Robert Irwin: Works in Progress opens at Quint Contemporary Art in La Jolla tomorrow night through May 1st. The opening reception is tomorrow night from 6-8pm.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. "Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees," that's the name of a book about the life of my guest, artist Robert Irwin. But it's also a quick glimpse into the way his work demands a fundamental change of focus. Irwin began his long career as a painter, but walked away from the canvas to begin creating installation works aimed at getting people to examine their perceptions. He's acclaimed internationally as an artist who creates alternative experiences with light and space and sometimes even foliage. He's about to open an exhibit of new work at the Quint Contemporary Art Gallery at La Jolla, and it's an honor to welcome Robert Irwin to These Days. Good morning, Robert. Thanks for being here.
ROBERT IRWIN (Artist): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Now you’ve said that an exhibition for you is not a statement but it’s an experiment. So I’m wondering what are you experimenting with in this exhibit?
IRWIN: Well, this particular one is more like a work in progress, that is I’m actually going to change it during the exhibition. The reason I’m doing the exhibition in this case, I had started doing these things in a small studio, which I had not had a studio for fifty – 45 years or so. And started making things that suddenly required or had the possibility to be exhibited but they also started expanding to the point where I didn’t have a big enough wall. So Quint offered me a wall which is big enough for me to really work on for practice, so I’m actually rolling the dice, that is, I’m doing it as we go. And, hopefully, it’ll, you know, have it together by the time it opens.
CAVANAUGH: Now from what I understand, you have redesigned the space at Quint for the show, which is something that you often do. And talk about why you do that. How does the redesign of a space fit with the overall goal of your work?
IRWIN: It’s not necessarily an overall goal but it’s become an ingrained habit. That’s what I do. I look at things and try and make sense out of them in the set of conditions you have. So actually the changes I made in Quint’s gallery I made before I was even planning on exhibiting. I walked in one day looking at the space. He asked me to, you know, and there were a couple of things that made the space awkward. And so by changing a wall here and changing a configuration there, I improved the gallery and I now am going to benefit from it, hopefully.
CAVANAUGH: Now the way you work with materials and changing the spatial relationships of a room, let’s say, it’s all about perception, how people perceive reality, how they look at things. And I wonder, do you feel that you’re manipulating perception?
IRWIN: No, actually just revealing it.
CAVANAUGH: And how is that perception revealed in that way?
IRWIN: Well, we, you know, we perceive. We actually form the world at every instant, although we’re not cognitively aware of that but – and there are people would argue with that to some degree. There’s a famous line, ‘I think, therefore, I am.’ I would say, I feel, therefore, I think, therefore, I am. And the whole thrust of modern art, as far as I understand it, is expanding the role of the artist as a kind of esthetician, someone who actually spends his time, is trained in a way to deal with qualities. Every situation has qualities. Essentially, we quantify them and that’s the practical side of our lives so the involvement with perception and in acquiring the perception is our ability to understand qualities. They exist only as long as a human being keeps them in play. They’re – Therefore they are akin to energy. When you start to quantify them, they no longer really are qualities.
CAVANAUGH: Now I’ve heard you tell the story of a modern artist who, you know, painting, people used to be able to understand painting at least and think they did immediately because it was all about images but he basically made a white painting. And people said, but there’s nothing there. There’s nothing there. It’s blank. It’s a desert. And he said, but it’s a desert of feeling. What does that mean?
IRWIN: That means just exactly what it says. The idea that feelings are the equal of thought, that qualities are the equal of quantities, that these in a sense have potentially great bearing on our life. They have taken second shift in many ways. They act as a kind of artillery, something we go see on Sunday in a gallery, whatever. Actually, there’s something we do every day in our lives, we get up in the morning, you want to have your coffee, you pick a spot where the sun is just about right and you find a chair and what have you that suits you for that moment, and you put some quality into your life. You can expand on that. Everything we touch has the potential to be looked at from that point of view.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with artist Robert Irwin, and his “Works in Progress” exhibit opens at the Quint Contemporary Art Gallery in La Jolla tomorrow night. And, okay, so someone goes and experiences your exhibit and they’re – they become more aware of their feelings. How do you – As you say, do you want people to bring this into their normal lives? Is that, if there is a goal…
CAVANAUGH: …is that it?
