ROBERT IRWIN, Huxley & "Martspeak"

Robert Irwin, Varese Scrim, 1973 (Panza Collection)

There have been lots of engaging and refreshing discussions taking place as a result of Carol Diehl’s blog posts about “martspeak”, and Carol’s subsequent spotlight (including her excellent 1999 Art in America article) on the work of Robert Irwin as an embodiment of clarity. He has built a body of work over 40 years that operates in diametric opposition to a critical culture that corresponds to what Huxley called “the world of self-assertion, of overvalued words and idolatrously worshiped notions”.

My first encounter with Irwin’s work was in 1973 or 74 when he installed a scrim piece in a stairwell at the Fort Worth Modern Museum. The piece occupied one wall adjacent to the stairs, maybe 10 feet wide and 20 feet high, making a translucent ghost wall that was about 12 inches inside the actual wall. The effect of this piece was startling, and yes, in many ways life changing. It was my first realization of the possibility of an artwork that was not an object but a situation -- an experiential condition – something like a hallucinatory event. Of course hundreds of people walked right past the piece and didn’t even notice it. But once noticed, then truly experienced, it caused a kind of floating displacement that required a re-orientation of one’s position in space, and by doing so, called attention to the contingent nature of all perception.

One of the hallmarks of a classic hallucinogenic experience is a flood of revelatory perception accompanied by an almost total inability to articulate the specifics of those revelations. Language suddenly becomes cumbersome and overly complicated, but also completely lacking sufficient nuance or clarity to reflect the wholeness of the experience. It is the breaking down of the filtering process of language that makes such an experience possible, suggesting that “pure” experience, insofar as that is possible, resides somewhere beyond such sequential constructs.

To me, this is Irwin’s great and continuing contribution, finding ways to remove art from its connection to critical discourse or from language in general, and situating it in the realm of pure experience. I can’t think of another artist who has dealt with actual space, perception and the nature of aesthetic experience as deeply, consistently and clearly. What his work seems to require and invoke is a total suspension of the incessant linearity of reason -- a surrender to the presence of pure sensation.

Lying awake last night, I sort of half-dreamed this goofy scenario, an adaptation of one of those Zen master/student stories I must have read somewhere. The Zen Master of course is Irwin, and the student is a young curator or critic (let's just say Suzanne Hudson - the critic and curator who is now one of the notorious perpetrators of "martspeak"): The student comes to the master and says, ”Master, I understand your work is referencing the interrogation of perception informed by a transgressive problematization of real space, but please tell me – what is its MEANING?” At that, the Master, smiles and looks her in the eye, reaches out his hand, and gently wiggles her nose.