Lawrence Weschler and Robert Irwin in Conversation

This is a transcript of a 2007 onstage conversation between Robert Irwin and Lawrence Weschler. It was originally published in The Chinati Foundation Newletter, Volume 12. 

Robert Irwin's work at sunset

Rob Weiner: Twenty-five years ago, Lawrence Weschler published Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biographical account of the life and work of Robert Irwin. This book has become a guide, a milestone along the lines of On the Road or The Catcher in the Rye for the impact it’s had on the thinking of so many young artists and readers. I won’t quote any one of the professional reviews this book received on publication. Instead, today I went to, and here are the first three customer comments I found:

Brad Rockwell writes: “This is simply the best book about art I have ever read. Like other reviewers, I can say that this book permanently altered the way I see the world (and art).”

Simone Federman said: “I picked up this book in 1984 because it was on a reading list for an Art History class I was taking at Oberlin College. I stayed up all night in the library that night. I couldn’t put it down. My mind has never been the same.”

And “Bluthman” writes: “This was an amazing read. Not only did it open my eyes to the concept of abstract art, it opened my eyes to a different way of thinking.”

(Eight out of nine people found that review helpful.)

We are delighted to have both the author and the subject of this terrific book here with us tonight. Bob Irwin has been working on a piece for Chinati’s permanent collection for the last few years. This past October he created a beautiful scrim work for Chinati’s temporary exhibition space that will remain on view through July. Irwin has been making art for over 50 years, starting with his line and dot paintings of the early ‘60s, followed by his floating discs and towering transparent columns, and later moving into large-scale installations, which, through the manipulation of light and space and his signature use of scrim and filtered color, have transformed architecture and challenged our perceptions of what an art work can be. Some of his projects just projected on the screen include the Central Garden for the Getty Museum, completed in 1998, Homage to the Square 2, a two-part installation he created for the Dia Art Foundation; the architectural reconfiguration of an old Nabisco factory in Beacon New York, also for Dia; and two installations at the Pace Gallery: one on Greene Street and the other, his most recent piece, which opened last year in Chelsea. We also showed a few images of a work Bob made for the Kolnischer Kunstverein, part of an exhibition that was curated by Marianne Stockebrand in 1994.

Irwin will present a large series of work this October at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and is currently at work on a large project for the newly configured campus of the LA County Museum. This month Bob was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Lawrence Weschler is a writer, critic, teacher, curator, and, as Bob says, a “human cabinet of curiosities.” He is the author of Vermeer in Bosnia; Boggs: A Comedy of Values; Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder; David Hockney’s Cameraworks, and Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences, which recently won the 2006 National Book Award for criticism. An updated version of Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees will be published this fall. Ren is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, and is the Artistic Director for the Chicago Humanities Festival, which will take place city-wide for three weeks beginning the last week of October. The theme is global warming, the title: “The Climate of Concern.”

These two guys have been talking to each other for over 30 years, and we’re honored that they have agreed to continue this discussion, for the next hour or so, in front of us.

Please welcome Lawrence Weschler and Robert Irwin.

Robert Irwin: I have a quick little story to tell. Talking about the book being in print for all those years, people do bring it up to me, and it’s obviously very uncomfortable to be put in that position. But it reminds me of my very first teaching job at Chouinard. I had been going to school there, and they gave me a watercolor class to teach at night. I was very gung-ho and had about 30 students. I found out that a couple of them were from the mental hospital and were just there for therapy. One of them was a really sweet guy who lived in a field in a box, and he would bring me great bundles of flowers, to do a setup or what have you. But as I was teaching—my first time really working at it—I realized there were five ladies in the group, all in their fifties. I was very curious about them, so I got them aside and we started talking. I realized something which blew me away: these five ladies were at a moment in their life where their previous life had essentially fallen apart. They were in their fifties, their children had moved away, their husbands were preoccupied with whatever they were doing, and suddenly they’re having to start all over again—which is an incredibly difficult thing to have to do, redefining and rediscovering yourself. I was just blown away. It was so far over my head that I was very cautious with them the rest of the time. I spent as much time as I could with them, but stayed away from the complexities of their lives. It was beyond my scope—you know, I was 22 years old or something.

About five years after that class, I walked into Barney’s Beanery one night, and I’m having a beer with Barney, standing at the bar, and I hear a voice in the back of the room say: “Mr. Irwin! Mr. Irwin!” I look over and it’s one of those ladies. She calls me over to the table, so I go over and she’s sitting there with five Hell’s Angels. (Laughter) And she said: “Gentlemen, I want you to know everything I am today I owe to this man.” (Laughter) The perils of teaching. I’ve never forgotten that, and it’s a real warning to be very careful about what you say. I’ve never to this day figured out what I could have possibly said to that lady.

Lawrence Weschler: Reminds me of a story too. I don’t know why I’m thinking of this—talk about free association—but years ago I did a profile of Nicholas Slonimsky, the great musical lexicographer, a great 90-year-old guy. When he was 22, or whatever age he was when he first arrived in the United States, he was a musical prodigy and teaching music at the Eastman Center in Rochester, New York. A lady of certain years, a very rich lady, called him up and said: “I want you to help me write a symphony.” He said: “Okay.” So he went to her house, and she said: “Okay, this is what I want. It begins in the morning, and the sun is rising. And then there’s clouds. And then…” Slonimsky says: “Yeah?” And the lady says: “You come up with the rest. You do all the music.” (Laughter) And she had it all figured out that there would be does frolicking in the fields and so forth. (Laughter)

Irwin: Maybe one thing that would be worth touching on is how Ren and I met, which in itself is a pretty interesting story. I had gone to New York—Don Judd had befriended me there—with the idea I was going to have a dialogue. I was very interested. I had never been to New York, I’d never seen an Abstract Expressionist painting, and yet I was a sort of pseudo, half-assed Abstract Expressionist myself, cutting my teeth on that kind of painting. So this was very exciting for me. Judd took me to see the Sculpture Mafia: Richard Serra, Bob Morris, Smithson—a heavyweight crowd. I listened a lot. At the time, Don Judd was the one person who was very generous to me (along with some other West Coast artists), but the rest of the people in the room just started busting my ass. Here I was thinking I was going to have this dialogue. So I’m just listening to everything they’re saying—and they’re just giving me a yard of pucky, but doing it brilliantly. Instead of a conversation, I was dealing with a series of confrontations, in which they were incredibly articulate and extremely smart, and each position was taken with great strength and great clarity, and I went home thinking “God! I’m amateur night in Dixie here.” I thought about it for a while and I realized it was time for me to educate myself—because being an artist, it turned out, was maybe not the full scope of how I was going to have to deal in the world. I was going to have to articulate what I was doing, so I started teaching myself philosophy. It was a difficult undertaking for somebody who until that time had never read a book—to start with Hegel’s Phenomenology. So I’m sitting there struggling with this thing, and I’ve got Hegel and I’ve got my notes and I’m taking notes on everything he says that’s significant, and every now and then I’d say: “Well, that’s not a very interesting idea.” And then ten pages later I’d have to apologize. (Laughter) At that time I did an oral history for UCLA, and then…

