I enjoyed this Robert Irwin biography, an artist I knew nothing about. The opening chapters draws you into a world of mid-century California. Irwin’s teenage years of cars, girls and endless summers. Maybe it was the beautiful weather I was experiencing, or all that Hollywood propaganda. But those initial chapters made me want to ride my bike down the Esplanade with the Beach Boys blearing.

Picture of the cover of seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.

Robert’s early work, those abstract expressionism paintings and that whole phase of reductionism? It helped me frame much of the ‘art’ that originates from the American west coast. Lawrence Weschler (the author), made a direct contrast with the east coast. But for me, it helped frame much of the technology that originates from California. Everything from those sleek apple products that I’m typing this into, to those elegant little Google search boxes. Right up to those pristine white cylinders that SpaceX use to catapult stuff into orbit.

What caught me off guard was the loose framework that Robert used to evaluate his paintings.

There’s no such thing as a neutral gesture, because by the very fact of its being there, it draws a certain amount of perceptual attention. Let’s say it drags a weight of 0.06 in the overall thing; well, then it’s got to give back – I don’t know how much – and some elements contribute more than others. If it’s drawing 0.06 attention, let’s say it’s got to give back 0.12 in energy. Otherwise there’s no reason for its being there. Now, some areas are staging areas. But there can also be a critical gesture, where like 0.06 can translate to 0.20 or 0.25, a major move, a major gesture. I mean, certain things are just support. Everything doesn’t maximize all the time. There’s a kind of working trade-off. But there’s no such thing as neutral. If your 0.06 is just giving back 0.06, then you’re losing ground.

There is a lot to unpack in this quote, but Irwin was suggesting that marks on a canvas consumed resources. Not only stuff like physical space, but also perceptual effort. The viewer is expending effort to perceive his painting. If a mark didn’t return more ‘energy’ than what gets expended in perception then it was a wasted gesture.

I know. Energy? What the hell. Is that some sort of karmic nonsense? Nah, Irwin was using ‘energy’ as a word to represent some sort of perceived intensity. Hrmm. Maybe this is a better way of explaining it: Imagine taking a photograph of a car speeding past. Without careful framing, most of the movement becomes lost. The photo is a single snapshot in time, yet the car moved in front of the camera for several seconds. There are techniques that can help preserve some of this motion in a photo. Like a motion blur: keeping the car in focus, while blurring the background.

Rendering of a blue tesla model-x racing along a river. Featuring heavy use of motion blur.

Or perhaps it is more like reading this essay, you are expending effort to perceive my thoughts on a book. If you are able to come to a similar conclusion after reading these words then the essay worked. But if i’m able to convey the same ideas with fewer words, then it becomes better and easier to understand. The words consume less perceptual effort and deliver more ‘energy’ or information.

This gets us to my two favourite chapters in the book, ‘Art and Science’ and ‘Playing the horses’. It was super fun to learn about Irwin’s tours of Lockheed, IBM and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Not to mention getting to meet Richard Feynman. Although the important meeting was between Irwin and Dr Ed Wortz, a physiological psychologist. (James Turrell was also there, but more on him later). I really love how perception science influenced Irwin’s work.

Allowing people to perceive their perceptions – making them aware of their perceptions. We’ve decided to investigate this and to make people conscious of their consciousness…

If we define art as part of the realm of experience, we can assume that after a viewer looks at a piece, he “leaves” with the art, because the “art” has been experienced. We are dealing with the limits of an experience – not, for instance with the limits of painting.

I guess this is why, for a big part of his career, Irwin wouldn’t permit any photographs of his work. A picture could never capture all those perceptual nuances that defined the experience.

These nuances come up again in ‘Playing the horses’, an excellent chapter on how Irwin funded his line of inquiry… By gambling on horse races. While Robert used other words for it, he was hinting at naturalistic decision making.

I’ve had this happen so many times, it’s the only way to explain it – you run your hand over the race. All this information is logically there, but there’s something wrong. You don’t know why something is wrong, but something is not correct. You can’t put your finger on it, but say, like in this instance, I say to myself ‘Something in this race is suspect, it doesn’t feel right.’

This is a bit like nursing war stories. Where an experienced nurse is able to pre-empt a patient needing urgent care. The logical data, all their sensors and formal observations tell them only part of the story. But after years of paying attention to their patients, they build up additional perceptual queues. They might not be able to logically explain them ‘oh the patient was perspiring’, it is more often explained as a ‘gut feeling’ or a ‘reaction’.

I think this is why many artists, including Irwin have difficulty describing their work. They often grab for ‘energy’ or ‘aesthetic’ to describe a collection of subtle perceptual prompts.

After the learning about his ideas on funding and his approach to gambling, we are taken on an unrelenting path of reduction and minimalism. Until it all kind of disappears, Irwin heads out to the desert and I got a little lost. It wasn’t until I got into the chapters on Robert’s landscape work that I started to find my feet again.

The landscapes are my favourite style of his. I love the rusting, industrial hunks of Core-Ten steel up against lush green meadows of grass. A landscaping idea that has exploded in popularity since his early 80’s experiments with the materials. Plus the story of how the garden at the Getty Center was excellent.

Picture of Robert Irwin's rebar tree set in the wider getty center garden.

Which brings us back to James Turrell. I think he definitely, back in the science and art days helped introduce Irwin to psychology. This whole school of thought opened up Robert’s ideas on perception. But Turrell dropped out of the collaboration in 1969 and went on his own way. Until their paths crossed again when the people from Getty where hoping to get both Irwin and Turrell to work on their garden. Turrell proposed a series of observatory rooms in an area above the garden, with crisp, square holes slotted into their ceilings. Much like many of Turrell’s other ‘skyspaces’. Unfortunately the observatory rooms ran into seismic-safety concerns and Turrell drifted away from the project.

What is cool though, is that some 25 years later Turrell got to realise this idea of a garden observatory with a crisp, square hole slotted in the ceiling. In 2015, ‘Amarna’ was added to the rooftop garden of the Museum of Old and New Art. Which incidentally is a building that was also largely funded by the proceeds of gambling on horse racing.

Picture of James Turrell's 'Amarna' installed on the roof of MONA, Tasmania.

Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees is an excellent read. I give it four out of five stars.

Picture of four stars out of five.