suddenly, it

made no sense

to me at all

W and C in conversation with Robert Irwin. Recorded on March 26th, 2014

W: You gave a lecture at UVA in 2009 in which you spoke about your theoretical grounding. We wanted to start by talking to you about this autodidaction, and the ways that certain texts influenced the way you think and work today.

RI: Well the texts were never a primary line. I came to the whole thing in the most unorthodox way. I started to get involved after I served in the army. I spent some time in Europe and didn’t have any money. I was wandering around a very, very inexpensive place called Ibiza, which at that time, you could only get to once a week on a small boat. I ended up on the other side of the island because the city was too complex for me. I had no idea what I was doing, or why I was doing it. I didn’t speak Spanish, and nobody there spoke English.

By accident, in a way, I spent eight months without actually carrying on a word of conversation with anybody. I didn’t really plan it, but it was an interesting experience. When you first spend a little time like that, you amuse yourself one way or another, primarily taking long walks and browsing around. But, over a period of time, there’s a moment of panic because you naturally want to do something: pick up a book, read something, call somebody, you know… I didn’t do any of those things and just walked each day.

I had a strange experience. I may have been delusional. I felt that I was examining my mind: how I think, what I feel, and what kind of quirks and odysseys my mind has. After a short amount of time I became extremely peaceful. At first there was a little panic. Then I became absolutely relaxed. I would say that was probably a pivotal moment in my life.

It has also become a base for how I work to this day. For example, when I go to look at a site, the people that bring me there want to walk around with me. I do that for a short period of time, but then I have to be alone. You’re split. You have to attend to them and you’re also trying to attend to what it is you will deal with in that place.

C: The idea of quantifying intangible things in our world, such as the way we think and our emotions, is something that you have spoken about in terms of shadow and other things in the physical world. I was hoping that you could expand more on this difference between qualitative characteristics, such as shadow or color, and why you reject the attempt to quantify them.

RI: That particular moment of experience where I came to the issues that you have in mind was at the end of a long and very steady phenomenological reduction—in the sense of what Husserl proposed one hundred years earlier. I pretty much got down to the nuts and bolts of the thing.

I painted, or tried paint a to painting, that was slightly curved, just enough to notice if you put it next to a flat painting. It was energized. And there was hardly anything there. But also, it sat up from the wall. Being a painter, I ended up putting dots on it very carefully, red and green dots. If you did them too regularly, they created a pattern. If you did them too irregularly, they were moments. So the discipline was to have them evenly spread, neither too formal nor too informal. And it took a few minutes for them to manifest themselves. What you got, basically, was just energy.

In that moment, because I came to this step by step, I, for the first time, saw a painting—the idea that was on a square. I realized that was a highly stylized learned logic, which is not how we see the world at all. We don’t see it in frames. That had become an issue. That was a moment of epiphany for me. Afterwards, I wasn’t a painter anymore. There was no reason to paint. It made no sense whatsoever.

One of the other things was the shadow, which I had never really paid attention to prior to that moment. The nice thing about the shadow is that, in this particular context, it was very powerful, very real. I made the distinction between quantitative and qualitative. Qualitatively, it certainly was there. It certainly had a bearing on what I was doing and seeing. At the same time, quantitatively, it didn’t exist. It had no body. If you moved the light, it changed. In other words, if you tried to quantify it, you couldn’t weigh it. You couldn’t really measure it.

All of the sudden, for me, that was the distinction between quantity and quality. I had slipped over into a world in which shadow had a real presence on one level, and no presence or any meaning on another level. That was, for me, a good moment.

W: You spoke briefly about how you walk around a site, and how you are in turn influenced by it. You produce the work as a function of the site, but also you are projecting something back out onto it. You could also say that once you get to the bottom of this phenomenological reduction, you start to develop tactics and tools that you carry with you to these sites. You have your own frameworks and logics, even if they are internal logics, to produce new works. We wanted to also ask you about site-conditioned work—whether you have certain sets of operations that you work with, or whether you try to develop new toolsets specifically for a site.

RI: Obviously the latter is more desirable. Whether you can do it or not is something else altogether. Let’s take it step by step. At first I thought, “Ok, how do I deal with this?” I had just, maybe, become a reasonably good painter. Suddenly I was out of business. I played some games in the studio for a while. I did pieces with glass. I did the acrylic columns. I did a series of discs. The reason I did the discs was to push what I had stumbled over, which was to paint a painting that didn’t begin and end at the edge in the old sense. I didn’t even realize that people would immediately think that they were a mandala, that I was some spiritual trespasser. But they made sense to me.

I realized, at a certain point, what it is I am trying to focus on: it had energy. I was dealing with this ephemeral world in which things have a lot of corporal properties, but none of the normal meanings or structures that go with it. I fumbled around like that. I chose energy over matter. The concrete things—marble, steel, and all of the materials that artists have used over the centuries—had barriers that were difficult to escape.

One thing I did know was that if I stayed in the studio, I would somehow still interact with those processes—all the things I had learned—even if I was reducing them. I figured that as long as I stayed in the studio, I was screwed. I made a gesture that nobody paid any attention to: I would go anywhere anytime for anyone for anything.

C/W: [Laughter]

RI: So that’s how I got on this peripatetic trail. Someone would invite me to a little junior college in Arizona, and I would go. And I taught for a while, formally. I had a lot of very famous and good students, who I did not teach. I took a different approach. I realized right away that when you spend time with somebody, the first thing you have to recognize is that the only thing that they really have, what they bring to a situation, is a unique sensibility. If you spend time with that sensibility, exercising it and giving it whatever it needs, at a certain point it will suddenly take over.