Weschler: So what happened there was that I edited that oral history. It was very interesting, because the oral history program at UCLA was doing a whole series of histories of LA artists, and I’d become the principal editor on this series. I was pretty fresh out of college myself, and at a certain point I’m editing the interview that Frederick White did with you. And I had studied philosophy in college, among other things, and at one point I wrote you a note. I had never heard of you before, and I didn’t really know anything about art in those days, certainly not LA artists, but I wrote you a note asking if you had ever read Merleau-Ponty’s The Primacy of Perception. And the next morning, there he is at the door. Apparently that was the right question to ask him at that point. (Laughter) And then we had lunch together for like three years. Bob planted himself underneath this tree at the North Campus library at UCLA, and I was working over at this other place, and three to four times a week I would just go there. He would always be there. He was there 12 hours a day, just beavering away at Kant. (Laughter)

Irwin: He became my tutor, essentially. He’s a very good philosophy scholar, and he shouldn’t be shy about it. He’s very good, he understands the arguments very well, and he became my tutor.

Weschler: And conversely, I received all these great stories that eventually showed up in the book. He was just telling me all these amazing stories, and he was my tutor in much the way that he is when you read the book. And Bob was quite something to watch on Kant, for example. Or Wittgenstein: “He’s not going to get away with that!” (Laughter) “I can see what he’s doing!” I said: “Well, why don’t you read the next paragraph?” “No, no.” “Read the next paragraph.” “No, no, no.”

Irwin: So we were having this humorous dialogue, obviously, and after a period of time I started asking, “Well, what in the world are you doing in this job? You’re way too talented for it; it’s time for you to move on, time for you to go someplace else.” I asked him if he had his absolute druthers, what would he do? And he said: “Well, I’d write for The New Yorker.” Now that’s a magazine I had never really paid any attention to, so I asked him why The New Yorker. He said that it was the only magazine that, at that time, ran stories at length, and had an audience which actually read them. So that was what he wanted—that was a good venue for him. I said: “Well, why don’t you work toward that?” He said: “It’s impossible. You can’t do it, because they have one of the great coteries of writers in the world.” Shawn—what was his first name?

Weschler: William Shawn.

Irwin: William Shawn, the Iron Mouse, was a man who was in love with writing and in love with writers, and so it was the only magazine that paid enough money to really support a writer. Shawn collected all these writers who would periodically contribute articles to the magazine, so obviously it was a really interesting place. And then somehow he [Weschler] got a grant.

Weschler: I got a small grant.

Irwin: An NEH grant.

Weschler: NEH gave money to young writers. (Laughter) Never mind. Go ahead.

Irwin: And so he decided to do a piece on Ed Kienholz and a guy named Howard Warshaw.

Weschler: And you.

Irwin: And me, he says, but that’s not true.

Weschler: It is true.

Irwin: So he was working on this piece—and Ed Kienholz is a rapscallion. He would take Ren out on a boat and almost throw him overboard. He would never talk to him, until finally he talked to him just for a moment one time in a storm. But Ren couldn’t take notes because they’re bobbing up and down in this boat in a storm—and at the end of this session, Ren tried to ask him a couple of questions. Kienholz said: “I’ve already had the interview. Bye.” So at the last minute he had to write something on somebody, the deadline was there, so he asked me if we couldn’t maybe just expand our dialogue, and we did. We ran around my old neighborhood and I showed him all my haunts and where I used to dance and that sort of thing. And then he wrote the book, essentially. The idea that it would ever be published wasn’t even a remote possibility. It wasn’t even written to be published…

Weschler: It’s funny, because I wrote that text, and started sending it to publishers in New York. I went through twelve publishers, and from all of them I got a uniform reaction: “Love the book, it’s just too bad it’s about an LA artist. If only it was a New York artist…” Twelve publishers turned it down. In the meantime I’d sent it to The New Yorker. I was very lucky—I didn’t send it to Shawn. If I had sent it to Shawn, he would not have looked at it, because that would’ve been impolite to Mr. Tomkins. But I sent it to Calvin Tomkins, and he showed it to Shawn, and so eight months later, when I come home one evening and turn on my answering machine, and there’s this little voice. It says: “Hello, Mr. Weschler.” (Laughter) “This is William Shawn of The New Yorker magazine.” And I’m saying: “Yeah, right, and I’m Bernardo Bertolucci.” (Laughter) “We were wondering… Can you hear me?” (Laughter) “Mrs. Peters, is this thing working? Oh dear, oh, oh this is terrible, oh no, oh please call back.” (Laughter) And amazingly, they took the piece.

Irwin: Over the next 10 years he became one of the most published writers in The New Yorker. Which I think is great. That is a real… (Applause) Thank you. It was a really curious beginning, but the other thing that’s curious about it is, we couldn’t be further apart in terms of how we view the world. It’s a great dialogue, because he’s always sending me things where I have absolutely no understanding of what he’s talking about.

Weschler: I think the term is no interest in what… (Laughter)

Irwin: Well, sometimes no interest—and vice versa in a way. But at the same time, he’s deeply entertaining with all these inquiries of his. He talks about the idea that museums really started as cabinets of wonders, and if you see slides you’ll find these strange kinds of things: people with corns growing out of their head and bugs that disappear and all kinds of spectacular things… There’s this sense of the kind of curiosity and wonder. And he’s become a walking cabinet of curiosities, in a way.

Weschler: He’s one of my bugs. (Laughter)

Irwin: I’m one of his bugs, it’s true.

Weschler: You really are one of my bugs—in the sense of the ant who inhaled the spore. There’s a famous story in Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. It’s a true story. Well, actually, you don’t know if it’s true, but it turns out to be true.

Irwin: I’ve heard the story. Tell them.

Weschler: I don’t know what to make of it, but there is an ant—the Cameroonian stink ant—which is the only ant whose scream is audible to human ears. (This is all taking place at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, by the way. There’s a vitrine with a little vine in it, and you’re trying to figure out what it is, and you’re listening to the acoustic guide. And the acoustic guide is the voice of institutional authority, so it must be true.) These are very industrious ants. They do all kinds of stuff on the rainforest floor, and they’re very, very ordered and have a very good society, but every once in a while one of these ants will inhale a spore of a fungus of the genus Tomentella, which is raining down from up above. And if you happen to be at ant eye-level when this happens and you look at the ant, it will look completely stupefied. (Laughter) As well it might, because the spore has entered its brain and proceeds to foment bizarre behavioral changes, and for the first time the ant will leave the rainforest floor and start climbing the hanging vines. And it will climb and climb and climb. When it gets to a certain height, it impales its mandibles on the vine and waits to die, because the fungus is going all through its head and all through its body—and eventually, two weeks later, it sprouts a horn, heavy-laden with spores, which now rain down on the rainforest for other unsuspecting ants to inhale.

