Installation view of "Untitled" by Robert Irwin (1969)
Installation view of "Untitled" by Robert Irwin (1969)

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It’s been six weeks since the Robert Irwin exhibition opened at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and tonight, the museum will host a lecture with Lawrence Weschler, author of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin. When it was published in 1982, it helped put Irwin on the map (better than his exhibitions at MoMA in 1970, or at the Whitney in 1977 did). It also put Weschler on the map; prior to the publication of his book—and its excerpts in the New Yorker—Weschler had been a transcriber at the UCLA Oral History Research Center. Not one to consider himself an art critic—by his own admission, he could “astonish you by all the stuff he doesn’t know about the contemporary art world”—Weschler went on to have a 20-year career at the New Yorker, where he also wrote on a variety of other subjects, including Poland and torture. 

Ahead of his lecture tonight at the Hirshhorn, Washington City Paper reached out to Weschler to discuss how he happened to get connected to Irwin. Below is a highly condensed version of a freely associative and insightful 6,000-plus-word transcript, that really went all over the fucking map.

Washington City Paper: What did you originally think you would be doing once you completed your degree? 

Lawrence Weschler: I don’t know. I guess I always thought I would be a writer.

As it happened, I got a job at the UCLA Oral History Program. My grandfather had been one of the great Weimar-era composers in Germany, although he was largely forgotten: a man named Ernst Toch.  

He had eventually come to California and had been part of the remarkable émigré scene in a time when Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, [ArnoldShoenberg, and [IgorStravinsky, and so forth were basically on the west side of Los Angeles.  

In any case, he died in ’64 when I was 12. My grandmother had outlived him and [had] done an oral history with the UCLA Oral History Program. And those things were 20, 30, 40 sessions. She had kept herself alive to finish the oral history, and literally within two weeks of finishing it, died. I had helped her during her last two years to put together the work that would lead to the oral history: all the research. And they asked me, since I understood her accent, to put together her history. And then they asked me to stay on. The job requirement of the Oral History Program was that you had to be able to interview on any subject with three-weeks notice. And, the education that I had was really one that allowed me to do that.  

It happened that the Oral History Program had gotten a grant to do an L.A. Art Group Portrait—interviews with 40 Los Angeles artists and collectors and dealers. And I became the principal editor of that series, and did many interviews myself. For example: I did the interview with Ed Kienholz, the great assemblage artist, and Irving Blum, the dealer, people like that. But I was also editing other people’s interviews with artists, which is how I came to be editing an interview with Robert Irwin, an artist who at that point I had never heard of, partly because I wasn’t particularly an art person in those days. It was also the case that alone among the great artists in America at that moment, he was not allowing his work to be photographed. Whereas I was aware of [Claes] Oldenburg and other people, it was because I saw their work in magazines all the time. I never saw Robert Irwin’s work, and he insisted that you had to see it physically, and that you had to be present to see it at all. So, although I hadn’t heard of him, I was immediately impressed.

One day I just sent him a note. The note was, “Have you ever read [MauriceMerleau-Ponty‘s The Primacy of Perception? And, he was basically at the door of the Oral History Program the next day, and we had lunch together for the next three years, basically. Which is an exaggeration, but what’s interesting about that was, had I sent that note to him six-months earlier—a year earlier—I think he probably would have just thrown it away—thought it a wussy, intellectual, stupid thing. It was the first time in his life, at that point, where he really did want to read philosophy, intensively.  

It happened that he lived in Westwood in those days, which was just a half-mile from my office. And we began hanging out. And I would recommend reading for him. And since I studied phenomenology, that was something he as especially interested in. We read KantKierkegaardPlato. But in between he’d tell me these amazing stories. He was incredibly garrulous. A wonderful raconteur and storyteller, and in the evenings I would go home and write down my memories of the conversations.  

As the years past, I recast the stories into book form, and proceeded to get an incredible series of rejections. It was interesting to think about this now, that in 1979/1980, it was possible to have a manuscript like that get like 10, 12 rave rejections from New York editors: All of them saying they definitely wanted to publish my next book, but there was no way they were going to publish some book about an unknown California artist. So, then I sent it over the transom to the New Yorker. In retrospect, had I sent it to [William] Shawn, he would not have looked at it, out of deference to Calvin Tomkins. But, as it happened, I sent it to Calvin Tomkins, who I knew tangentially. And he had liked it and passed it on to Mr. Shawn, and six months later the New Yorker did run the piece, and I finally found a publisher. But it wasn’t in New York. It was the University of California Press; no New York publisher would touch it.  

