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Robert Irwin on the Mechanics of Experience

Robert Irwin took the stage as the featured speaker at the recent Parsons conference, “Aftertaste 2011: Immaterial Environments,” delivering a captivating lecture titled “On the Nature of Abstraction.” Seated on a modest stool, sporting his signature sunglasses (a necessity due to glaucoma) and a baseball cap, Irwin kicked off the lecture expressing his genuine surprise at the lavish praise bestowed upon him by Jonsara Ruth and Sanford Kwinter during introductions. What followed was an hour of spoken reflection and artistic expression, marked by both humility in presentation and a remarkable blend of clarity and power.


The backdrop for Irwin’s discourse was a chalkboard wall adorned with a thought-provoking list, contrasting concepts such as Sentient Being vs. Cognitive Self, Immaterial vs. Material, and Beauty vs. Truth. This visual aid set the stage for Irwin’s exploration of Edward Husserl’s “phenomenological reduction,” with a focus on the intricate mechanics of human experience. Drawing on a common optical illusion involving a red triangle and a subsequent green after-image, Irwin delved into the idea that the familiar is often “coded,” dulling our active engagement in perception. The brilliance of the green, he argued, lies in its direct phenomenological experience—a miraculous interplay between the sentient being and the cognitive self.

As Irwin navigated the historical tapestry of abstraction in modern art, he presented a slide pairing Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon with Kazimir Malevich’s White on White. This juxtaposition illustrated a century-long shift from a pictorial, recognizable approach to a “desert of pure feelings,” as Malevich eloquently put it. Irwin further guided the audience through Piet Mondrian’s linear progression, showcasing a gradual movement from pictorial work to the exploration of pure energy—an observation on the nature of seeing itself.

The quest for less as more, encapsulated in Mies van der Rohe’s dictum, became a central theme for Irwin. He cautioned against the reductionist approach turning into a vacuous style when wielded by everyday practitioners, emphasizing the necessity of prolonged meditation and hands-on exploration for true comprehension. Irwin shared his personal journey of spending two years minutely adjusting lines on paintings, evolving into the creation of “dot” paintings—a culmination he deemed the pinnacle of his achievements at that time.

However, Irwin’s satisfaction with these creations was challenged by the concept of the frame. Despite successfully crafting works devoid of subject and mark, the confinement within a frame clashed with the boundless nature of human experience. For Irwin, this realization underscored his ongoing exploration into the mechanics of experience and the inherently subjective nature of perception. He asserted that the world is not given to us; we actively construct it by valuing certain elements in our perceptual system.

In a thought-provoking twist, Irwin linked perception to the foundation of ecology, emphasizing that what we value shapes our lives. He referenced the language used to describe the desert—desolate and solitary—which originated from early pioneers yearning for wet landscapes. This language, in turn, influenced policy and cultural values, fitting seamlessly into Irwin’s long-standing interest in the potential for pure experience in the desert.

Closing his lecture with bold statements, Irwin dismissed “art in public places” as mere “bullshit,” equating it to another form of graffiti. He challenged artists and designers to ask a simple question: “Does it work?” His concluding ponderings revolved around whether we will honor and value the ecology of our world or continue down a path of degradation—a reflection of our collective experiences in the world. Designers of public and private spaces, according to Irwin, are entrusted with the responsibility of revealing and honoring this intricate relationship. This unique perspective was shared by Andrew Zientek, a Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) II candidate at Harvard GSD.

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