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View of the Pacific Ocean from Marin County, with the Farallon Islands in the distance

How does it work, those mysterious tendrils that some part of us knows how to sprout, rooting us to the places that feel hospitable, that feel like our native habitat? I spent my childhood in California but expatriated to the east coast when I was just 21 years old. But the years away can’t wash out a primal sense of homecoming. There are those smells, earthy and fragrant, that I have only encountered on that western coast of this country. And then of course there is the issue of the light. I remember an article in the New Yorker many years ago that offered up the scientific explanation for what makes the sunlight so distinctive in California, none of which I can remember now. But it IS different, decidedly, and I loved the chance to bask in it for 10 days in the company of my daughter Kellin and so many good friends.

Some public art viewing highlights, of which there were many:

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Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. What a collection ranging from Asian to European to contemporary. A special show, Divine Demons: Wrathful Dieties of Buddhist Art, was small but spectacular.

From the Norton Simon site:

As embodiments of the “demonic divine,” wrathful deities serve as protectors and guardians of the Buddhist faith. Mahakala is an especially fierce deity who militantly tramples a figure that represents obstacles. Resplendently adorned with a tiara of skulls, writhing snakes and a multitude of spiritual weapons, he is one of the most important protectors of the religion.

But then I do have a thing about Mahakala, with a massive image of him hanging in my living room.


My own personal wrathful protector, Mahakala

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MOCA Los Angeles is currently featuring an exhibit, “Collection: MOCA’s First Thirty Years.”

From the MOCA’s site:

On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), debuts Collection: MOCA’s First Thirty Years, the largest-ever installation of its renowned permanent collection featuring more than 500 artworks by over 200 artists. MOCA’s collection, which numbers nearly 6,000 works dating from 1939 to the present day, is internationally regarded as one of the most important collections of postwar art in the world. While works from the collection have been seen in more than 100 thematic exhibitions at MOCA since the museum’s founding in 1979, the new installation will make a significant portion of the collection accessible to the public on a long-term basis.

The show spills out of the Grand Street location into the massive Geffen exhibition space a few blocks away. This was a day-long feast of more Robert Irwins than I have ever seen in one place as well as some gorgeous works by Agnes Martin, Ed Moses, Mark Rothko, Franz Klein, Sol LeWitt. Arranged chronologically, the later years feature artists who are primarily working in and around Los Angeles. That bias is to be expected given how many west coast artists have been given little or no traction in places like New York.


Robert Irwin, Untitled (Dot Painting), 1965 (Photo: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles)
Note: This image is extremely subtle—you may need to look very closely to see the intricate pattern of dotting that sits on the surfave of the painting. One of the reasons Irwin hated photographic representations of his work!

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SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) is also featuring works from its collection, “75 Years of Looking Forward” as well as a companion exhibit, “Focus on Artists.”

From the SFMOMA site:

From its early days, SFMOMA has been devoted to fostering close relationships with artists, and these ties often have led to significant holdings of their works. This exhibition looks at SFMOMA’s long-term relationships with 18 modern and contemporary arists whose iconic works have been influential in defining movements from Abstract Expressionism to Postminimalism and beyond, with individual galleries featuring works by a single artist. The first half of the exhibition includes eight American artists whose practice fundamentally impacted the development of abstract art in the United States: Richard Diebenkorn, Philip Guston, Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, and Clyfford Still. The second section showcases an international selection of artists — Diane Arbus, Matthew Barney, Robert Gober, Dan Graham, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Doris Salcedo, Kara Walker, Jeff Wall, and Andy Warhol — whose work has signaled a shift toward more psychological, social, and historical content in art.yuuuuuh

Another jaw dropping set of amazing art, particularly rich with works from some of my all time favorites. A gorgeous wall of drawings by Brice Marden. A room full of Diebenkorns that includes pieces from the Ocean Park series as well as earlier work. Exquisite Robert Rymans. Richter. Salcedo. And most powerfully for me, two of the most spectacularly visual and visceral Sigmar Polke pieces I’ve ever seen, both from the “The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible” series from 1980s.


