To See or Not to See: Learning from the Late Great Robert Irwin, Tourist Paintings, and What if Chris Burden Had Gone to Therapy

Welcome to “To See or Not to See,” a recurring column covering a handful of exceptional Los Angeles gallery and museum exhibitions—the good, the bad, and the criminally overrated—in easily digestible, bite-size pieces.

“What is the nature of the game we’re in?” the late Robert Irwin asked me during an interview in 2016. So began his standard 90-minute art school lecture, recounted in a nondescript McDonald’s in San Diego. It was riveting, to be honest. In Irwin’s telling, the story of modern art was a radical, heroic event: “100 years of dismantling pictorial reality” during which Kazimir Malevich had achieved a new artistic ground zero. Recognizing “nothing they knew or loved,” friends of the late Suprematist called his floating squares a desert. Malevich however, freed from the burden of pictorial representation, looked at his own paintings and saw what he described as “the supremacy of pure feeling.” “It’s not ‘I think therefore I am,’” Irwin said. “It’s ‘I feel, and therefore I think, and therefore I am.’ And that is the name of the game.”

Irwin, the pioneering Light and Space artist who died last October at the age of 95, had over the course of his decades-long career diligently unraveled the great mysteries of art. Yet there he was, having just finished a McMuffin, explaining it in the simplest terms. To me, his practice has always been a profoundly spiritual endeavor. In the 1960s, he had successively stripped his work of the conventions of art-making—he shed mark-making and the edges of the frame before abandoning his studio entirely—like a monastic journey of abandoning one’s material possessions. In his itinerant installations that sought communion with the elusive, ephemeral qualities of light, I saw the pious pursuit of the sublime. He minimized the imagery in his work to maximize its physicality, that ineffable feature that can’t be captured by photographs, but only felt in person. In that 90 minutes Irwin had imparted countless bits of wisdom, all of which boil down to the most uncomplicated rubric through which to view art: the simple desire to be moved.

“Art is about maximizing our understanding of feelings alongside thinking,” he said. “I feel, I think, therefore I am.” Irwin redefined my perception of the artist as the one who seeks art beyond the limits of that which we know and love, following their curiosity to its unknown ends. In this edition of “To See or Not to See,” that describes the way Paul Pfeiffer’s experiments in video show us the perversely religious subtext of our ordinary rituals of spectatorship. Or how Hugh Hayden imagines the queer future and comes to delightfully absurd conclusions. Taking us on her own journey of self-actualization, Barbara T. Smith embarked on a new art form called performance. So much of what artists do involves showing us the things we don’t see. “Part of my shtick,” Irwin often said, “is to make you aware of how fucking beautiful the world is.”





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