The largest exhibit in the history of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego launches this weekend. It showcases artists from the light, space, and surface movement of the 1960s and 70s. The show is part of this fall's larger Getty Museum initiative called Pacific Standard Time. Acclaimed artist Robert Irwin joins us to talk about his work.
Related Story: MCASD Captures Light And Space
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. There's something about California that inspires its own kind of art. California is full of color, space, air, light. It's also built not in brick and marble but of new materials. Plastics, fluorescent lights. Since the end of World War II, artists in California have been producing works based on a new west coast esthetic. That work has been slow to getting the respect of the eastern art establishment. A new exhibit at the museum of contemporary art, San Diego, is part of a new showcase of California art. It's called Phenomenal: Light, space, surface. Hugh Davies on the museum of the Copley art center San Diego, hello. And it's.
DAVIES: Thank you for having us up?
CAVANAUGH: And it's a pleasure to welcome back Robert Irwin, an internationally acclaimed artist who lives here in San Diego. Robert, welcome back.
IRWIN: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: Hugh, this exhibit is a massive undertaking for the museum. Give us a sense of phenomenal's size and scope.
DAVIES: Well, it's the single largest exhibition we've done in our 70-year history. We're using all three of our gallery facilities. Two downtown and the La Jolla facility, for a total of 30,000 square feet devoted to this one topic and these 13 artists. It's also accompanied by a very expensive publication that is copublished by the university of California press. And it's an important were contribution to scholarship and a reader for light and space that has been missing for a long time.
CAVANAUGH: It's a really good introduction to the light and space movement too, don't you think?
DAVIES: I do indeed. There are essays by four young scholars and one older scholar who was there at the time these works were being made. And they each focus on a different aspect of Phenomenal, California light space and surface.
CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us what the light and space movement is?
DAVIES: I should ask Bob to define that. What would you say?
IRWIN: Well, it's not an easy answer. If you take this history of modern art seriously, one of the things that it did, you start out with, like David, beautifully painted, etc, within 100 years you have to look at a Malovich, a white square and white ground. If you think about that, why would you take something so beautiful, so rich apart and take it all the way down to its bear essence? And Picasso made this key statement which was the necessity sometimes to do a phenomenon logical reduction, to take away all the coding that we have between ourselves and just looking at the world and taking it back to the pure process of perception itself. That is the rhyme and the reason for it, as far as I know.
CAVANAUGH: That is a wonderful explanation. But there is something also about the light and space movement that is -- when you do that redux, when you take something all the way down, you take it down specifically here in California, here in the west coast. And there's something very west coast about this art, isn't there, Hugh?
DAVIES: There really is. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that all these artists group up in this environment. It's -- the light here is very specific, and very beautiful. It's more of a horizontal experience with the horizon and deserts and large expanses of land as opposed to New York being a very vertical, claustrophobic experience. And I think that accounts for what I see as a sort of optimism and an emphasis on primary perception rather than intellectualizing.
CAVANAUGH: As you say, this space, the idea that there is still room to actually walk back and look at something, and create in space. When you, Robert, and other artists were working and this movement was developing here in Southern California, did you feel like you were part of a movement?
IRWIN: Well, in a kind of unique sense in that I think probably the experience that described it best for me was the first time I went to New York really thinking that that was the kind of capitals there were, and considered the possibility of going there, living there, what have you. I went there, and I was looking for a dialogue because I was in the deserting looking for what to do and how to go. When you take something apart, it raises a lot of questions. So I spent time this, and I didn't get a dialogue. What I got was confrontation. And the confrontation was really each one of the artists there had a very clear, very well articulated argument as to who they were and why they were. And their position with regards to myself and California was that why in the world would you live in California? There's nothing there. There's no culture, there's no history, there's no, you know, no architecture, etc., etc. I said to them, my God, you hit the nail on the head. That's exactly why I'm there.
CAVANAUGH: That's what I can use, right?
IRWIN: That allows for change. I remember being young and going to Paris, putting a couple bottles of beer in my pocket and walking all night, and actually almost coming to tears, it was so beautiful. I thought to myself, why in the world would you change anything this beautiful? So the idea that in a sense we were a wasteland, which we are not, but we're in a way not structured in that way was a good place to be an artist at that moment in time.
CAVANAUGH: Did you speak with other artists about using these very ideas that you're talking about to create -- to express yourselves in art in a different way?
IRWIN: You know, one of the things that was unique is that all the artists studios here were private places. You never went to somebody else's studio. You never knocked on the door. You never just brought yourself in. You only went when somebody in a sense invited you. So each one of these artists worked in a very, very private, very personal way. The fact that we were all involved with somehow the same push I think is one of those interesting moments in time. It was a kind of a given, as it were.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you have spoken in the past about how you broke out of the frame. You began working on installations, and that seems to be a very brave move. You get comfortable working in a frame, and then you decide, no, that's not really where I want to take my direction. Did you feel that it took a certain amount of courage to do that?
IRWIN: I don't know. For me, it was a given. I had to do it. I sort of arrived at it step by step. When I broke the frame, I thought, my God, where do I go from here? And I did not have an answer for it. I had no way to even conceive of it. So I think the only thing I could do at the time was to get rid of everything that I owned, get rid of the studios, all of that, and put myself in that place. The questions were too good. If the questions hold water, you're stuck with them. So rather than back up, took the few questions I had and moved forward on it want.
