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Posts tagged "robert irwin"

Aug 08, 2013
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May 13, 2013
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Jeremy Denk on piano lessons, mentors, and teaching

My wife saved me this New Yorker piece by pianist Jeremy Denk on his history of studying the piano, and his relationships with his teachers and students. It’s a fascinating (and paywalled) read.

He recalls being in school with a dozen teachers telling him a dozen different things (Padgett Powell: “What is one doing in a classroom finally but peddling his biases?”) and how he “slipped into the dangerous state of craving a guru, someone who would tie it all together.” When he found this guru, his “idea of music merged with the idea of him.”

On the complicated exchange between teacher and student:

When you give ideas to students, they tend to either ignore them or to exaggerate them. The first is distilled futility, but the second is grotesque: there is the student, trying to be you with all his youthful might. You look on with horror at this knockoff, this puppet—yourself to the nth degree as interpreted by someone who doesn’t know all the other parts of you. Then a thought occurs: what if this really is you, and that only through the imitation of this struggling student do you see what you’re really about.

He goes on to explain “how much teaching resembles therapy,” with the teacher simultaneously “destroying complacency without destroying confidence,” and how, in the end, the student must separate from teacher because “the only person who can solve the labyrinth of yourself is you.”

“Practicing…is not just repetition but concentrating and burning every detail into your nervous system.” […] Learning to play the piano is learning to reason with your muscles. […] You don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice—the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.

cf. Robert Irwin, in Seeing Is Forgetting The Name of the Thing One Sees:

All the time my ideal of teaching has been to argue with people on behalf of the idea that they are responsible for their own activities, that they are really, in a sense, the question, that ultimately they _are_what it is they have to contribute. The most critical part of that is for them to begin developing the ability to assign their own tasks and make their own criticism in direct relation to their own needs and not in light of some abstract criteria. Because once you learn how to make your own assignments instead of relying on someone else, then you have learned the only thing you really need to get out of school, that is, you’ve learned how to learn. You’ve become your own teacher.

Dec 11, 2012
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The artist vs. the scientist

I am a scientist
I seek to understand me
All of my impurities
and evils yet unknown
Guided By Voices

thenearsightedmonkey:

Because artists and scientists don’t hang around each other quite enough, they accumulate odd imaginations about each other. Here a great scientist talks about an artist who imagines that scientists have a inferior imaginative take on things.

It was fun to find out while reading Lawrence Weschler’s books on Robert Irwin and David Hockney that both artists spent a good amount of time hanging out with scientists and felt a special kinship with them.

Robert Irwin in Seeing Is Forgetting The Name Of The Thing One Sees:

Everyone involved on a particular level of asking questions, whether he’s a physicist or a philosopher or an artist, is essentially involved in the same questions. They are universal in that sense… although we may use different methods to come at them…

The scientist in the video above is the great Richard Feynman. Here’s an excerpt of what he says:

The way I think of what we are doing is, we are exploring, we are trying to find out as much as we can about the world. People say to me, “Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?” No I am not. I am just looking to find out more about the world.

Hockney, in True To Life:

Finding out that [art and science are] not that different has been very exciting for me. The more I’ve read of mathematicians and physicists, the more engrossed I’ve become. They really seem like artists to me. One’s struck how it’s almost a notion of beauty which seems to be guiding them, how at the frontiers of inquiry, contemporary physics even seems to be approaching and acknowledging eternal mysteries.

Feynman explains why the unknown doesn’t bother him:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong… I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe…

This is very much the attitude that the writer Donald Barthelme said was essential to the creation of art:

The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do… The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention… Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing…

Irwin says the process of inquiry that an artist goes through is a lot like a chemist’s, in that “What you do when you start to do a painting is that you begin with a basic idea, a hypothesis of what you’re setting out to do,” and then the rest is a lot of experimenting and trial-and-error.

But there are some essential differences, mainly that it’s hard to retrace an artist’s thought process (although, some artists leave a better paper trail than others…):

“Once the scientist is finished, you can look back over his notes to consider the precise sequence of yes-no weighings which brought him to his solution. It’s all quite logical and structured… The artist, on the other hand, keeps no such record (although historians would love it if he did). Rather, he literally paints over his errors. Six months later, when you ask him, ‘Why did you stop there?’ and he replies, ‘Well, because it felt right,’ his answer may not seem acceptable from a logical point of view… but in fact it’s quite reasonable. Given the basic fundamentals, he’s tried just about every damn combination possible, every way possible, until he’s finally arrived at what makes sense to him. The critical difference is that the artist measures from his intuition, his feeling. In other words, he uses himself as the measure.

(Source: xyvch)

Dec 10, 2012
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Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees + True To Life by Laurence Weschler

Two fascinating books that really must be read together…1

When the artist David Hockney read Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin soon after its publication, in 1982, he telephoned the author to say that while he disagreed with virtually everything in it, he couldn’t get it out of his mind. He invited Weschler to his Hollywood Hills studio to discuss it, initiating what has become a series of engrossing dialogues, here gathered together for the first time.

Weschler explains in the introduction to the Hockney book:

For some twenty-five years now, whenever I have written about one or the other of these two giants of contemporary art… the other one has called me to tell me, “Wrong, wrong, wrong.” The two have never met or conversed in person (straddling that Southern California scene like Schoenberg and Stravinsky before them, each seemingly oblivious of the other’s existence though in fact deepy seized by the work); instead they have been carrying on this quite vivide argument for over two decades, through me, as it were.

It’s fascinating to juxtapose excerpts from the two books — there are so many things to cross-reference, so many subjects that come up again and again.

One thing that fascinated me is the way in which each artist’s process is driven by asking questions (both artists in the course of their careers have befriended scientists, and waxed poetic about the connections between science and art in terms of inquiry), but how the way each goes about his inquiry has direct economic implications.

At one point, Irwin talks about the importance of artists structuring their finances “in such a way that they do not have to rely on the sale of their art”: “Look…it’s really quite simple. Pursuing the questions which art provokes is a long-term activity that necessarily needs to be free of short-term measures and rewards.” This take is an outgrowth of Irwin’s process: he spends a great deal of his artistic inquiry not actually making anything tangible. In fact, his installations are of such a fleeting and ephemeral nature that “he simply was not producing much by way of salable items.” Irwin admits, “I spen[d] days, weeks, months finishing things no one is ever going to see,” and, “My stuff, my offering, for the most part simply isn’t going to be there to pass on because…almost all my more recent steps have essentially been erased.”

Hockney on the other hand, while working through his questions he is constantly making pictures, whether it be his photocollages, photocopier experiments, paintings, etc. He’s leaving a kind of paper trail behind, and a paper trail can be picked up and sold.2


  1. Oddly, my reading year has been a year of paired books: reading one book, then reading another that compliments it or cancels it out… 

  2. This isn’t to say he’s necessarily intentionally structuring his process in a way that produces salable items. (“I’m not so much interested in the mere objects I’m creating as in where they’re taking me, and all the work in the different media is part of that inquiry and part of that search.”) 

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