Skip to the content.

may be of particular interest if you are: trying to make sense of contemporary art; visiting Dia Beacon or the Getty Museum; and/or looking for your next favorite nonfiction book.

I loved the book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. I started reading it without a particular interest in its topics, but soon the book and its subject won me over to thinking that the questions they were asking are the best possible questions.

Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees is about the influential contemporary artist Robert Irwin, whom I hadn’t heard of before reading. The title, wordy as it is, distills one of Irwin’s core beliefs: that we walk around with very detailed ideas about how the world is, which blots out our ability to actually see.

Irwin spent his career, starting in the 1950s, focused on the act of perceiving. He flipped my normal conception of art:

“What stays in the museum is only the art-object, not valueless, but not the value of art. The art is what has happened to the viewer.”

Relatedly, he felt strongly that viewers of his work should not be able to say what it is “about” (neither “a forest scene” nor “3 big red stripes on a white background”). He wanted his art to have “no existence beyond [the viewer’s] participation.” If you can’t describe what a work of art is about, then you stand a better chance of remembering how it made you feel. What it evoked inside of you.

Irwin piece at Dia Beacon Full Room Skylight – Scrim V, currently on view at Dia Beacon

Here’s one of my favorite examples from Irwin’s career. In one museum, Irwin was given the space of an unaesthetic room with a pole in the center. After considering many approaches to the room, he finally put a simple strip of black tape around the room, and that was his project done. A perceptive art critic described the impact:

“The resultant black rectangle was not what you ‘looked at’ - there was actually nothing to focus on - but soon it brought the space into focus with a distinct visual snap. From inside, the light in the area seemed different, more substantial, and the wall color began to shift ambiguously. From outside the area, the tape seemed to lift the plane of the floor upward in your field of vision, and it also made the room seem wider and shallower than it really was. Consequently, a person moving toward the back wall was soon out of whack perspectivally, because the figure receded faster than the room. […] It is hard to know whether the tape was actually doing all of this or whether, having become visually conscious enough to see the black rectangle, you simply continued to experience the room with this heightened awareness.”

My favorite proof of how effective the project was: Some employees who had worked at the museum for years asked Irwin if he’d installed the pole, which had always been there!

Irwin took perception admirably seriously:

  • He noticed that squares don’t look square, so he made his square paintings on custom canvases of 82.5”by 84.5”, dimensions which do read as square. He also ballooned the center of his canvases forward so the edges seemed to recede away.
  • He’d alternate working and sleeping in 15 minute bursts so that he could always keep working with fresh eyes.
  • In trying to make white paintings, he noticed that they didn’t read solid patches of white, but rather as a void. So he painted alternating tiny red and green dots - more in the center, and less in the edges. The colors canceled each other out, but those interactions created an energy that felt like hovering.

In explaining these techniques, Irwin says, “Maybe I was just gradually developing a trust in the act itself, that somehow, if it were pursued legitimately, the questions it would raise would be legitimate and the answers would have to exist somewhere, would be worth pursuing, and would be of consequence.”

The book follows Irwin’s life chronologically, pulled from 30 years of conversations between Irwin and the book’s author, Lawrence Weschler. The structure itself is interesting: Most of it is Irwin getting to talk, but Weschler is a skilled moderator, always present to interrupt if needed with the question you most want to ask. (Brief digression to note that he’s the brother of Toni Weschler, author of Taking Charge of Your Fertility!) Do you know the feeling of having a fast-paced, rangy conversation and wondering: wow, what of this will I possibly be able to articulate or even remember later? Weschler captures all of the leaps in thought and mounting excitement lucidly - especially impressive because it’s tracing 50 years of evolving thought about Irwin’s very abstract ideas.

One of the most visible choices in the book is when, after a lot of heady discussion of the nature of perception, Weschler breaks to tell you about Irwin’s love of betting on horse races. There are pages of description of how Irwin thinks about his bets, and at first you think it’s a treat just to get out of the intense, monastic studio and into the sun and a roaring crowd, and then you realize that this sequence has secretly told you more than anything else about how Irwin sees the world.

Finally, some sparklets: miscellaneous ideas from this wide-ranging book:

  • on museums and shifting missions: “MoMA started out as an interactive institution, as a sort of forum for dialog” but then they did too good of a job. By nurturing so many important modern artists, they acquired a collection, which they never intended to. So the museum had to stop being that interactive institution and turn instead to taking care of its collection.
  • on tradeoffs: As Irwin puts it: “[A]s the questions go up, the performance level goes down”. The more daring or novel his questions were, the cruder his explorations of them were. When he noticed he’d gotten familiar enough with a process to turn out technically perfect works of art, that was his indicator that he was done answering a particular question and should look for the next thing. (I think about this at work sometimes, when trying to document fast-moving projects.)
  • on timing: Irwin designed the gardens of the Getty Museum. After years of hard work, the museum was scheduled to be officially opened in December. Wasn’t he sad that his beautiful garden would be barren for the grand opening? “December with its haunted, mute, skeletal quality is just as much the garden as June or July with their riot of color. And in any case, it’s going to take three, seven years for the trees to grow in, the underbrush to fill out. That’s part of what the garden’s about. If you’re going to experience it in all of its qualities, you have to keep coming back. A garden is a commitment.”