CAVANAUGH: So where did you work then?
IRWIN: Well, for a long time, anywhere anybody would let me. But I spent a lot of time on the desert because it was an easy, amenable place to think about these kind of things. I did a number of things in the desert, then I thought to myself there's absolutely no way for these things to enter into the world as we presently structure it. They wouldn't go to a gallery, you couldn't transform them in that way. I wouldn't take bus tours out there so they're there. And no one ever saw them. So I had to deal with issues like that for a number of years.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I want -- I'd like to get our listeners really involved in the visualization of what we're talking about. And maybe a way to do that is to talk about one of the works that's in this show, Phenomenonal. You created an acrylic disk, and it just seems to float in the air. It seems like it has no edge. Beyond the sheer beauty of a piece like that, why is the aim behind that?
IRWIN: That was -- I had -- the question had come prior to that, the question had come how do you make a painting without a mark? And I tried to doing that, which is what the dot paintings where. Having accomplished that, the one moment I suddenly looked at that painting which took a few minutes to come to grips with, and you found yourself suddenly realizing that this thing is within a frame, and there's a shadow on the wall. But the shadow is just as real as the picture is. So you have a dilemma in a way. And I came to the possibility, well, how would you paint a painting that's not in a frame? How do you break the edge? The answer being very simple that if you look around, that's not how we see the world. We don't see the world in frames. I had come to this idea that art had a lot to do with how people perceived the world, and that idea of perception, which is a continuously ongoing process is not in a sense resolved. So the idea that the artist in a way looks at the world and says, my gosh, that's not how I see T. I don't see in frames. Information comes in all levels on every sensory level, and so I thought, well, are the frame for what I'm thinking about makes no sense at all. So I had to -- it's a good question. You're stuck with it want.
CAVANAUGH: You're stuck with it. Hugh, I know that the museum of contemporary art San Diego started collecting and supporting these artists very early on when the movement began. And as we've been talking about, some of this work is not really easy to collect, is it?
DAVIES: No, it's not. Or museum was founded in 1941 and took as its major focus, contemporary art in the '60s, and in doing that, we were really the first museum to have contemporary art as the primary focus of not only its exhibitions, but its collecting. So the case of many of the artists that are in the Phenomenal exhibition, we gave them their first one-person shows or included them in shows early in their career, and my predecessors were wise enough to purchase the working to buy the work for the collection. So more than 50% of the pieces in this exhibition are from our own collection. And we didn't restrict ourselves. When we went out to look for the best examples, we had them. So this exhibition is very much a celebration of our own institutional history as well as a celebration of what I think is the most important movement to emerge in the art of the west coast.
CAVANAUGH: Did you have to restore anything?
DAVIES: We did. A number of the object pieces, pieces by Duane Valentine, and pieces by Peter Alexander were restored and buffed up. We had contributions from the Getty conservators, who are very knowledgeable about this. But it's been a wonderful process of rediscovering our own collection and its history and consolidating our place in this history, institutionally.
CAVANAUGH: You mentioned the Getty and the Getty conservators. I really want to talk about this show being part of an initiative by the Getty museum in Los Angeles. It's called, I believe, Pacific standard time. What is this? What is this whole concept?
DAVIES: Well, the Getty recognized five years ago that the history of Southern California art, the history of the last first year, really going back to 1945, has never been told correctly or extensively or with solid scholarship. And that's because of a very strong east coast bias against what's happened down here. I was trained in the east coast, and I was never told anything about what was going on in California. If I hadn't met bob Ervin in 1975, I wouldn't be here now. So the Getty wanted to address that problem and retell history or make new history. And so they invited initially 4 or 5 museum, including ours, to make proposals and gave us generous funding to focus on the art in Southern California from 1945 to 1980. And then gradually, they invited and other museums submitted proposals. So there are now 60 museums in the region between Santa Barbara, Palm Springs and San Diego, who are all presenting shows of the aren't art history of Southern California. And I can't -- I can't conceive of and other part of the world that could have 60 institutions all doing that. So it again attests to the cultural growth in this part of the world in the last 30 years. And bob Ervin is key to that development. What he's not telling you is that a lot of the artists that are in Pacific standard time were his students when he toured in Irvine. And he's had a very positive influence on insuring that creativity happens in Southern California and I would venture to say there are more young artists making sequential work in Los Angeles, Southern California region now than there are in the New York region. So we're superseding the historic capital of the art world.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder if your feeling about this new initiative by the Getty is it's about time?
IRWIN: No, I already have that feeling. Anything that has some import is naturally going to have its day in court, as it were. This is an extraordinary moment that all this is happening. It's rather overwhelming. Even used to being left alone, and suddenly everybody is being very nice to me, which is making me suddenly somewhat very nervous. The high praise that you just gave me is way over the top. I'm going to have to go around apologizing to all kinds of people.
CAVANAUGH: Now, they have to apologize to you.
IRWIN: No, no, no.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to really thank you both. And I want to tell everyone that the exhibit Phenomenal, California lice, space, and surface opens this weekend at both the downtown and La Jolla locations of the museum of contemporary art San Diego. Did I get that right.
DAVIES: You got it. Spot on.
IRWIN: You'll probably never see it again. It's worth doing.
CAVANAUGH: Hugh Davies and artist Robert Irwin, thank you both so much.
DAVIES: Thank you very much.