IRWIN: It is in their normal lives.
IRWIN: It’s just a question of making you maybe a little more aware, a little more conscious of the degree to which it affects the quality of your life and since enrichens your life. It’s not, in a sense, an add-on. That’s kind of how we do it now. When we plan something, you sit four people down, one deals with the politics, one deals with the logistics, one deals with the economics, etcetera, and that. But there’s nobody there at that first meeting to really instance make an argument of why qualities count. And to a great degree that’s the role I’m beginning to project for an artist.
CAVANAUGH: Now when you – I think you refer to your installations as site conditional rather than site specific. What’s the difference between those two ideas?
IRWIN: Well, it’s a – that’s a long story.
CAVANAUGH: It is?
IRWIN: Actually, oh, I’ve been arguing that one for some time.
IRWIN: The word site specific seems to stick. I would say that in the traditional sense you had the site dominant. That is, you had the general on a horse who had conquered the city or who had freed the city or whatever, and they built a plaza around him. Then you had essentially the idea of a site adjusted where the object or the artwork or whatever had to respond to the character of the quality of the space itself. So it was modified by that interface of being in a particular set of conditions. Then you had the idea of site specific was something which was not necessarily made in the studio but was made for the plaza and the limitations on that is that they – still is understood, still one understands it by referencing it to art or referencing it to the artist. But what I would say site conditioned is that all the decisions I make on the site come from my encounters with the site so that anybody walking through that experience will, say, doesn’t have to know about me, doesn’t have to know whether it’s art. That person can reference all the same cues I have and decide it makes sense to me, it doesn’t make sense. I like it, I don’t like it, I would’ve done it differently, I would’ve done it this way or that, so that the viewer becomes an active participant in the determination of whether it makes sense or whether it means anything.
CAVANAUGH: And that becomes so apparent in this – the installation that you’re doing with palm trees in the outdoor space at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And that – you know, anyone who goes there when that installation is complete is going to be able to make the judgments that you’re talking about right now.
IRWIN: I would say that the Getty Garden would be a better example right now because this one, I haven’t accomplished it yet…
CAVANAUGH: Right. Right.
IRWIN: …so I tend not to count my chickens before they hatch. And this particular one is kind of a bag of worms in that it’s under construction, it’s in constant motion, everything I’ve done so far is half there, half not there. I’ve still got my fingers crossed, and I got a lot of work to do.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let me ask you the larger question then. When does gardening become art?
IRWIN: Actually, gardening always has been an art essentially. We break them off into segments so that we can have kind of frames of reference to make decisions and what have you but, in fact, as I said, with the chair and getting your coffee in the morning, there is a potential for understanding the qualities of things, and a garden is a classic example of it. For me to do a garden, which I’d never done, I had not even grown a plant, and so I was on a major learning curve and had to, in a sense, involve and engage people who were more knowledgeable about plant material and that. But that whole process also, I discovered a community which is probably as – I mean, there – they would really love gard – people love gardens. And there’s nothing, in a sense, that controversial about them. People really are emotive about that. And they’re very effusive and they’re very friendly. In the art world, they might give you a hard time in the garden. They want to hug you for doing it. It’s – It was a great audience to find and I love going there, spending time there.
CAVANAUGH: And to bring you back to the L.A. County Museum of Art and your palm tree installation, what – why palm trees?
IRWIN: Well, threefold. Actually, I won’t go through the whole story how I got involved but if you ever see a photograph or an advertisement or a story about California or about Los Angeles, there’s always a palm tree and it’s become somewhat the icon. The mayor of Los Angeles, at that moment, had decided that they were going to eliminate palm trees, that they weren’t efficient in terms of making – cleaning the air and all that sort of thing, which is somewhat ridiculous but – so it seemed like an interesting occasion. And the idea that there’s really never been a real major palm garden – There is one out in Pasadena at the Huntington, but it’s a limited one. This one’s – has a greater range. For example, not just palms, I had the earliest – the site has the earliest plants on earth, had the first blooming plants on earth, etcetera, etcetera. So there’s a variety of things, the palm being the key element in it. But it’s – it’s – has a whole family of materials. And part of the reason for that, of course, is you’ve got the La Brea Tar Pits there. How can you ignore what is, in a sense, an incredibly famous – They just coughed up a woolly mammal just recently, the biggest one they’ve ever had so it’s still actually active after all this time, so tried to take that into account. Again, a matter of condition. Here’s an incredible set of conditions and try to respond to them, and the palms seemed the sort of central element in that. It’s also an incredible vocabulary. I mean, palms are spectacular. When you start looking at all the varieties of palms, it’s amazing.