The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible III, by Sigmar Polke (Photo courtesy of Sigmar Polke)

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De Young Museum. Just being in this exquisite space (hats off to Herzog & de Meuron) is a joy. And this trip I was particularly moved by the Art of the Americas collection, one of the best assemblages of Pre-Columbian art I’ve ever seen.


Figure of a Crawling Baby, Olmec, 1200-900 BC (photo courtesy of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Much more to share, so check back later this week.

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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.

Irwin

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.

I found an article in The Independent yesterday that I posted on my filter blog Slow Painting. It has dominated my thinking all day. In a singularly succinct manner, it captures a core set of issues that are at the center of my disaffection with a number of trends in contemporary art. These are some of the same concerns that drove me to start blogging two years ago.

Two imperatives are identified as de rigeur in the high profile world of contemporary art:

Rule 1) Justification by meaning: the worth and interest of a work resides in what it’s about.

Rule 2) Absolute freedom of interpretation: a work is “about” anything that can, at a pinch, be said about it.

The article goes on to elaborate this conundrum:

In short, meanings are arbitrary, but compulsory. And this double bind holds almost universal sway. Whenever you learn that a work explores or investigates or raises questions about something, that it’s concerned with issues around this or notions of that or debates about the other, you know you’re in its grip.

It’s weird how people can’t resist. If you want to make art sound serious, this is simply the way you do it. Read any gallery wall-caption or leaflet or catalogue, and see how long it is before the writer commends the work solely on the basis of what it’s about. And then note how it is isn’t really about that at all.

Meaning comes first – even before the work itself…

That’s the problem with these meanings. They’re not just highly tenuous. They’re depressingly limiting. And we should put them aside. We should stop measuring art by its meaningfulness. We should heed the wise words of Susan Sontag, written almost 50 years ago in her essay “Against Interpretation”.

“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us.”

This runs in a similar vein with much of what Lawrence Weschler has explored in my still current favorite book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. What Irwin keeps moving in and out of in the interviews included in the book is related to Sontag’s issue of cutting back on content and getting the viewer closer to what is “real.”

I’ve referenced Irwin’s well known response to a Philip Guston painting in an earlier posting here but it is particularly pertinent to this discussion. He describes going to a gallery and seeing a small Guston hanging next to a large James Brooks. The Brooks painting was big in every way—large shapes, with strong color. The Guston, an early piece, was small, painted in the subtle and signatory muted pinks, greys and greens. But in Irwin’s eyes, it outstripped the Brooks completely.

In Irwin’s words:

My discovery was that from one hundred yards away…I looked over, and that goddamn Guston…Now, I’m talking not on quality, and not on any assumption of what you like or don’t like, but on just pure strength, which was one of the things we were into. Strength was a big word in abstract expressionism; you were trying to get power into the painting, so that the painting really vibrated, had life to it. It wasn’t just colored shapes sitting flat. It had to do with getting a real tension going in the thing, something that made the thing really stand up and hum…Well, that goddamn Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall…

Not on quality, just on power…some people call it “the inner life of the painting,” all that romantic stuff, and I guess that’s a way of talking about it. But shapes on a painting are just shapes on a canvas unless they start acting on each other and really, in a sense, multiplying. A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it. It’s a psychic build-up, but it’s also a pure energy build-up. And the good artists knew it, too. That’s what a good Vermeer has, or a raku cup, or a Stonehenge. And when they’ve got it, they just jump off the goddamn wall. They just, bam!

What Irwin keeps getting at—that power of the painting itself—lives outside the domain of applied and obligatory meaning. It’s Irwin’s memorable phrase that I referenced in an earlier posting—phenomenal presence. As Weschler posts in describing Irwin’s line canvases:

They only work immediately; they command an incredible presence—“a rich floating sense of energy,” as Irwin describes it—but only to one who is in fact present. Back at home, you may remember what it felt like to stand before the painting, the texture of the meditative stance it put you in, but the canvas itself, its image in your mind, will be evanescent. That is why for many years Irwin declined to allow his work to be photographed, because the image of the canvas was precisely what the painting was not about.