It is theirs and there from the beginning. You get them to spend time with it and recognize it. Once they do that, they will do things that you could not have taught. You don’t take on the role of a “teacher.” You don’t “teach” somebody something. You inform them with everything they need, every kind of information, every possible thing they should see. As students, I had the pleasure of having Ed Ruscha, Vija Celmins, and…uh, what’s his name…had himself shot…locked himself in a locker…Chris Burden. I’m making that point because it’s obvious that I couldn’t have taught them those things.

W: So you put your hope and your belief in them, into their specific subjective sensibilities.

RI: I didn’t make that kind of evaluation. Basically, that’s what makes each of us unique. We are a kind of make-up of what we observe, how we feel... All the things that people call talent are really sensibilities. I spent the next four years out in the desert, in what you would call the Four Corners area, just looking at things—thinking about what I could do, how I could act or interact with those things, clumsily, at best. It also brought up a couple of simple questions. If I did something that I thought had some presence, I couldn’t take it back to New York. I could maybe take bus tours out there. [Laughter]

W: And bring people to it.

RI: [Laughs] Pretty silly idea. Basically, I never did anything with those, other than amuse myself. The questions were good. They were fun. It also gave me a very different view of the art world and the idea of that as criteria—that showing the work was even actually essential to it. That’s a funny question. You’re a human being in a human context, although, in the desert, it’s pretty thin.

Obviously light is a major element, you know, in anything. It’s present everywhere. It has to be one of the first things you deal with: the character, the quality of the light, what color it acts or interacts with, what all the circumstances are. I love it because it’s not controllable like electric light. Turrell is doing very well with all the manipulation and technology of light, which is quite spectacular. But for me it’s very mannered—natural light is much more interesting and exciting. It’s always there, so it’s free. All you do is somehow take advantage of it.

I did a piece recently where a friend who runs a large museum challenged to do this show in Varese at Villa Panza. There were two rooms in the stable by the villa, and Turrell had the major space. This was not a war, but he had the best space in the whole thing. So, the guy asked me to do something in the other room, which from the photos didn’t look too horrible. When we got there it was clear that he had taken the photographs from a particular vantage point. When you turned around there was all of this mechanical equipment for air conditioning. When I got there I thought “oh shoot, this is a bummer.”

The space was 60 feet long, 13 feet long and 13 feet high. It had these big terrible windows on one side that swamped the space with south facing light—just criminal. One of the only things to do is to start and look at the site and then make larger circles around it because nothing comes from nowhere. Look at everything that’s going on—the history of the place, its ambitions, the architecture materials, and all of the things that you may or may not use, but that are influencing the site. They are already engaged in a certain sense, or can be engaged with in a certain way. So in this particular case I tamed the light first. I made it really work for me. I did something with the space to articulate it, something like a maze. The best part of it was the character and quality of the light. Instead of just letting the light come straight in, I made four slots in the wall that were 18” deep. There was nothing else there. The quality of the light became the event.

W: An event is something more temporary, something that’s seen just for a short amount of time.

RI: At different moments. The thing about using natural light is that it never repeats itself. So you have a thing that’s continuously energy, always articulating the space.

C: You’re using the term energy a lot, first when speaking about the painting and the way it hung off the wall, and the dots, and now speaking about energy as the light. It seems in many of your works there is a question of revealing or emphasizing a latent energy that’s already in our world.

This leads to something you said before that’s very provocative, that “we don’t perceive our world, we create it” according to guides that emphasize or de-emphasize certain aspects of it.

RI: Yes and no. When I open my eyes in the morning the world completely gets formed—instantly it’s there. I don’t ask myself how did I do that, but in a sense it would be a good question. “How did I form this?” Let me go back, did you see the Whitney?

C: Yes we did.

RI: Ok, let me give you just one item, which I’m sure you didn’t see. And that is when you came into the middle of the room, the wall from the window gradiates all the way down. One of the key things I did was to paint the rear wall exactly the same color as the sidewalls, which is unnatural. Normally since it faces the light it’s going to be brighter.

When someone walks into a room, the same as when we open our eyes, we make an instant survey of the world around us. The first responsibility of our sensate world is to make sure we didn’t fall through a hole, or a wall is not going to fall on us. We sense something instantly and make sure it is as we expect. So, if something is not right, we’re frozen for a second to figure out what is wrong. Because, you can’t really move forward until you know that it is ok.

We are forming the world all of the time. It’s not given to us, we are participating in it, and we can structure it like we structure our mind.

The Whitney piece starts out with painting and sculpture on the other floors and ends with a room with just a few elements in it: the black of the floor that’s already there, and the window that Breuer used as a perfect set-up for the building across the street. It is pictorial. So the paintings in there look like little flat things. They don’t look right—I’m sure he was entertained by that. The angle, the size of the window, the distance, it’s dead-on. It’s the perfect pictorial set-up.

So essentially there was a question that came to my mind. If you take all of the different elements out of the art from the 200 years prior to that, which is an amazing phenomenological reduction, you get to the point where there’s no rules at all except for one—if you’re in an museum then its immediately art, you don’t get to decide whether it is or is not. So I started with the idea of it not being in the museum. Years before I had done a piece at the Museum of Modern Art, the very first install I did, and the one thing I did was take everything out of it. I took the label off every time. The only thing that MoMA was concerned with was that it was there to put their label on it. I had a kid come every day and take the label off the piece. People kept asking, “is it there? Is it intended? Is it finished? What is it? Why is it?” The full responsibility was on you.

If we are to take everything out of art, then by observation I took the ‘making’ out of it. Every day you see something probably more interesting and better than anything I could possibly make as an artist. I thought it was a good question, at least one that you can argue with. I never got a word of feedback on any of it.

1 Irwin, Robert. “2009 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medalist in Architecture lecture.” University of Virginia. 2009. www.youtube.com

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