Robert Irwin is doing a two-night gig at the MFA in Boston. Last night was the first installment of Irwin’s rapid-fire, wisdom-spewing, wait, wait, I can’t write all of this down fast enough, boundary-breaking delivery. With his baseball cap firmly on his head (which, he advised us coyly, was to protect his eyes from direct light while acknowledging the irony of being an artist with eye problems) and donning west coast casual jeans and sneakers, he looks as unpretentious and unprepossessing as his presentation proved to be.

Where he took that sold out auditorium is hard to describe. I’ve shared quotes from his timeless (and freshly updated and reissued) book, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, on this blog many times. But to capture the essence of what he has come to represent for me is very hard to codify in simple language with clear directives. Irwin is after all the author of a book that Michael Govan of the New York Times believes “convinced more young people to become artists than the Velvet Underground has created rockers.”

Edward Saywell, curator for contemporary art at the MFA, gave a beautifully crafted introduction. His admiration for Irwin seemed so genuine, and he referenced how Irwin “coalesced and dissolved” many of the art categories in the second half of the 20th century. Saywell’s description of an Irwin installation at the Dia Center in Chelsea from several years ago (one that I also saw and loved) was very moving and personal, referring to the sublimity of the “arresting haze of light” that the scrims dividing up the space created. His response was not the expected intellectual, post-modernist take down of the work but a reaction full of feeling and personal connection.

Once on stage, Irwin let it loose immediately. His delivery has the energy of a very young person with a jam-packed mind operating at the speed of light. Going against his legendary refusal to allow his work to be photographed (he insists that it has to be experienced in the flesh and that there is no replacement for that real life experience), he graciously gave in to the program director’s plea to please please please include slides. And even though I know why he feels the way he does, I admire his willingness to compromise and not demand everything to be on his own self-defined, purist terms. I know this may sound like a gross generalization, but Irwin is probably one of the few Big Time artists who is not a flaming narcissist.

The lecture was titled On the Nature of Abstraction. “It’s a general title I use for most of my talks because I like it,” he said without guile. Starting with the most basic discussion of what abstraction has come to mean and its implicit duality—the tension of the thing itself and its “abstracted” version—Irwin just took off. In discussing the radical nature of the history of art in the 19th century, Irwin started with the famous David painting from 1807, “The Coronation of Napoleon”, and ended the century with Malevich’s white on white experiments. While some decried the (d)evolution from the exquisitely rendered representationalism of David to the non-imaged, conceptual nature of Malevich’s work as a travesty. One critic claimed that Malevich left us with a visual desert, to which Irwin countered that it is a desert of feeling. “What Malevich and his cohorts did was give feeling equal status with the intellectual.”

Irwin’s journey began as a painter of abstracted images. In his own telling of his story, he just kept removing more and more of what was in the way of a pure experience of art. He gave up the visual imagery, then the frame and thingness of the artifact itself, then the often implicit framing of the museum altogether. Who else could take the journey through such a deep and subtle process and then later find himself designing the gardens at the Getty Museum as well as serving as the architect of the renovated building for the Dia Beacon?

This relentless search for what is at the essence of the visual experience is so primal and elemental, and that is part of why I find it hard to describe in words. The best analogy I have experienced recently is a fascinating essay about David Mamet and William Macy’s approach to theater. Written by Mimi Kramer-Bryk, former theater critic for the New Yorker, The Conversational Reality (on Mimi’s blog Smoke & Mirrors) describes another search to get to the essence. Whether it is for theater or visual art, the effort requires a kind of discipline, focus and commitment that is daunting. Chasing after that which is subtle and often furtive is not a trivial undertaking, but the yields are profound in both cases.

Tonight’s lecture is titled The Hidden Structure of the Art World. I’m ready for another ride into hyperspace.