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irwin-portrait

If you take the cubist idea and really press it…what you have is what I was now being forced to deal with…In other words, the marriage of figure and ground—which is how they always term the cubist achievement—of necessity leads to the marriage between painting and environment; essentially they are the same thing, just taking it one step further. When I married the painting to the environment, suddenly it had to deal with the environment around it as being equal to the figure and having as much meaning.

–Robert Irwin

Night 2 with Robert Irwin wasn’t quite as scintillating and rapid-fire as Night 1 (see the posting below for that report), but it was still well worth the crisp evening walk to the MFA. In this second session I got a better sense of what in his material is the essential boiler plate (not meant to be dismissive but more in line with its original meaning of reusable text rendered in a durable form) and elemental to his argument. Hearing him run through his constellated world view again definitely took me deeper into his way of seeing things. And amazingly, his energy never flags. His passion for this material is palpable, like heat from a high tuned burner.

Night 2’s lecture, The Hidden Structure of the Art World, delivered less on that title’s lofty promise than on the next revelatory layer of the Irwin Cosmology. The quote at the begnning of this post is a fairly succinct description of Irwin’s artistic journey, and the search for that path is at the core of his presentation both nights. But to that end he also suggested a number of side trips worthy of exploration—Edmund Hesserl’s phenomenology, the figure/ground debate, deep space, determined relations vs particular form, the parity of intellect and feeling, the economics of identity, the devolution of hierarchy. Much of this can be had by reading his book, Seeing is Forgetting The Name of the Thing One Sees, but hearing him string these disparate ideas together, in real time, into a living, breathing, rhizomatic, all-at-once, everything is important structure is its own pleasure.

Walking home I felt a renewed connection to my earliest art making self—the extraordinary mystery that is sheer consciousness; the deliciousness of unbridled curiosity; the enchantment of seeing, hearing and tasting the world every waking moment; the often overlooked power of intuition, instinct and feeling; the challenge to be alert to what it is that moves us in this world and then to find the focus and discipline to translate that into a form that others can understand and relate to. It is a process that has often left me utterly speechless and intoxicated with the uncomplicated joy of it all. (At one point last night Irwin said, “For me, the crux of being an artist is to take something I know and make it comprehensible.”)

This passage from Piet Mondrian’s Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art (1937) captures some of the Irwinian view:

In spite of world disorder, intuition and instinct are carrying humanity to a real equilibrium…Intuition becomes more and more conscious and instinct more and more purified…The culture of particular form gives way to determined relations.

That last line is an extraordinary one—the “culture of particular form” giving way to “determined relations.” And so much in keeping with Irwin’s point of view.

And to whom I give the last shot:

My art has never been about ideas…My pieces were never meant to be dealt with intellectually as ideas, but to be considered experientially.

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In responding to my previous post about theory and art making, Elatia Harris left a comment that is so full of potent issues I felt it needed to be brought forward, into the headlights. She touches on issues that many visual artists (including myself) mull over, struggle with and voice frustration about. I don’t necessarily agree with Elatia’s conclusion, but I also don’t have a hard and fast answer that satisfies me.

So much has been written about authenticity in aesthetic philosophy in all its various meanings, but here I am referring specifically to the use of the term that speaks to Peter Kivy’s definition of authenticity–faithfulness to the artist’s own self, original, not derivative or aping of someone else’s way of working. In this definition, authenticity is being committed to personal expression, being true to one’s artistic self rather than to the precepts of a particular tradition or -ism.

With as open-ended a definition as that, it is still fair to ask, What IS authenticity? How do you know when you have it and when you do not? There’s no answer that satisfies that question for me. I put it in the same category as a question that is often asked of painters and poets and that cannot be languaged: How do you know when a work of art finished? (Well, it feels balanced. It stops complaining. It hums. It radiates. What can I say?)

Similarly, authenticity in all its inchoate splendor is as close to a religious creed as I have when I’m in my studio. Like a lot of things in life–love, grief, ecstasy–we keep being tempted to define these powerful experiences in language, but they will not abide.

Here’s Elatia’s comment:

For my painting career, I tried to remain outside theory while including it in my awareness. I didn’t want the pigeon-holes for myself, and wondered why anyone would tolerate them. This is quite different from failing to value consistency or vision, and it also never left me feeling at an emotional disadvantage when I painted or thought about painting. After all, if you cannot or will not say what you are as a painter or how you are affiliated with other painters doing work like yours, then you are trusting your instincts, and instincts tend to be rather unfriendly to theory.

But I have to look at where all this got me — all this rejecting of -isms and refusing to be an -ist. I created a great deal of confusion in the minds of viewers — critics and other intellectuals, friends, gallerists, potential clients. I seemed never to represent any “flavor of the month” they could believe in, or to be a part of what they could understand as the coming thing. And I misunderstood how much the classification mania of the art establishment drove the career progress an artist could make. Perhaps one can’t ever truly be outside the system — only irrelevant to it. Post-modernism engineered a slow breakdown of these taxonomies, but then became, itself, theory-ridden.

I saw the way I negotiated all that as the price of being authentic, and even from this distance I still see it that way. Authentic, yes. Intelligent, no.

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