stands up and hums ... Then twenty minutes later it will just stop!

Irwin began to collect these moments of repeatedly heightened perception. At first, he marked the place and the direction with a block of concrete and a stretched piano wire – a kind of minimal pointer. But this seemed too personal. And when the string he had used to outline an area of dappled ground during the 1976 Venice Biennale was taken as a piece of sculpture, not as a frame suggesting a subject to look at, a modest gesture came to look like amazing arrogance. So he finishes up saying: ‘Light strikes a certain wall at a particular time of day in a particular way and it’s beautiful. That, as far as I am concerned, now fits all my criteria for art.’

This may be the end of the road but it is not the end of the story. Having painted himself into a corner, he announces that the walls are imaginary and walks out through them: the final, or most recent, phase of his work has involved schemes for major landscape works – a wall cutting across a park, and a system of existing paths made more emphatically ‘present’ by a subtle raising and lowering of ground levels, for example. The craftsman has defeated the philosopher.

Irwin is now, by many standards, an old-fashioned artist. Figuration rules in London and New York; art schools are turning out young painters who (with relief, it often seems) record the world about them in the manner of their favourite postcard, or most admired master. The illustrators and the painters have not shared so many problems for a couple of decades. So what is the point of a book like Weschler’s? Its primary virtue may be historical. It is already hard to remember how the moment of perception – and idolatry of the sense datum – dominated painting. Reading art history, one imagines the painters of the world getting into huddles and saying: ‘Well lads, what next?’ Irwin has answered the question – having asked it of himself – several times. One of the most attractive aspects of avant-garde art is just this testing of the limits. It is not the only reason for painting, or even the one which produces the best paintings. But while there are still moves of Irwin’s sort being made, one is saved from the thought that in painting, like chess, no matter how spirited the new games, the best openings are already in the books.

Reyner Banham, fly and knowing as well as scholarly and knowledgeable, casts himself as the buff, the freak, the aficionado. His great gifts to architectural history have been alternative stories. In Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, he pointed to ancestors of modern architecture quite outside the traditional list of ‘begats’. In The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment he applied himself to the history of air-ducts and lift-shafts with the relish of a boy taking a bike apart, and made services more interesting than buildings usually are. In the Pompidou Centre the architects left them uncovered and proved they can be more interesting. That building comes as close as anything so far built to realising the notion of an extendable structure, with the coherence of a single building and the scale of a small town, which so excited avant-garde architects in the Sixties and Seventies. Banham’s Megastructure shows how what began as a Science Fiction dream became a style of building rather than a new kind of city. Earlier he had looked at the sprawl of Los Angeles, been a freeway freak, and made a car-based city comprehensible and desirable. In his best writing the chaotic and inexplicable become reasonable. Writing about the current scene, he is pleased to offer the buzz words and the studio gossip, but because the historian will not lie down, he gives a sense of where the chatter is leading.

Aesthetic judgment is peripheral. He is like a critic reporting from backstage. You can make up your own mind about the performance: he will tell you what he thinks of it, but his main points are about technique. He would rather explain – and is better at that – than judge. Which left him at a loss when it came to explain, to himself, what the American desert did to him. The aesthetic experience came to him unmediated, a revelation of beauty which could not be tagged, as a Cotman sky or a Turner sunset could be. Robert Irwin, faced with a similar moment of vision, tried pointing and saying nothing, before he decided that even pointing was too much. Banham worries away at the problem: ‘Something of my long-term uneasiness and fascination with the desert derives, I suspect, from my never having found a suitable disguise or function with which to designate my relationship to this landscape I love. I feel sure that if I could be a professional old-timer, a ranger for the BLM, or the lineman who services the telephone which rejoices in the call number Landfair 1, I would be able to use words like beautiful without wondering what I mean by them, and how I came by the responses that drive me to use words like that.’

Much of Scenes in America Deserta reads like an argument. ‘Surely I can explain all this,’ he says to himself, and makes a Banhamesque foray into desert literature or desert history. Some of these essays are to the point. Nearly all are interesting in themselves. There are good pages on the technique of off-road desert driving, for example, and on how the Science Fiction deserts of Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ray Bradbury and Star Wars borrow form and colour from the American South-West. Accounts of Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert camps and Paolo Soleri’s desert dream-town (a tiny fragment of which is already being built by a band of student acolytes), of the blinding white mission church of San Xavier del Bac, of deserted resorts and nowhere towns, tell what the master-tourist saw. They leave his central problem unresolved, however. At the end of the book he writes: ‘What I have truly found is something that I value in some ways more than myself. Beauty may indeed lie in the eye of the beholder, but that eye must have an object of vision, a scene on which it can fasten ... The desert hath me in thrall, and I am happy to say I am still astonished to find this is so.’

This testimony, in the context of Banham’s life-work, seems like a confession of defeat. Modern architecture is like a court in exile, where the talk is of past glories. The aesthetic certainties upon which the divine rights of its kings were built are everywhere questioned. Modernism is a style among others. It is hard not to see in Banham’s love affair with the unman-made a protest against the aesthetic relativism which has invaded his subject.