WCP: After the publication of your book, your relationship with Irwin continued. I saw the expanded reissue of the book includes six new chapters. How do they expand upon original publication? 

LW: Basically the original book brought [Irwin] up until he had gone to point zero, where he was about to give up art all together. As far as he was concerned, he wasn’t going to do another piece. He comes out the other side doing these installations, which was somewhat surprising. But as it turned out, his life took an even more surprising turn. Within a few years, he was doing the gardens in the Getty [Museum], which were the biggest public art installation of all time. All those paradoxes, of a person who essentially was interested in how light falls upon a swath of lawn could do such huge vast projects—that was interesting to write about, and it was also interesting to write about art that was, by definition, about presence, about being there, about the immediacy of a sense of no mediation, when writing itself is a mediation. Irwin’s story goes elaborately on.  

What was interesting through all of this was that after the Irwin book was published, I got a phone call from David Hockney, who was somebody I had heard of. He told me that he had been reading the Irwin book—which was back in 1981/82— and although he disagreed with almost everything in it, he was thinking about it and [asked] would I come up and talk to him about it the next time I was in L.A. It was at that point when he was starting to do Polaroid collages, and he asked whether I would write that book, which I agreed to do: a text which became in part Hockney’s conscious refutation of some of the points in the Irwin book.  

When that book was published, Irwin called me up and told me that that was just nonsense, and essentially for the next 30 years, in my own mind, there was this battle for my soul between these two artists, who never met each other, who were parenthetically talking about very serious things. And it’s not a petty argument, has nothing to do with personal grudges or the like: both believe that in many ways Cubism was the most significant intellectual breakthrough of the 20th century, and that if one were to take those implications seriously you would be doing what the one was doing and not what the other one was doing.  At any rate, a few years back I put all of my Hockney writings in one volumeTrue to Life—and collected all of my Irwin writings in another (the expanded edition of Seeing is Forgetting), so that readers can follow the back and forth for themselves.   

WCP: Have they ever met? 

LW: No. Never have. And probably a good idea that they not. The funny thing for me is the two have much more in common than they have apart. They are both terrific noticers, and incredibly curious, thoughtful, and articulate about what is involved in seeing. 

WCP: The title of your talk is in contrast to the title of the book, “Seeing is Remembering.”  

LW: The reason the title of the book is Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees was it was all the stuff that [Irwin] had to forget in order to be able to see. I mean, he did a phenomenological reduction. Before we ever got together, he did it without any kind of academic training or intellectual armature. He did what phenomenology philosophy does, which is to take something and bracket things out until you get to the nub of the thing you are looking at. And in the case of what he was doing, he got rid of image. Then he eventually got rid of frame, of even making something, until he got to what he thought the essence of the art, which was the thing itself. Perceiving yourself perceiving. And he did it in a kind of lunkheaded, crazy way. 

That was the incredible rigorous journey that he was on. It led to a very funny thing about the two of us. Because I, for my part, am incredibly freely associative.  

And so it was almost providential that I came in contact with Robert Irwin as my first big subject, someone who absolutely refused to free associate. When he saw something he saw it. He didn’t have any associations from it. And we are absolute opposites. Whenever we got together I would say, “Oh that reminds me of,” and he would say, “Shut the fuck up of what it reminds you of. Can’t you just look at it!” That was what our relationship was, and it is to this day. I’m convinced that we both get to the same place eventually, but I do it by running through all the free associations, whereas he has built a wall where they don’t come in at all. But in any case, Seeing is Forgetting is what he was up to. And for me, at this lecture, I guess, “Seeing is Remembering” is I am going to be remembering those days. But, also, in a way, proving myself to have been a completely useless, hopeless student of his. Because I do have all of these free associations that I do, and I will free associate away. So, that’s kind of what I’ll be doing, I suspect. 

Lawrence Weschler speaks tonight at 6:30 p.m. in the Hirshhorn’s Ring Auditorium. 700 Independence Ave. SW. Free.