Which is like your [Irwin’s] story from way back. That’s your story—that’s you. You were being a nice, industrious little artist, not doing anything special, and then suddenly you inhaled a spore. (Laughter)

Irwin: That’s not quite how I see my activities. (Laughter) It’s pretty humorous. (Laughter) Where do we go from here? That story’s a stopper right there. (Laughter)

Weschler: A room-clearer.

Irwin: That is definitely a room-clearer.

Weschler: Why don’t you tell the story about what you’re doing here in Marfa?

Irwin: All right, but just briefly—I’m speaking to the choir here. Marfa for me is a very attractive place in the world. One of the things about doing so-called art in public places is that it is just riddled with contradictions. It’s a very painful thing, and I won’t go into the long history of it, but the history of modern art has brought us to a point where we have already made our break from the past. A new philosophic ground was established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—for example, Malevich and his “desert of pure feeling” established a new philosophic ground.

Weschler: Somebody said to Malevich: “You’ve done this white painting, you’ve taken away everything.”

Irwin: Yeah. Not only his enemies but his friends said: “My God, everything we know and believe and understand and are enriched by is gone. You’ve left us with a pure desert.” He said: “Ah, yes, but it’s a desert of pure feeling.” And what he did for the first time was posit feelings to be the equal of intellect. And he essentially posited beauty to be the equal of truth. And on the basis of that, Mondrian, among others, lays out the conceptual ground. He takes a flower or tree—beautifully drawn; he was a great craftsman—and takes it apart piece by piece, so that you begin to see the physicality of the tree, how it occupies space, the fact that it has a concreteness. He takes it, finally, all the way to the plus-minus paintings, where we’re dealing with pure energy. This was done in 1912 or so, and he pretty much predicts that art will no longer stay within the frame of what was long ago. So the conceptual ground was there. And then the Abstract Expressionists provide a whole new visual vocabulary, from A to Z. You’ve got Ad Reinhardt at one end and Jackson Pollock at the other, and the only umbrella that encompasses them both is this idea of an exploration of a new visual language. They laid out the syntax for it, and having arrived at that point, art had pretty much done its homework. Tools were beginning to be put into play—this other way of seeing the world.

And so to my mind, the issue for so-called art in public places is, how do we practice from that point of view? How can we make decisions that are aesthetically grounded rather than based on the difference between quantitative and qualitative? Right now, for example, if they bring an artist into a project, they bring him in way after all the really critical decisions have been made. Most often they bring you in as a kind of a shaman, a magician of some kind, to try and take a disastrous project—built for maybe $200 million—and they want to give you $200,000 to magically change it into something that isn’t so bad or so unpleasant. More critically, when five people sit down to plan a big part of a city or something (and these are really good and well-meaning people), one is involved with the politics of the situation, one is responsible for the logistics of it, one is responsible for the economics of it, and so on. The key thing is that every one of these people quantifies their information. So essentially it’s all of a kind, and the idea of so-called aesthetics or quality is essentially brought in as a kind of afterthought.

Weschler: Let me interrupt you and say that the reason you eventually end up in that room with those planners is because of the treachery of your art. Thinking about Cubism, for example—if you go through this whole history and eventually get to the marriage of figure and ground, you can’t very well stay in the gallery with the painting being the figure against the ground of the wall. You have to keep on pushing it and pushing it, and that puts you outside and puts you out into the world, so now you’re an artist out in the world. The planners are a bunch of people looking for an artist. You’re doing your stuff on the basis of quality, as you’ve just described; they’re doing their stuff on the basis of quantity. And now you two meet.

Irwin: Now I’m lost. (Laughter) I mean, I’m jumping very fast, but the point I wanted to make is—the history of modern art is now approximately 200 years old, and it’ll probably be another 200 years before we have any idea whether or not it works, what kind of fruition it represents, whether or not it enhances our life, whether or not it’s a good idea. No one really knows at this point. I’m involved in it because it makes sense to me historically and it seems like something worth pursuing. It’s a little bit like Einstein’s physics at the time he proposed his idea of the nature of matter—there was really no proof for it. The people that became involved with Einstein’s physics did so because it was a beautiful idea, and for the next 20 to 30 years, a lot of very elaborate experimentation was done to begin to prove some of the principles and possibilities. It’s still way up in the air.

The point being: as a so-called art-in-public-places person, when I’m brought into a project they’re not bringing me in because of my interest in this dialogue. They’re bringing me because they have needs, desires, and what have you. So I start out with a contradiction. My reason for being there is to pursue this and try to make some sense out of this history that I’m now the beneficiary of. And so my relationship is, in a sense, very tenuous in the beginning. This wasn’t exactly where I was going to go, but I’m doing…

Weschler: Eventually come back to Marfa, okay? We need you to come back to Marfa.

Irwin: Yeah, that’s true, I had forgotten about Marfa. (Laughter) I’m trying to encapsulate too much. But to get back to my point—essentially what I do is I’ll come. The planners will invite me and tell me about all their needs and desires: we want this thing to be a Monument to Westward Expansion and the Glorification of American Life and what have you—and we got $50,000 to do it. And so what I do is, I spend time looking at the site. I don’t want to be paid and don’t want be put into a position where I have any obligation, because I have my own rhyme and reason. So I spend time looking at the site, and if I can figure out something that makes sense to me, I also look at whether or not I can do something that makes sense to them. On the basis of that, I maybe make a proposal, and we see if it satisfies their desires and needs, and maybe only at that point we might consider going ahead and making it.

To come back to Marfa—that’s slightly different. Having done several projects over the years, most of them falling through for all kinds of unfortunate reasons—people dying, businesses going broke, cities giving up on their own frontier—every now and then I have to take a break. Taking a break means to go to a real art place, someplace where the aesthetics are really of some value. A place where people are really interested in those issues and that dialogue—and that’s what Marfa is. Marfa’s one of the really few and rare art places. And the idea of doing something in this atmosphere and this situation and these circumstances was like a vacation for me. So I took a seven-year vacation. (Laughter)

Hopefully we’re going to move ahead on some of them, but most of the other projects are not a lot of fun. I’d really like to be back in the studio, if I had my druthers, because the beauty of being in the studio is you can make the world look any way you want, as long as you don’t expect anyone else to agree with you. The minute you walk out the door with it under your arm, a whole other set of dynamics starts to take place, and a lot of it—if you’re playing the game I’m playing—a lot of it is really controversial, and I’m not interested in being controversial. And Marianne and Rob, I love them. It’s so rare that I get this kind of opportunity.

