Robert Irwin was the keynote speaker at the Parsons conference, “Aftertaste 2011: Immaterial Environments,” this past weekend. His lecture, “On the Nature of Abstraction,” was a meditation on the “mechanics of experience.” Sitting on a simple stool with his typical sunglasses (he has glaucoma) and baseball cap, Irwin begins the lecture by claiming to be dumfounded by the praise that was lavished by Jonsara Ruth and Sanford Kwinter who handled his introductions. Irwin then began an hour of speaking and drawing which was both humble in presentation and humbling in clarity and power.

On the chalkboard wall behind him he writes the following list:

Sentient Being              Cognitive Self
Immaterial                      Material
Visceral                           Cerebral
Perception                      Conception
Feelings                          Thinking
Beauty                            Truth
Actual                              Factual

Irwin explores Edward Husserl‘s ”phenomenological reduction.” He recalls the simple optical trick most of us have experienced — there is a red triangle which we concentrate on and, when it’s removed, there is a green after-image. Irwin says the green is more brilliant to us because the red is “coded.” We understand red and don’t need to actively engage in its perception. The green is brilliant because it’s “phenomenologically experienced in a direct manner.” It’s the relationship and tension between the experience of the sentient being and the cognitive self that is a miracle for Irwin. “What more could an artist or human want than to examine the complexity and richness in this tension and use this inquiry to ask how the world is constructed and also how can it be otherwise?” There’s no answer, but it’s a beautiful conundrum.

The history of abstraction in modern art is one of “phenomenal abstraction.” Irwin shows a slide pairing the painting The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David with White on White by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, explaining that during a hundred years we moved from a pictorial, recognizable approach to the “nature of seeing” to dealing with a “desert of pure feelings,” as Malevich would later claim. This is a fascinating history.

Irwin then highlights the progression through to Piet Mondrian’s work, in which we see a very linear, gradual movement from pictorial work into that of pure energy. This is not an exercise in abstraction, but an observation about the nature of seeing. Modern art had witnessed almost the end of the pictorial and arrived at the world of pure relations. Mies’ famous dictum “less is more” was actually “Less is more, only when less is the sum total of more.” This is a world of relationships. It’s a pursuit of stripping experience down to its essence. Unfortunately, as a style in the hands of everyday practitioners, it became a “vacuous style and died.” It takes a meditation over a long period of time to understand things; it takes a hands-on approach for intense pursuit.

The ability to create so much power with less really is a reflection of the power of a human being and the act of seeing. Irwin now describes his meditation over a long period of time, describing how he spent two years moving lines on paintings up or down by a quarter of an inch to try and find how this small act reorganized the whole painting (see image at top). These line paintings gave way to the “dot” paintings which Irwin claimed was the best thing he had done in his life at that point. This field of pure energy was a work that the “eye couldn’t solve and thus the eye was caught up in the continuous process of looking.”

Despite the personal satisfaction in these paintings, Irwin was now confronted with the frame. He had succeeded in painting a work that had no subject and no mark, but was structured and contained in a frame. This frame had never been questioned in the history of painting, but was in direct contrast to the way we experience the world. ”There are no frames in the world.”

This brings Irwin to his continual focus – the mechanics of experience and how all perception is subjective. The world is not given to us, we actively construct it. We construct it by valuing certain things over others in our perceptive system. We notice some things and not others. In this sense, perception is the foundation of ecology. ”What we place a value on we let into our lives and care for.” Think of the language describing the desert: desolate and solitary. This language was written by early pioneers who were homesick for wet landscapes and this language came back and created policy and structured cultural values. (This idea was actually offered by Dean Bill Morrish in the roundtable discussion, but fits Irwin’s long standing interest in the capacity for pure experience in the desert.)

Irwin concludes his lecture by claiming that “art in public places is bullshit. It’s just another form of graffiti.” For an artist working the world, the question is simply: “Does it work?” Irwin also ends by wondering aloud whether “we will we honor the ecology of our world and value it” or just screw it up like we have been doing? Both of these questions come back to our experiences in the world. As designers of public and private space, we are charged with revealing and honoring this relationship.

Check out some of Irwin’s recent work.

This guest post is by Andrew Zientek, RLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) II candidate, Harvard GSD. 

Image credits (1) Robert Irwin / Transformational Tools Energy and Mind, (2) Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon / Wikipedia, (3) Suprematist Composition: White on White, Kazimir Malevich /

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