CAVANAUGH: And as you say, it’s a joy to work with.
IRWIN: Oh, yeah.
IRWIN: Well, it makes me look good.
CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly.
IRWIN: Get a great tree, I look like a winner.
CAVANAUGH: You know, Robert Irwin, you started your career as a painter and I’m wondering what – I’m going to ask you how you made the transition but I wanted to – want to find out what attracted you to painting to begin with.
IRWIN: I have no idea. I just started out as a, you know, a kid who had a magic wrist and always thought that that was something I was going to do but growing up in Southern California, had to be – I mean, I had a happy childhood. I go to New York and tell people you have a happy childhood, it really makes them mad. They somehow have the idea that art has to come from pain and angst and what have you. But it took me a little while to set aside my toys and really get serious about being an artist. And at the point I made that decision, I realized how much I had to learn, how little I knew. And so I – I had to really put my nose to the grindstone for a long period of time. And in that process, I examined the whole rationale of how one can make everything you think about esthetically within a frame. If you look around at the world, that’s not how we see the world at all. There’s no frames in the world, and information comes in all levels, some tactilely, a visual, hopefully, hearing and so on and so forth. These are all pieces and parts of the picture of our – the envelope of our being in the world. So the idea that art limited itself to making images of those but didn’t direct – deal with them directly made little or no sense to me. So that’s what I tried to figure out.
CAVANAUGH: When you put down your brushes and your paint and you decided to make that transition and, as you say, really become an artist, what was that transition like? Did you do anything ritually in a way to sort of make that break?
IRWIN: I think the only ritual thing, I knew if I stayed in the studio some way or another I’d remain being a painter or a sculptor in the traditional sense so I made the obvious thing, I got rid of the studio and got rid of all my – the accoutrements. And for a few years there, I’d say four or five years, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do. I mean, it was a big transition, a big set of questions that I was not able to assimilate or act on for a good period of time.
CAVANAUGH: It sounds terrifying.
IRWIN: Yeah, you know, there’s a word in philosophy and if you don’t have that one, you really can’t proceed with that kind of questioning. It’s called wonder. If you really, in a sense, if – if it’s a great question, has an incredible set of potential to it and it’s wondrous, then you’re not giving up anything even though in the terms of a day-to-day practice, of the day-to-day idea about what an artist is, you’ve given up everything. But I’ve, in all this process, sometimes the decisions like ’49, ’51, but I’ve always had the fat in it to stick.
CAVANAUGH: Now what I read about you, Robert, is that at the time that you decided that you wanted to explore being an artist in another way, you actually sort of went on a long road trip. Is that correct?
IRWIN: Well, I actually spent about five years, roughly, in the four corners area…
IRWIN: …in the desert. The desert being, in a sense, a good place for me to think or contemplate on what I was trying to do, that is not really so much objects but energy, a kind of field of energy that you walk along and it just sits up and hums but there’s no thing there per se in the old sense. So I wandered around that area for a long time. I also said I’d go anywhere anytime for anybody for anything because at the time I was deeply unemployed, you know. But nobody asked for a long time. So I took these funny trips. One of them was, the one you’re mentioning, which is to start here in San Diego and follow the border of the United States. I didn’t start out to do that but I was sort of following the border. I was trying to stay in the warm part of the world. I was cold. So I followed way down to Brownsville and by the time I got there the fascination of the Gulf Coast, I started to follow that all the way around to – down to Key West and by that time I was hooked. I obviously had to finish it.
CAVANAUGH: And I also read that you determined that – because anyone who is listening to you understands that the way you think about art is very tied up with philosophical ideas about life. And the way you decided to learn philosophy was just to dive in head first, to just read it all day long. And you went to a very curious place to do that.