Weschler: This is my first time in town and I’m loving it too. We were starting to have a conversation at lunch today, and I wanted to try something on you [Irwin]. This is again an example of the way you and I are completely different. I spent a lot of time this morning in the artillery sheds, with those wonderful metal boxes of Donald Judd’s. My impression is that generally it’s blue sky around here most of the time, but for the last few days it’s been gray, and the boxes are really great in gray sky. I’ve seen them in blue sky, but in gray sky, with the sky and the color of the aluminum and everything, it’s just some fantastic stuff going on. And I kept on finding myself, as I walked through there—well, I wonder how many other people here are like this. You walk through, you see a particular interesting alignment, and you think: God, that would make a great picture. Or you lean your head forward, and when you lean your head back you think: that would make a really interesting little piece of film. I was talking with you about this at lunch. I said: “Do you do that?” And you said…

Irwin: No. (Laughter)

Weschler: You just don’t do that at all?

Irwin: Not at all.

Weschler: Stop. (To audience) How many people do that? I’m not a complete crazy person, right?

Irwin: It’s not an either-or proposition. Think about it for a second. The idea of containing within a frame all of our concepts and ideas and attitudes and sense of beauty and everything—that’s an amazing concept. It’s a highly stylized and learned logic. It’s brilliant—it’s lasted for centuries and is in fact true; it’s one of the ways in which we process information. But that’s not how we see at all. We don’t see in frames. Essentially, seeing is—it’s not only here, but all the way around us. It’s like we’re within an envelope of our senses and we’re being fed information at every moment by all of our senses. That’s actually how we perceive. And at some point, if you take perception as a position, the idea of a frame looks like a highly stylized, learned logic. We’re addicted to it—so much so that in an instant, we can read things on a screen, we can immediately understand and even put emotion into it.

It’s really a process of intellection. There is so much information in the world, and most of the time most of it is irrelevant. For me to simply go to the door and not fall over or bump into things requires that I really attend to the information critical to what I’m going to do. To function, to practice in the world, we continually have to edit all the information that comes in so as not to drown in it. And so we develop, over a period of time, this highly stylized process. It’s a way in which all information is contextually bound and all understanding is within a frame of reference. We’re constantly working on our frame of reference, polishing and sophisticating it, and the clearer and the sharper it gets, the better we’re able to function. But as it gets clearer and sharper, the more we go through the world, the more we’re leaving out all kinds of possibilities, all kinds of richness.

So what I’m saying is that the history of modern art is a radical history.

Weschler: Just one thing. I want to ask you a question. I know that you don’t do this now, but when you were doing the pick-up-sticks line paintings, when you’re coming out of your Abstract Expressionist phase and you’re beginning to coalesce into these lines and so forth—do you mean to tell me that when you went through the world, you did not look at the way lines were going on a telephone pole and stop and look at that and frame that for yourself? You weren’t “framing” even at that time?

Irwin: Let me go a little bit further. I’m always amazed by people that have memories of their childhoods and can remember a teacher, friends, and all that. I don’t remember a thing until I was fifteen years old. When I got into high school I was having so much fun. I had a great time. I had a happy childhood, but everything before high school is memories of the way the light looked someplace. I remember the corner of the street, but not as a street. I used to go to Europe when I was young, and when I came back, I couldn’t convince anybody that I’d been there. They’d ask: “Well, did you see this, did you see that?” I didn’t know. All I would do was get a couple bottles of beer, put them in my pocket, and walk all night long, just soaking it up. I just went to Rome with my wife and daughter and Hugh Davies, who is the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego—a great, scholarly person. He and his wife had been there for seven months, and it was the first time I was ever taken on a tour. He pointed out everything—Bernini did this staircase, and the architect Bernunu or somebody {Borromini] did that staircase. You look at a building that Bernunu did, and Bernini’s got a sculpture going against it because he was aghast at how ugly the building was. It was spectacular. It was really fun, really interesting…

Weschler: And this, by the way, was the analogy used to describe why Richard Meier put the urinal above your garden at the Getty. (Laughter)

Irwin: He didn’t call it a urinal.

Weschler: Well, I know, but it was that Bernini-Bernunu thing that he was bouncing off of when he did that.

Irwin: Yeah, well, it’s a long story. (Laughter) I was working on the garden and I was deeply, deeply disappointed when he said, the one time when I was walking behind him: “This is a goddamn disaster.”

Weschler: The piece that I wrote about this was called “When Fountainheads Collide.” (Laughter)

Irwin: Anyway, the point I want to make is that the only way they finally got it to work out is they put an area between what he did and what I did, which everybody referred to as the DMZ zone. (Laughter)

Weschler: But coming back to Bernini and Bernunu…

Irwin: Anyway, I took that incredible trip, and it was the first time I was ever told the name of something, or that I was in this place, or in that site. One time I took a trip. I just started going south. I went down to San Diego. I liked the trip so much that I decided to follow the Rio Grande River. So I stayed as close to the river as I could. I went all the way down to the Big Bend, and then all the way to Brownsville, which was so terrific that I decided to continue along the Gulf Coast, which was spectacular. I went all the way down to the end of the country, the Florida Keys. By then I was committed, so I went all the way up the East Coast, and then went across the top of the country, as close to Canada as I could, and then down the West Coast.

A trip like that is where all my information comes from. I don’t really invent or create anything. I just look at the world. I’m looking at it all the time, and it’s just full of stuff that is so beautiful and so rich—in most cases more beautiful than anything I’ve ever made. And so that’s how I move in the world. I don’t know why or how, but I never get the name of anything.

Weschler: It’s funny: you don’t have to forget the name of the thing you see. You never knew the name of the thing in the first place. (Laughter)

Irwin: That’s right.

Weschler: It’s interesting. You were saying that it’s going to be maybe 200 years before people find out whether this particular modern-art trajectory works or not. The way you phrased it to me once was that it’s going to be generations after you’re gone before we find out whether this really works or not, and just to kind of goad you I said: “Are you talking about how computer power isn’t good enough yet for all our visors and screens and so forth, and that it’ll take generations to get that computer power?” Do you remember what you answer was?

Irwin: No, I don’t.

Weschler: The answer was: “No, the point is to get visors off our heads.”

Irwin: Well…

Weschler: The point is to get away from the screens.

Irwin: No it’s not. It…

Weschler: That’s what you said.

Irwin: Well then, I’d better modify it slightly.

Weschler: No, it’s a good thing, I like it.

