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Art / Robert Irwin, BS, and the importance of questions

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My nom­i­na­tion for All-Time Best Moment In An Art Doc­u­men­tary has to be the "Bull­shit!" scene in Con­cert Of Wills: Mak­ing The Get­ty Cen­ter. Abstract-artist-turned-land­scape-design­er Robert Irwin lit­er­al­ly calls bull­shit on archi­tect Richard Meier dur­ing an impor­tant Get­ty Cen­ter plan­ning ses­sion. [The object of their dis­agree­ment is Irwin's gar­den design, pic­tured at right. Thx, brew­books.] Design Observ­er's Michael Bierut sums it up nice­ly in an arti­cle called "On (Design) Bull­shit:"

The [Get­ty Foun­da­tion], against Meier's advice, has brought in artist Robert Irwin to cre­ate the Center's cen­tral gar­den. The film­mak­ers are there to record the unveil­ing of Irwin's pro­pos­al, and Meier's dis­taste is evi­dent. The artist's bias for whim­si­cal organ­ic forms, his dis­re­gard for the architecture's rig­or­ous orthonog­ra­phy, and per­haps even his Detroit Tigers base­ball hat all rub Richard Meier the wrong way, and he and his team of archi­tects begin a rea­soned, strong­ly-felt cri­tique of the pro­posed plan. Irwin, sens­ing (cor­rect­ly, as it turns out) that he has the client in his pock­et, lis­tens patient­ly and then says, "You want my response?"His response is the worst accu­sa­tion you can lodge against a design­er: "Bull­shit."

If I recall cor­rect­ly, Meier is speech­less, and the mood of the doc­u­men­tary shifts quite sig­nif­i­cant­ly. Meier's per­son­al­i­ty and view­point had dom­i­nat­ed (is "dom­i­neered" a word?) ear­li­er scenes, he main­tains a sort of icy dis­tance in sub­se­quent scenes. (Dis­clo­sure: While I respect Meier, I'm not a fan of his work, espe­cial­ly the Get­ty, and the doc­u­men­tary makes clear that he is, umm, a dick). Irwin, on the oth­er hand, I've always loved, espe­cial­ly his dot paint­ings. I'm cur­rent­ly read­ing Lawrence Weschsler's biog­ra­phy of Irwin, See­ing Is For­get­ting the Name of the Thing One Sees, and it con­tains some use­ful back­ground and con­text to the "Bull­shit!" scene. It also com­pli­cates it; the more I read, the more Irwin and Meier seem to have quite a lot in com­mon. I'd always assumed that Irwin's vision was the irra­tional, organ­ic coun­ter­point to Meier's ratio­nal, geo­met­ric forms. The book makes clear that Irwin has quite a lot of the ratio­nal geom­e­try on the brain him­self. Per­haps they were just too sim­i­lar to get along.A large por­tion of the book is ded­i­cat­ed to Irwin's dis­cus­sion of his own process … My favorite pas­sage involves Irwin's expla­na­tions of the fits and starts that char­ac­ter­ized his out­put, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the dot paint­ing phase:

"Most of the time, I didn't have any idea where it was going; I had no intel­lec­tu­al clar­i­ty as to what it was I thought I was doing … 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."Actually, dur­ing those years in the mid­six­ties," he dou­bled back on his for­mu­la­tion, "the answers seemed to mat­ter less and less: I was becom­ing much more of a ques­tion per­son than an answer per­son … The thing that real­ly struck me as I got into devel­op­ing my inter­est in the area of ques­tions," Irwin con­tin­ued, "is the degree to which as a cul­ture we are geared for just the oppo­site. We are past-mind­ed, in the sense that all of our sys­tems of mea­sure are devel­oped and in a sense depen­dent upon a kind of phys­i­cal res­o­lu­tion. We tag our renais­sances at the high­est lev­el of per­for­mance, where­as it's fair­ly clear to me that once the ques­tion is raised, the per­for­mance is some­what inevitable, almost just a mop­ping-up oper­a­tion, mere­ly a mat­ter of time."

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