IRWIN: Well, the first curious place is someone who basically never read a book nor was, in a sense, a student suddenly realizing that they actually had – there were certain key arguments that had to be understood and that, you know, therefore, you had to read. Basically, read the key or the major elements of the history of philosophy. And so it was quite a trip in the sense that I was an uneducated reader so I would take a book like Hegel’s “Phenomenology” and I would basically write down everything he had to say or I thought was key, underlining it and putting it into a small book that I had. And I’d write his – what he had to say in red and then I would comment on it in black, so it’s a way to sort of put it into my mind and actually argue and wrestle with it. And four, five, six pages later, I’d have to apologize for being so dumb in my early entries. But I did it every day, all day, and it was fascinating but it was also very hard.
CAVANAUGH: And for awhile you did that in a hotel room in Las Vegas.
IRWIN: Well, actually I started out doing it on the campus at UCLA. I was using the library there…
IRWIN: …and that’s where I met Ren Weschler, the man who wrote Seeing Is, you know, Not Needing To Know the Name (sic). And it turned out he was – he had just been the transcriber of an interview I had done and is a really good philosophy student and so we started having a dialogue and he kind of became my mentor. I would tell him what I was thinking that, like Vichtenstein was saying, and he would say, well, you better read that chapter again. So that went on for a very long time, and I did it sitting wherever I could, under a tree with a Coca-Cola.
CAVANAUGH: Now this is all very tied up, Robert, with your idea that artists should sit down with people in other disciplines and really listen and really discuss ideas and things that they don’t know about, and hear about this material in another way. This has been a central part in your development as an artist, hasn’t it?
IRWIN: Well, at one point I was, you know, I obviously had, as you say, a lot of questions and no one really to discuss them with. No one in the art world seemed to be that interested in them. In a way, when I stopped being a painter, the whole bottom fell out of my world and so I thought if I’m thinking these things and they have any significance whatsoever, somebody else has to be thinking them. It has to be going on someplace else. It’s the one way of checking yourself in the world. And I looked at physics, for example, and the bottom had fallen out of their world at that moment in time and they were acting almost philosophically not quite really knowing how to practice…
CAVANAUGH: With quantum physics.
IRWIN: …oh, with – yeah, exactly.
IRWIN: And so I thought the idea of having a dialogue with someone like that would be interesting. I was asked to be involved in a project called Art and Technology, which I thought was a red herring, that was really art and this dialogue with scientists and that. So I was taken around. They gave me the opportunity to be taken around by Richard Feynman, who was a very famous physicist.
CAVANAUGH: Of course, yes.
IRWIN: Funny man, interesting guy, and he took me everywhere and introduced me to all kinds of people, people giving me the grand tour of the universe and IBM and what was going on there and etcetera, and Silicon Valley. And in that process, I met a man named Edwards, Doctor Edwards, who was running the open research facility for Garrett Aerospace and was doing much of the physiology for walks on the moon. And he’d never met an artist so he thought that was kind of interesting. He had great curiosity, and he was very open to dialogue. So he and I started a dialogue which continued for – until he died a couple of years ago.
CAVANAUGH: What did you talk about?
IRWIN: Well, first of all we talked about how do you, in a sense, cross discipline. I mean, there’s all kinds of language problems, all kinds of referential problems, how you organize information, what you decide is of value and what have you. So we started out with the idea of how do we, in a sense, have a dialogue. We brought in a third person because we thought a triad was better than just two people, a man named James Turrell, became – is quite a successful artist, who had a psychology background. And we began a dialogue, and then we decided that the best way to work was to put ourselves in mutual experiential situations, so, for example, we took a Ganz – well, we took an anechoic chamber and I would be put in there, blindfolded, not knowing how – where I was, spend maybe seven hours in this space with no sound, no visual and audio parts, or process are nonexistent. And after the seven hours, I’d be brought out and I would just walk home. Nobody, you know, not have a conversation. I can tell you – I won’t go into it now but the world is radically changed because you’ve shifted your sense dependence and you’ve shifted your sense thresholds. So there’s still trees are trees and houses are houses but they don’t look exactly the way we’ve always looked at them before. And as I said, you become aware that you actually are an active participant in the forming of that, okay. Then we would, each of us, would do that and then we would sit down and I would say, what did it feel like in there? What did you experience? What was going on? What do you think about that? And how, you know, how – well, project on that. What will you – give me some sense of what you think the significance or meaning of that is. And then could you build some kind of a project from – So I began to understand what information he focuses on, what information is critical to him, how he organizes that information and so on and so forth, and vice versa. So we overcome the old problems with regards to any kind of dialogue between disciplines.
