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The Reality of Abstraction

Robert Irwin Touches on Art's Intentions, Viewers' Perceptions in Dense but Engaging Museum Lecture


LAGUNA BEACH — Assembled for a lecture on "the nature of abstraction" at the Orange County Art Museum here, Robert Irwin's audience got rather more than it bargained for last week--a dense but engaging two-hour talk that ranged from a discussion of phenomenology to a wry recollection of hearing his first big show dissed by fellow artist Craig Kauffman.

An artist best known for his extraordinary use of light and translucent materials to produce perceptual shifts in the viewer, Irwin was honored in 1993 with a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Now in his late 60s, he retains his spare physique and idiosyncratic demeanor: part laconic former car culture dude, part serene omnivore, part idea-smitten college freshman.

He was invited to speak because the museum is showing "John McLaughlin: Western Modernism/Eastern Thought," a retrospective of the seminal Southern California abstract artist. But he only glancingly mentioned McLaughlin en route to a big idea that has obsessed him for many years, while trying to imbue a work of art with a maximum degree of psychic energy.

"The term 'abstraction' is very misleading," Irwin said. "No artist worth his salt has ever made an abstract painting. Every artist tries to make his painting as real as possible."

The word "abstract" means "to be derived from or related to," Irwin said. In other words, it involves relating one thing to another thing. When you think about it, he continued, even representational art is abstract by this definition. The only reason the imagery in a painting makes sense to us is that we understand each mark on the canvas as a specific sign or symbol.

These signs and symbols have become codified over hundreds of years of painting, making representational art "the standard of reality."

The traditional model of art is strictly hierarchical, Irwin said, drawing a triangle with a cross at the top to represent the Roman Catholic Church, the major patron of Western art before the modern era.

When the Church contracted with Renaissance painters for a fresco, Irwin said, every aspect of the painting would be specified, including the number and identity of the figures, their positions vis-a-vis each other, and the amounts of expensive lapis lazuli and gold paint to be used.

Irwin didn't discuss the shifts in patronage that happened long before the 19th century, but the resurgence of a middle-class art market was just one of many factors that resulted in the cult of the individual artist and, eventually, the emergence of the radically new approaches of Modernism.

Rather than tracing the development of abstraction, Irwin typically took his listeners on an elliptical route by invoking the role of sensory experience in establishing our knowledge of the world.

Waking in the morning and opening his eyes, he naturally accepts what he sees as a given, Irwin said. "But if I had to lie there for 10 seconds, watching the world gradually take form, I'd see that I do it."

What the Modernists did, in other words, was to figure out ways of representing how they personally perceived and understood the world.

"There is the illusion modern art divorced itself from the public," Irwin said, but the notion that abstract art is dehumanized and cold is untrue.

Even though it doesn't represent human beings literally, Irwin said, it makes them "participants with the responsibility of finishing [the artist's] action."

This job depends on asking the appropriate question, however. "What is it?" or "What does it mean?" misses the point.

"You need to ask, 'What is the intent?' if you really want to know about it," Irwin said.

The key is to focus on qualitative, rather than quantitative, distinctions. Art depends on personal reactions, much as the our experience of time depends on how we feel, not on the neat increments of the clock.

Irwin recalled his first glimpse of Abstract Expressionist painting: A small work by Philip Guston with a subtle melding of grays, greens and pinks hung next to a large canvas by James Brooks that contained large shapes and strong contrasts of values and hues.

"This little Guston was blowing the Brooks right out of the water," Irwin said. "How can this be? In the Brooks, two plus two equaled four. In the Guston, two plus two never made less than five."

The difference was presence, a sort of critical mass of felt energy that Irwin began to believe was linked to a physicality that transcended imagery.

Traditional representational painting has an illusion of deep space, neatly divided into foreground, middle ground or background. The brush strokes and individual shapes are merely in service to this convention.

But "when painting is more about painting," Irwin said, "everything touches everything else. And what happens? These things are not neutral. Do [abutting strokes of paint] come up to each other softly? Do they push on each other?"

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