Irwin: It’s interesting that at one point the conceptualists made the declaration that painting is dead. It was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They declared that painting was dead, which was very peculiar to me, because fundamentally painting is a system of signs. Notice how everything is a sign or a symbol of something that one can reference in the world. And when you stop and think about what conceptualists do and how they work, they still express themselves through systems of signs. So they are actually one of the legitimate extensions of the figurative tradition. If you take that further and consider the computer, for example, what you’re talking about is another interesting and extremely sophisticated extension of that figurative tradition, which again is fundamentally about this funny little system of signs. What modern art did was to erase the system of signs and really start looking at something. The term “presence” got used a lot: the idea that something exists.

A simple example: I once taught a drawing class. Twenty students would come in, they’d have a board under their arm, paper, charcoal, pencils, whatever. I never told them what to bring, but they kind of knew—sometimes other teachers would tell them what to bring, what to buy and all. They come in, and there are these little stools sitting all around, and up front is a figure or a still life. They sit down and they begin to draw, and the guy teaching is really full of shit. He’s trying to tell them how to draw and what drawing is. And the curious thing is that the students have made all these commitments and they haven’t actually questioned any of them or thought of them in terms of structure. These are elaborate, complex, beautiful structures that the students have bought into without ever actually questioning them. Now, given the history of modern art, I was trying to present to them the idea that this is a way of going, but not the only way of going. I used the simplest kind of explanation I could. I found a steel roller down in the print room, shiny and smooth. I put it up on the stand, then I took a shiny piece of paper and also set it up on the stand. I said to the class: “I want everybody here to draw exactly what you see: no games of expression, no nothing. I just want you to draw exactly what you see.” And in a pictorial sense, they did. They drew these things, and the two objects came out looking exactly the same. Then I said: “I want everybody to walk over here and pick up both of these things.” They picked up one, and it weighed an ounce; the other weighed 100 pounds. Some people couldn’t even pick it up. Next I said: “Now I want you to go back and draw what you know—add it to what you see. So you might make one drawing with a very thin, light line, indicating the weight, and make the other one really dark to not only indicate the weight, but the fact that it has a physicality and occupies space.”

Now, my question was: is that an abstraction? I was trying to show them that art has never been about an abstraction. It’s all about seeing things from a different perspective. Things exist on more than one level, and they have more than one reality, and essentially what modern art has done is begin to supply all this other information as a kind of equal part of the whole. So there’s never anti-figurative painting; it was never anti-classical art—there’s no such thing.

Weschler: Last night we were having dinner and we began to drift into a conversation which we said we’d save for right now.

Irwin: We did?

Weschler: He doesn’t remember anything. (Laughter)

Irwin: Lucky.

Weschler: So I guess this will come as news to you. I had pointed out that one of the things that’s fascinating about you as a teacher is that you had an incredible group of students at a particular point in your life: Ed Ruscha and Vija Celmins and Chris Burden and Joe Goode. And one of the things that’s interesting to me is they’ve all gone in completely different directions. Which is very interesting. I was asking you, did they seem amazing at the time, and what was it like to be teaching them?

Irwin: Well, I formally taught for a very short period of time: three years at Chouinard, where I got fired, and two years at UCLA, where I got fired, and…

Weschler: For what? (Laughter)

Irwin: Well, I’ll touch on that in a little bit. And then I set up the graduate department in the University of California at Irvine, where I stayed for about two and a half years, and didn’t get fired. These were the only times I taught formally. The reason I stopped teaching, first of all, is because it’s really a complicated thing to do, a little bit like the story about the ladies. You have people who are in the process of developing. They are spectacular in and of themselves. None of these students were recruited, but each one of them was a pure potential, and to try and teach, to me, is to ultimately impose on them (while they may think it’s information) your limitations.

For me, the name of the game is you work with each one as an individual. You have no idea what they’re going to do in 10 years or how they’re going to get there. They have no idea where they’re going to be in 10 years or how they’re going to do it. So what you deal with is this potential. You have to deal with each student as an individual; you have to become involved with them; you have to understand what’s the nature of their sensibility, what are the things that intrigue them, what are the things that interest them. And you try to—here’s the word—nurture that. I don’t really spend any time looking at the work. Instead I talk and spend time with them, because their development is always way ahead of the work. The work comes after not only the development, but when it begins to coalesce, it begins to, in a sense, refine itself, and then it’s able to make the transition from just knowing something to actually putting that into some kind of inter-subjective form.

So you don’t teach, actually. What you do is you work with people, and you don’t grade them against one another. This allows them, for example, not to do anything, which is one of the big parts of anybody going through an intense learning process. There are times when you’re taking in and you’re not really capable of putting out. Schools tend to want to put you on some kind of meter, where at the end of every semester you’re going to get a grade. But if you’re spending time with a person, you know that they’re working, you know that they’re doing things. It’s incredibly exciting, but deeply demanding. Really, it’s a full-time job.

Weschler: Can you talk about some of them? Ed Ruscha, Chris Burden, Vija Celmins?

Irwin: Yeah, sure. I’ll start with Vija because she was so terrific. First of all, there was no way to teach Vija. Vija was already one of the brightest people I’d ever met. But she had one problem. Each week I would think of a question, and when she came in I’d hand it to her. Then she would take the question and break it into its five, six, or seven parts and throw those up in the air. It was like watching somebody with a glass head. She’d throw them in the air. She’d examine each part and point out its strengths, weaknesses, flaws—and reject it. And then reject the next and the next and the next. She would finally reject the whole proposition. And with good arguments for why she was doing so, which was her dilemma. I mean, here was a woman who was so unbelievably talented and unbelievably bright—but almost too bright for her own good. She could destroy any argument, so part of it had to do with her confidence, her sense of self. There was constant arguing back and forth. I could land some of the ideas, or we would come to a draw. We went on like that for a good while. Even now, watching Vija Celmins doing those incredible drawings of the ocean, or the drawings of…

Weschler: Spiders’ webs.

Irwin: Spiders’ webs or whatever—you’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. Underneath that is even more potential than what you’re seeing. What she’s doing is almost the safest thing she can do, as brilliant as it is. I’d love to have been able to convince her even more about herself.

Ed Ruscha and those guys—there were four of them—they all came from Oklahoma. They were high school students, they walked in row: Ed Ruscha was one, Joe Goode was one, Patrick Blackwell was one, and I can’t think of the fourth name. He was a photographer. Patrick Blackwell became a very successful advertising artist in New York. Joe Goode is a really good painter. Ed Ruscha you probably all know. I had them every day for design drawing. I had them out of school working within two years, working on their own in studios. Larry Bell was another one. He had just come from Birmingham High School, where he was the…

Weschler: I went to Birmingham High School.

Irwin: Did you?

Weschler: Yeah.

