As I understand it, Irwin is an artist who mainly worked with light and it’s affects on the viewer. He actually wanted to paint a painting without making a mark or a line. He wanted to teach people how to “see.” He was constantly figuring out how to make what he made look like nothing and still something.
Imagine spending a lifetime attempting to figure out how to teach people to look deeply, notice, engage, and see… what would you make to do that? How would you help people to pay attention? What would you want people to pay attention to?
Artists make work to communicate.
A portrait artist wants people to see people (usually). A landscape artist is portraying the world, land…in some form. Irwin wanted to make people curious about what they were seeing.
I was able to see some of Irwin’s work, while studying for my MFA. What I saw defies description, because as soon as I move or blink or breathe what I would see would be different from the moment before. This is sort of like the breath of yoga during poses, no breath is ever the same. No moment in life can ever happen again. The moment exists, until it doesn’t.
Irwin began his career as a painter. He is described as a conceptual artist and yet I do not think he thinks of himself as a conceptual artist at all. What he wants is for people to figure out the figuring out of what it is they are looking at. The art world is full of art-speak and philosophical mambo jumbo—Irwin’s work moves beyond these explanations.
Conditional art, with a capital “C”, is what you might think conditional might mean—does art look and say the same thing in different situations, at different times, with different people’s eyes? Personally I wonder, isn’t all art conditional? For example, a piece of gum that I chewed and my dog peed on and the car ran over and that I then pick up and I place it in a gallery on a wall in a frame—can this be art? Sure. Is this true only if I say it is art? I don’t know. But can saying that a chewed-peed-smashed-piece of gum is art really make it art? What is art? Who says it’s art? I say it is, when I make this thing.
Conditional means there are NO answers only more questions.
Many times Irwin kept working during his career and made nothing of value. Nothing that he felt he could share with an audience. He literally worked so hard to figure out how to change people’s perception that he sometimes “painted” himself into “nothing.” He called it a corner, or devastatingly “the end of his career.” The end never came to pass, he is 92 years old now, because he kept being curious, kept asking questions, kept figuring out ways to show us what seeing can be. At times he was not able to produce work that helped people to see, but he kept at it, and at it.
Ya gotta admire this! The endless curiosity. This desire to help people to see while simultaneously questioning what they are seeing.
Art generally has a frame—you can walk around it, figure it out, there may be a literal frame, or you can study the artists intent. In Irwin’s world, art is all about seeing what you see… and then seeing what you see in a next moment… Each moment changing the last because when you see you learn something, even if you don’t know that you are. I cannot really say more, he is taking his lifetime to say what he needs to say and he is asking us to see, to notice, to pay attention.
We need this more than ever.
This philosophy of noticing, of seeing, of paying close attention—we need this right now as a country and as humanity works our way through COVID-19, global warming, racial injustice issues, human issues, political land mines, and more.
Thanks for reading. Please take the time to pause and see. There might be some extra meanings in what is is I am trying to say here. Think for yourself, make art. Be curious. Make good decisions. Namasté.