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.’

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