Irwin: Well, Larry Bell went too. They were the Birmingham Braves, and he was the brave. He would go out on the football field with the feathers and the whole thing. Funny guy. Interestingly enough, Larry Bell was somebody who was just tuned into all kinds of things. John Chamberlain was the same way. And Larry blossomed incredibly fast. By the time he was in his second year, there was a painting of his in Don Judd’s studio. Then he did the glass boxes and was just exploding. It was like the way John Chamberlain changed the whole history of sculpture, because everything up to that point was always made with an armature. Suddenly Chamberlain takes it and turns the whole thing inside out and crushes these things. Intellectually and structurally, there’s great significance in what they did. And so when they went to New York they were very well-received, very respected. They really had an impact. So the first thing that the great critical community in New York did was to give them a mantle of responsibility to carry that idea into the world. Now these guys were not intellects at all. John Chamberlain was a hairdresser. John Chamberlain is the guy who works from the seat of his pants, scratching his ass. There was a show here of those terrific foam pieces. The great story behind those is, the first time he sent them to a museum for an exhibition, they called him back and said: “My God, John, there’s nothing there. We untied all those things and there was no art inside!” (Laughter)

Weschler: Tell them the story of your mother and cousins going to see your show.

Irwin: Well, let me come back to it, okay? The point is that there are people who just work tactilely from their gut, from their feelings, from their sensitivity, and there are other people who are very intellectual, who really in a sense can think and…

Weschler: We were talking about Ed Ruscha. Where does he fit?

Irwin: All these guys are like this. Ed Ruscha is like Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol was a great artist because he intuitively, instinctively always had the right image. He always just nailed the right one. A lot of people played that game and they played it very well: Lichtenstein and so forth. But nobody was unerringly correct like Warhol.

Weschler: And Ed was already like that, first thing out of Oklahoma?

Irwin: No, not right off. Coming from Oklahoma, it comes with the territory a little bit. But he just had this unerring ability to find the right sort of metaphor or the right set of words.

To get back to the teaching thing: I had to quit. There was no way to do it and do what I do, you know? I would have them out of school in a couple of years, have them operating in the studio. I would visit them in their studio, spend time with them in their studio—and then, at a certain point, there was their final act of graduation: they have to kill you. (Laughter) Because you’re the one person who’s in the way. And I’ve got to tell you, it’s difficult to get killed 15 times, you know?

Weschler: Before we leave the topic, what was Chris Burden like?

Irwin: Are you all familiar with Chris Burden? There was just a little article in The New Yorker about him. In graduate school he had started out doing these things that were all about moving in space. So he made these sculptures that were all about helping you stand up or move into space—they were the kind of thing that would make for great exercise machines for somebody in a space capsule. And then he slowly started to move into these more dangerous sorts of things. So for me, that was a very difficult moment, because I’m there sort of as the intermediary, and I’m not sure whether this guy’s crazy or he’s dangerous or he’s suicidal. I mean, I have absolutely no idea. He puts himself in a locker for three or four days, just crammed into one of those college lockers. People are coming and talking to him: “Why are you in there? What are you doing?” He was really scaring everybody.

The students had their own gallery within the first year. There were 12 of them, and each one did a month-long show. Chris Burden’s show was to bring all of his friends in. He had built this pool at the back and he had these ladders in the pool. So then he asked everybody or coerced everybody to get up on the ladder. He asked me, too—there was no way I was going to get up on that ladder, okay? I was definitely keeping an eye on this guy (laughter), but one of the things I was starting to realize was that everything was very, very carefully planned. None of this was as sort of crazy or as off-the-wall as it appeared. The guy was extremely careful. When he had himself shot, he investigated…

Weschler: Slow down. Not everybody knows the story.

Irwin: Well, he had himself shot one time. And he made damn sure where he was shot, and who shot him, etc., and it was not a casual thing. But anyway, people got way up on the ladders, and then he threw a 12-volt line into the water (laughter) and shut off the lights and walked out the door, leaving these people up there on the ladders all night. Okay? Now, there was no way for them to test this—but of course I knew, and finally afterwards everybody knew, that he went around and shut the electricity off. But he made the point of putting them on the ladder, and they don’t know that he’s turned the electricity off, and they’re sitting there thinking: “Oh my God, if I fall asleep…” They’re starting to have conversations, saying what the hell are we doing here?, and so on and so on—which was all the things he wanted to have happen.

Working with somebody like that, the first thing you have to know is that they’re not going to blow up the school or something. For me the most humorous part was that he would do one of those things, and the administration would just go crazy. Then he’d come to me and say: “They’re all mad at me!” I’d say: “You’ve got to be kidding! (Laughter) Are you kidding? Of course they’re mad at you, you’ve started this whole thing, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with it.” So I would keep throwing it back on him. But working with people like that, with that kind of enthusiasm, energy, and creativity—it’s a treat. I loved teaching. I just couldn’t do it full-time.

Weschler: A funny story about being one of your students—which I considered myself to be in a privileged kind of way—is how, in many ways, you were the last chance I had to avoid the life I’ve ended up living. (Laughter) Which is to say that I am incredibly free-associative. And I was from very early on. I just free-associate like crazy. I’ll tell my story and then you tell your story.

My story was that after college, I had a family friend who was a psychologist. He was very into doing those little tests to figure out what you should do with your life, and so he had me come in and it’s the 800 questions: would you rather be an arsonist or a fireman (laughter), would you rather be a table or a chair. Then there was the Rorschach test and so forth, and he said: “Well, come back in a couple weeks and we’ll talk about it.” When I came back a few weeks later, he said: “Well, first of all I want to talk to you about your Rorschach test because I’ve called around, and we have these different indices, and one of them is just about free-associating. And you are so off the chart; nobody has ever seen anything like this. This is not a good thing. (Laughter) This is not necessarily a good thing. You have a really hard time because you just kind of dribble away in free-associations.”

Irwin: I also got one of those tests, right when I got out of the Army. It was free, so I spent three days doing this test, and when I came back a week later, the guy said: “What you need is responsibility.” (Laughter) He didn’t even tell me what profession I should be in, just that maybe I ought to get married or get a job or something.

Weschler: Anyway, in retrospect, if I look back at my career, my very first book had the title Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. You were constantly telling me: “Stop free-associating! Look at that glass! Look at that glass! I don’t want to hear about it—just look at that glass!” That was a large part of our discourse in those days.

Irwin: We’d be sitting on a bench, and he’d be doing his usual thing, and I’d say: “Oh my God, did you see that?” He’d say: “See what?” “That leaf, falling over there!” “What leaf? Screw that leaf, man!” (Laughter)

Weschler: And I realize in retrospect that Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees was the last time I was able to do that. It was kind of like the asthmatic who becomes a soccer star or something. It was me playing totally against my way of being—and then I kind of lost it, and I’ve been an eternal disappointment to you ever since. (Laughter)

Irwin: You’ve been an enchantment. (Laughter)

Weschler: Why don’t we see if people have questions and let everybody else in on this? I was just asked about my most recent book, Everything That Rises. I was asked by a woman who has in her lap Flannery O’Connor’s book Everything that Rises Must Converge, and indeed the full title of my book is Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences. I always thought that that line was from Ecclesiastes. But it’s not—it’s Teilhard de Chardin, which I didn’t realize. What do I know? I am a horrendous dabbler in everything I do. But I’ve always loved that title. Anyway, the story behind this Everything That Rises book is I’d just start having free-associations. Well, should I show you just one example?