CAVANAUGH: You know, I watched a video that you made with a curator up at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and in it you very graciously tell a story about members of your own family who came to see your minimalist paintings years and years ago, didn’t quite get it, and I’m wondering, when you talk about the fact that being emerged in this – deprived of sensory experience for hours and then you come out and you make that shift and you understand that you are a part of what you’re experiencing, how do people, when they enter the gallery, how would you help or advise them to start to make that shift to see that they are a part of the installations that you’ve created?
IRWIN: Well, you have to let go a little bit. I mean, we come in with all kinds of preconceptions about what it is and what it should be and what we want and so on and so forth. If a good piece of – work of art has really, you know, that real potential to it, you have to let go. You have to give yourself a chance to play with it. I remember doing a thing. The first installation I ever did was at the Museum of Modern Art and I had to do it in the middle of the night and they wouldn’t pay for it and they didn’t acknowledge it. And so at one point, I – the two people who secreted me into the museum for that thing came to look at what I’m – had done, and these are really bright people and I could hear. They’d say, umm, interesting. Well seasoned. Provocative. And I knew they were struggling with it, having a hard time. And a young kid, a black kid about 15 years old or so, stuck his head in and said, can I come in? And I said, sure, you know. So he came in. I could watch by his body language—because you can’t see without using your body—but how he moved in the space. And he said, wow, hey, this is all right. What’s going on here? Hey, man, that’s inter – you know, etcetera, etcetera. He didn’t have so many preconceptions. He didn’t have so much baggage so that he essentially floated in there and had the possibility of making a connection where they were struggling with it because they were trying to somehow categorize it.
CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, too, if I could ask you this question. You know, a lot of the art world is east coast-centric. And being a Southern California artist, you already made allusion to the fact that you tell them you have a happy childhood and they can’t believe it. I wonder, do you think that California, Southern California artists are misunderstood?
IRWIN: Oh, I don’t know about that. I think that, you know, birds of a feather flock together and there’s points in time in which certain ideas, certain areas of discovery, certain dialogues become crucial and people that are involved in those tend to, in a sense, collect together in some place so that they can rub shoulders and rub ideas. And so you have a place like Paris becomes a center, or Russia for awhile becomes a – or New York becomes a center. When I went to New York, I thought I was going to have a dialogue. It didn’t really work out. It was much more confrontational. And I realized that I really – I admired what they were doing. In fact, I was essentially feeding off it to a great degree, but I also had the feeling that what I had – was interested in had a, at that time, just a nuance of difference and I felt that if I’d stayed in New York, they’d have ate me alive. So I stayed in California and so did a group of other artists at that moment in time, stayed here and nurtured what was possibly a slightly different or a unique take on things. And now, 30, 40 years later, all that’s beginning to become somewhat discovered.
CAVANAUGH: Before I let you go, Robert, I would like you to just tell us what is the project that you’re doing here at the federal courthouse?
IRWIN: The federal courthouse, I’m doing an installation in the courthouse itself, in the lobby, and, hopefully, somewhat resolving a problem between the landscape and the architecture. It’s a kind of a – it’s a hedge entrance and it’s half landscape and it’s half architecture.
CAVANAUGH: And so we’ll all be able to see it.
IRWIN: I certainly hope so.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, I want to thank you so – thanks so much for giving us so much time. I really do appreciate it.
IRWIN: That was a fast half hour.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with artist Robert Irwin. And his “Works in Progress” exhibit opens at Quint Contemporary Art in La Jolla tomorrow night and runs through May first. The opening reception is tomorrow night from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. If you’d like to comment on anything you hear on These Days, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview as These Days continues here on KPBS.