Robert Irwin is one of the artists who changed the way I thought about art.
This is from Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin that I borrowed from Al a couple weeks ago and have been reading myself to sleep with it. This book is unfairly good. Irwin is being “interviewed” by Weschler, most times just driving around. Irwin drinks Coca-Cola with shaved or crushed ice. He’s always looking for the place with the “right ice” and the newest fountains (before they are tainted with overuse and therefore dispense crap cola).
The way the book is written gives the feeling that the reader is in the car: a silent observer to a friendly and casual conversation by two intensely brilliant men.
This passage is sort of long and is exclusively Irwin’s monologue, but I think it’s best represented with the length (italics for emphasis are mine):
“Take a painting by Barnett Newman on display at a museum … one of those where he’s made a line down the center, hard on one edge and soft on the other, across a large field of, say, red. If as a young artist you were to take that seriously as a purely aesthetic experience – how that line coursed through that space, what its relationship to that physical world was – then, given what I’m adding to it, it would be very difficult to understand how they could hang that painting on those two rods coming down from the ceiling: How were you supposed to separate the line in the painting from the rods on the wall?
“Well, of course, you do it on a scale of values. And what we’re really talking about in pictorial art is a scale of values. In other words, the line in the center has some kind of compounded meaning which gives it the emphasis to be focused on. Whereas the rod on the wall, of course, is very meaningless. So therefore you can, in a sense, just not see it; in other words, you can just dilate it right out of your visual range. So what we’re really talking about in this whole process is not anything to do with the painting itself, but rather something to do with this thing of value, that which makes an object exist in the world with the ability to isolate itself.
“And figure and ground is a whole system of that kind of focus. You’ve got a way of looking at the world, and given that system- no fault taken now – what it does is allow a certain kind of view of the world. In this case, you simply eliminate those rods by a deductive process of meaning. They’re meaningless, so therefore they simply fall out of view.
“But now, when you have a construct like that, that’s how you go through the world. In other words, you don’t just do it when you’re looking at painting. We’re talking about a mental construct to which the whole civilization has deeply committed itself. And what it says, simply, is that as I walk through the world, I bring into focus certain things which are meaningful, and others are by degrees less in focus, dependent upon their meaningfulness in terms of what I’m doing to the point where there are certain things that are totally out of focus and invisible. We organize our minds in terms of this hierarchical value structure, based on certain ideas about meaning and purpose and function.
“And perhaps more than anything else, modernist art as a movement has arisen as a critique of that hierarchical structure. When art begins the process of taking all the pictorial out of the pictorial, taking all the symbolic meaning out of the mark and the line, what it’s really doing, essentially, is flattening that value structure. That process of flattening has been under way for about five hundred years now, although it’s really only become critical in the last one hundred, when the figure-ground dichotomy itself came into question. At first the flattening took place at the level of subject matter, that is, what was allowed to be portrayed as the figure in ‘high’ works. At first there were only religious subjects, Christ the King; and then it became acceptable to portray this particular king; and then, this wealthy merchant; and then this handmaiden; and then, her red shawl; and eventually, just the color red. But with the cubists the flattening of the value structure moved beyond mere subject matter into the question of how that subject itself was presented. For really in a sense, if you go from a classical painting, in which you have a strong figure-ground distinction, all the way to cubism, what you’ve really done is to flatten this value structure. What you’re saying in cubism is that the figure, this thing of value, is no longer isolated or dissociated from ground by meaning, but that it’s interlocked and interwrapped with this ground, that they’re interdependent.
“If you take the cubist idea and really press it, though, what you have is what I was now being forced to deal with, at least in my reading of it. … 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.” (Weschler, pps 107-109)