Irwin: Sure.

Weschler: Okay, so here’s an example. Actually, this first one is not my own. My other great master besides Bob was John Berger. When I was in high school or college, Che Guevara was killed, and there was that famous picture of Che on his deathbed. And John Berger wrote an article that appeared a few weeks later in which he said: “We all know what this photograph is based on, the image that was hot-wired in the heads of the generals that told them where to stand, hot-wired in the photographer so that he knew where to take the picture from: Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson.” I remember thinking at the time: “Damn, that guy reads the newspaper different than the way I read the newspaper.” And his was a revolutionary way to read the newspaper.

Now what’s interesting about that is, if you look at the painting—close your eyes for a second, okay? No cheating. You’ll remember there’s a painting, there’s a dissection taking place, there’s a cadaver on the table, the arm has been opened so there’s all these muscles that are exposed—and in the middle of the painting there’s three people, the students, who are looking completely spellbound at something. What are they looking at? In my memory of it, they’re looking at the arm, the flayed arm. Okay, open your eyes now. Look carefully at those three guys in the middle. They are completely astonished at the hand of the professor. The professor is saying: “With these muscles here, you can do this.” Look at the look on their faces—they have never seen anything like it. Now think about what they’re looking at: a combination of motility of the hand movement and a vision—which is a painting, right? That’s what this is a celebration of, among other things. First of all, it’s not about death, it’s about life. It’s about everything that’s lively.

Now, the second thing that’s going on in that painting is really weird. It’s actually the case that with this guy here, one of his eyes is looking down and the other is looking at the hand. It’s like a movie. Art historians all say that what the guys in the middle are looking at with astonishment is this book. It’s typical of people who write books, that they would think that. (Laughter) What they’re looking at is this hand, but what’s also interesting is, if you look at this guy, he conspicuously looks just like this guy. And that guy in turn, is a thief—that’s why he’s being dissected. He was some kind of criminal, so his body was turned over for dissection, and Rembrandt is conspicuously alluding to this. There’s a whole set of pictures of Christ laid out on his deathbed; that’s a whole subtext of this picture here—the Christ-like quality of this person being dissected. Going back to the photograph, we have it again. Now certainly the generals didn’t intend that, but that’s why I think that image of Che is so powerful and why Che became such an icon. It has to do with the Death and Resurrection. I mean, that’s part of what’s going on there. (To Irwin) You buy that?

Irwin: Oh…

Weschler: You like that, or you don’t like that?

Irwin: No, I love it.

Weschler: You do?

Irwin: I’m nuts about it. No, really—how can you not like it? It’s also hard to swallow, but… (Laughter) But you know, what do I know? Where are you going to go from here, squirt? By the way, the lady asked a question. Did you even come close to an answer?

Weschler: Well, I told you that I got the title of the book from Flannery O’Connor. She asked why I called it Everything That Rises, and the answer is, it does, everything that rises ends up converging. Just to give one more example… (Laughter)

Irwin: I warned you. (Laughter) He’s having such a good time with this whole thing. Now people are sending him things, on the Intercom or the Web or whatever it is (laughter), they’re sending him their convergences. He’s gotten so many of them that he’s planning another whole book.

Weschler: There’s not a book yet, but there will be. If you go to McSweeney’s website, for the last 40 weeks we’ve had a contest. People sent in their own convergences and then I’d comment on them. This is a sick little puppy of a country. (Laughter) Here’s an interesting example. Somebody sent in this photograph from Iraq and said it reminded them of this World War I painting by John Singer Sargent. I have to respond to each of these things, so it’s kind of like batting practice. In this case I said, okay, what’s really interesting about both those pictures is that they are, in fact, based on this—Breughel’s The Blind Leading the Blind. But if you want to see a really weird World War I/Iraq convergence, look at this. Isn’t that weird?

Irwin: Yeah. It’s spooky.

Weschler: I’ll show a few more. Here, somebody sent me this one—I like it a lot. Goya, right? (Laughter) One more?

Irwin: Good. You made a hit with that one. That buys you one more. Pick and choose now, though. (Laughter)

Weschler: This one is kind of interesting. Somebody sends this—it’s a long-distance swimmer crossing the English Channel—and says that it reminds them of that. And my response is that actually, it reminds me of this: St. Theresa by Bernini or Bernunu or one of those guys.

Irwin: Bernini.

Weschler: Anyway, what I said was that the nice thing is that neither Christ nor Bernini had to deal with paparazzi. (Laughter) That is, unless you think of the old masters themselves as paparazzi. After all, they’re all kind of taking this same picture over and over again, so they’re like the paparazzi of the Passion. And these are just flash-bulbs going off over and over. But conversely, the way I ended my response was: “For that matter, flipping the polarities of our analogy, more contemporary paparazzi, all agog over this Paris or that Diana, this Brad or the other Jen, might well themselves be thought of as latter-day versions of their Old Master predecessors, likewise in thrall to the transcendental incarnate.” (Laughter) Star power. But anyway, you get the idea.

Irwin: Somebody ask him a question, for crying out loud. (Laughter)

Audience: I was curious how you feel about the World Trade Center site, in terms of the competition and how they’re progressing.

Weschler: Bob, there was a competition about what to do with the site. Did you think of entering it?

Irwin: I got about a half a dozen invitations to collaborate with a team. To me, the whole thing was, and still is, bizarre. It was like a feeding frenzy. Everybody wanted to get a piece of the action. I can’t believe that anyone would enter into anything that way, or that anything could ever come of it, the way it’s been dealt with, because the whole process has nothing to do with what took place and what the honoring of that should be. It was all about ambition running wild. I got as far away from it as I possibly could. It just turned out to be a disaster. Maybe something’ll happen at some point, but I don’t know that it can happen in the current atmosphere. What’s going on has nothing to do with what the World Trade Center means.

Weschler: There’s something to be said for waiting 10 or 15 years. The Vietnam War Memorial, Maya Lin’s thing, was done 10 years after the war. By the way, I was extremely unpopular with my friends after 9/11. I was in the New York area when it happened. Within a couple days I was just losing friendships by saying: “Get a grip.” Even if you were in the building when it fell, you had a 95% chance of getting out. Yes, 3,000 people were killed, but New York is not the first city in history that’s been bombed. Frankly, we’ve bombed a bunch of cities. Nor is 3,000 people anywhere near the most important event that’s happened, hell, in five years at that point. I mean, Rwanda was two World Trade Center buildings, without anybody escaping, coming to the ground every single day, for weeks and weeks and weeks. It was something we could’ve stopped, but we didn’t do anything.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about doing is a conference called, “But the Thing of It Is, Cassandra Was Right.” It will be about raising an alarm and not being believed. I want to bring together General DeLair, who warned the UN that Rwanda was going to happen, and Richard Clarke, who warned about 9/11. I want to have the people who knew about the levies in New Orleans. What is it like to see something coming and not be able to convince people?