This is the deep furrow I want to plow. The contemporary concerns for obligatory meaning and languaged legitimacy melts away for me in the face of full-bodied power. Overlay and artifice? Enough already.


Robert Irwin

The books stacked by my bed may appear to be pliantly passive, but don’t be fooled: the daily jostling that rotates one to the top spot is a highly competitive challenge. Feelings have been hurt, I can sense it, when that slim volume of finely chiseled poetry gets usurped by, dare I say it, non-fiction. There’s something touchingly poignant about being shunted aside—especially after having provided hours of sensuous pleasure—by a brazen and confident competitor whose voluptuous content titillates the mind into delirium.

The latest interloper to command control of my bedstand stack is Seeing Is Forgetting: The Name of the Thing One Sees, A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, by Lawrence Weschler. I’ve quoted from this book on this blog before (see my posting on May 12, 2008), and have read parts of it in the past. But as is the case with so many things in life, timing is everything. This book fell back into my hands recently, and I can’t put it down. I’m smitten. No doubt the other bedside volumes are murmuring their frustration with an infatuation that is lasting a little too long. Sorry, but this one is so seductive and provocative, and it is speaking to me right down to my bones.

During my formative years growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Robert Irwin—along with his cohorts Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price et al—were running their own art solar system out of Southern California with no fealty paid to that putative (and to some degree, self-anointed) center of the art world, New York. Their approach was insouciant, non-pedigree, fresh. As a young artist living outside the power grid of the East Coast, I was compelled by their confidence and transgressive points of view. And what a willful proclivity to be persnickety! For example, Irwin forbade any photographic reproduction of his work for a number of years, convinced that a photograph can only convey image, not presence. Cataloging and marketing be damned. I remember thinking, wow. Those guys were just so…cool.

Now, years later, I am reading the “story about the story” of Irwin and his crew during that extremely important period in their artistic evolution. What keeps striking me is how extraordinarily aligned I am with many of the issues they championed. I didn’t fully comprehend the full import as a much younger artist. Now seems to be the time when I am most able to understand, really understand, what Irwin was saying.

So many salient quotes could be offered here from this fascinating book. I’m sure I’ll be posting more from Weschler’s account in the weeks to come. But here is a start to give you some sense of Irwin’s point of view:

Irwin sometimes singles out a particular achievement of Willem de Kooning’s. “Really the best abstract expressionist paintings ever—in my opinion the best single ones—were an at-the-time recent series of large paintings by de Kooning. And one of the things about them is that they have this quality: it’s as if they were done in ten minutes. They look utterly spontaneous. A few simple gestures just explode on the canvas. But the control is amazing! The stroke stops and the paint splashes, but with the precision of the lace on a Vermeer collar. I mean, having done those kinds of paintings and tried to get that kind of freshness, I know the guy was really a master. He really knew what he was doing.”

And another:

“The big challenge for me,” he recalls, “starting around then, the ‘less is more’ challenge, was simply always to try to maximize the energy, the physicality of the painting, and to minimize the imagery. It could all be looked at essentially as turning the entire question upside down: moving away from the literate, conceptual rationale and really reestablishing the inquiry on the perceptual, tactile level. Nobody quite understood that at the time, because they were still thinking in image terms and in terms of literate connotations. When they talked about a painting, they translated it into subject matter, in a way, but it’s not only about that. It’s about presence, phenomenal presence. And it’s hard: if you don’t see it, you just don’t see it; it just ain’t there. You can talk yourself blue in the face to somebody, and if they don’t see it, they just don’t see it. But once you start seeing it, it has a level of reality exactly the same as the imagery—no more, no less. And basically, that’s what I’m still after today. All my work since then has been an exploration of phenomenal presence.

More to come, to be sure.

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