Dialogue of Immanence

Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin Lawrence Weschler

irwindisk“The art world is highly invested in the idea that you can take an object and set it in a room, and the internal relationships will be so strong and so meaningful that all the kinds of change that take place on the object as a result of its being in a new environment will not critically affect our perception of the object. If that is the given assumption, then the object can be moved from culture to culture, that it has the ability to transcend its cultural specificity, which in turn gives rise to the ultimate illusion that the object can transcend time. Because what is being claimed is that there exist certain objects isolated and meaningful enough to be transcendent, that they have the power to go on and on, that they are, as it were, timeless.”–Robert Irwin

I wish I had known this quotation when I was still working on my research paper on the Voyager Golden Record. That aural curiosity cabinet combined the sounds and languages of the earth and assumed they would communicate on their own, without the layered cultural backdrops we bring to them.

Robert Irwin has dedicated his life’s work to refuting the notion that art works are in any way exportable or separate from our experience of them. Weschler’s book, which was recently reissued through the University of California Press, walks readers through Irwin’s journey toward the ultimate subject of his art. For Irwin, this was not beauty or realism but perception. In his career as an artist, Irwin moved from abstract expressionism to a refinement of the viewing experience itself, playing with installation spaces and their lighting. In a 2007 New York Times article, Museum Director Michael Goven claimed that Weschler’s book “has convinced more young people to become artists than the Velvet Underground has created rockers.”

It’s easy to see why. Weschler’s book is packed with long, engaging quotations from the charismatic artist. His persona takes hold of the book, and his life is an often-stirring example of the artist as ascetic and eccentric. During the sixties Irwin would spend months at a time just sitting in his studio, considering it and the art he was about to prepare in it.  Throughout his talks with Weschler Irwin clutches a Coke bottle, and is known for making most of his money through betting on horseraces.

Irwin does not create static works; instead, it could be said that he prepares visual experiences. His dot paintings appear at first to be white canvases, but after a minute or so, one can perceive other colors vibrating from their centers. His discs (one is pictured above) jut out from the wall. His columns, room installations, and public art aren’t exactly things to behold and describe–they’re designed to create mindfulness of the space itself.

Weschler constructs a wealth of philosophical buttressing for Irwin’s art. He draws upon phenomenology to offer additional explanation for Irwin’s pieces, which attempt to make viewers more conscious of their own perceptive abilities. (Incidentally, Irwin took up an interest in philosophy in the 1970s, after he had already arrived at some of the similar conclusions by different means. This “dialogue of immanence” is Irwin’s belief that many roads can take one to the same belief.)

I wish Weschler had distanced himself from Irwin a little more. At times he’ll throw in a riposite to Irwin’s pontificating, but those moments are few and far between. It’s also interesting that Irwin and Weschler both ignore the philosophical example of Heidegger, who might have said that the ultimate art was not perception but work, and had a very different model of what the precogito (sensation before the creation of a subjective “I”) looks like and how it might be recovered.

The potential similarities and differences between Irwin and Heidegger also point towards a latent conservatism in the former’s work. For all his talk of progressing beyond mimetic art, Irwin has retrograde notions about art’s place in the world. He wants people to be more mindful of their surroundings, but it’s left unsaid whether this produces enlightenment, enjoyment, solace, or better social relations. Irwin also repeatedly underestimates the human propensity to create meaning. He’s surprised when visitors to his discs see all sorts of forms in them, and vows to get even further away from representation. But mimetic art is inexhaustibly meaningful, and his choice of nonrepresentational art sometimes comes across as a denial of representation’s efficacy.

Despite these reservations, Irwin’s art is thrilling in execution and as an example. One other reason he’s inspired so many artists has to be his insistence that the world itself is art, and all the artist has to do is find ways to highlight that world. Wire, tape, paint, and sheer fabric are all you need. Well, that and an open mind.

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1 Response to “Dialogue of Immanence”


  1. 1 Deborah Barlow October 2, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Our commonalities of interest are so deep I am beginning to think there is something mysterious afoot. But seeing the title of this post and reading this terrific piece really put me over the top.

    I grew up in California and recall the early 60s in the LA art scene. As a young impressionable art student it was all very compelling and seductive. Subsequently I have written about Irwin and Weschler’s back and forth on my blog Slow Muse several times. But I too just picked up the new reissue of the book and have been rereading the whole thing from start to finish in preparation for Irwin’s 2 day lecture series at the MFA in Boston.

    I think your take on Irwin gets at the core of what is so compelling about his point of view as well as what is slim or at times, just missing altogether. Once again I read what you write and just keep saying yes, yes, yes. Thanks for such clear thinking and articulated expression of a significant player in the art world polyphony of the last 50 years.


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