Anyway, to come back very quickly to the 9/11 situation: I’m in no way trying to downplay it. I mean, everybody’s death is an absolute horror. The 3,000 deaths were a horror and those buildings going down was a horror. All that’s true, but you don’t turn the entire country inside out over something like that. 50 years from now—if there is a 50 years from now—the question will be, what were people thinking in 2001 or 2003 and 2005 about what was obviously the biggest issue of the time: global warming? It’s going to seem quite shocking that until about a year ago, people weren’t thinking about it at all because they were so obsessed with the war on terror, when in fact the war on terror is obviously a way of keeping them from thinking about what matters. Which is the war on Terra. That’s what I think about that.

Audience: Earlier you made mention of a story about when your mother came to see your work?

Irwin: Yeah, well, one time I did these paintings…

Weschler: Just so you remember, this began with him telling the story about the John Chamberlain foam sculptures, where people would unwrap them and say: “Where’s the work? There’s nothing there.”

Irwin: Well, I did these paintings at one point. I was trying to paint a painting that didn’t have a mark on it or wasn’t recognizable as a mark. I was struggling with this whole idea of the mark as a sign and a symbol. I hadn’t figured it out yet, but I was slowly taking it apart, and I sort of shaped the canvas. It took me about a year to make 10 of them. They were very softly shaped in each direction, so that you weren’t that conscious of the curve itself. But if you put in an extra flat canvas, it was loaded with energy. The flat one really looked flat. So, I was transferring all my interest to this thing having actual energy and an actual physicality to it, but I wasn’t sure what to put on that. Being a painter, I was still using painter’s solutions, so I started making these little bright red dots. I had to do them so they were uniform enough; if they got too uniform you saw them as a pattern, or if they got too un-uniform they became chaos. In both cases, your eye would focus on it. So I was like 35 years old and I’m thinking: “This is what I’m doing? I’m making dots?” And between every red dot, I had an optically perfect green dot, and they would go out and they slowly faded away too, so that there was a ball of energy. I only showed them a couple of times. At the time there was not much interest in them.

Weschler: You showed them at the LA County Museum, right?

Irwin: There was a show of two people, myself and Kenny Price. I showed these paintings there, and all my cousins called up my mother said: “Goldie, we’re going down to the museum, we’re going to see Bob’s paintings.” She said: “Oh, I don’t know if you really want to do that.” (Laughter) And they said: “Oh, no, he’s our cousin and we’re very proud of him. He’s in the museum! We’re very excited.” So I had a lot of cousins and they all got together in three cars and went down to see the show, after which they came back to my mother and said: “Goldie, there wasn’t anything there!” (Laughter) And she said: “I told you it wouldn’t be easy.” (Laughter) She was great with the one-liner at the end.

Yeah, those paintings took a moment to really get. You had to stand there. It was a different kind of time frame and a different kind of process, and if you stood there for a moment, they really became like this ball of energy that pulsed.

Weschler: My memory of that is, if you just looked at the paintings for a second, you could walk away and say: “Oh, there’s nothing there.” But if you stayed for 30 seconds, suddenly the painting blushed. It was the weirdest thing. And I’ve had occasion to watch people standing there, and you blush back at it. It’s even weirder, like there’s this barometric shift that’s happening: “Whoa! There’s a tart little painting.” It’s really amazing.

Irwin: It was the first time I discovered the frame. All of a sudden I was like, God, I’ve never thought about that before. You just accept it as a total given, and all of a sudden here’s this frame, and not only that: there was a shadow around it, because the thing stuck off the wall. I said: “My God!” And what I loved about the shadow was that here’s something that, quantitatively, doesn’t exist. In other words you can’t weigh it or measure it, and if you move the light, it’d be gone altogether. But from a perceptional point of view, you couldn’t function in the world, you couldn’t move without a shadow. It’s very critical to the whole process of perception. So for me, it was a breakthrough in that suddenly here was this thing that had no quantitative existence in a way, or value, but suddenly great perceptional value.

Weschler: This is what I described as inhaling a spore. (Laughter) I have a story I was going to tell about something that happened today, actually…

Irwin: Oh yeah, I knew you were going to do this. (Laughter)

Weschler: This is a good story, right?

Irwin: Yeah, go ahead. Take your best shot.

Weschler: Okay. I was walking out in the Chinati field, and there’s all those big Judd concrete sculptures out there, so I decided to do the whole length and walk them in order. Some of them have backs and some you can see through; some of them are double and some are triple; and I’m going along and…

Irwin: They seem didactic at first.

Weschler: Yeah. And at first they seem to be very didactic, and I’m thinking: “Oh, yeah, okay, that’s it, now I understand it, now he’s doing it this way, now he’s doing it that way.” And then it actually began to get lyrical and poetical. It’s interesting: this one is rhyming with what he did back there, and if I look through here I can see that. And then it got more and more powerful, and I was becoming existential—it’s like it was really a deep, solid thing in the world, and the idea that this guy had taken these huge things, these heavy, huge things, and put them out there in the field, and that this is the middle of the earth—I was just having a big existential moment out there. I was having a great time; it was terrific.

Anyway, so I’m walking back on the path when I see this ant. And this little ant is carrying in front of it this long piece of straw. It must weigh three or four times as much as he does, and the ant is kind of moving along and lifting it up. The piece of straw goes up in the air, and he moves it along, then he puts it down and goes to the front of the straw and pulls it. I just stopped and started watching this ant. He’s pulling the straw along and then pushing it to the side; then he gets it and starts lifting again. It’s going up and up and up, and then he comes over to this tuft of wild grass and kind of moves it around the side of the tuft and puts it down—I swear to God this happened—and he’s kind of pushing it over here, and then he goes around this side and he pushes it over there—and I begin to notice, he eventually just lines it up, exactly the way he wants it, and there’s another piece of straw that’s lined up, and another one in front of that. (Laughter) There’s like three of them in a row. And then the ant walked away. (Laughter) (Applause)

Irwin: How’d you like to go through the world like that? (Laughter) Talk about making associations. (Laughter) So he’s trying to figure out whether Judd influenced the ant, or the ant influenced Judd, or… (Laughter) Judd, of course, isn’t here to defend himself.

Weschler: Anyway, maybe we should stop with that one.

Irwin: Yeah, we probably should.

Weschler: Okay. Thank you very much. (Applause)