Thursday, August 27, 2009

Guest Post | Matt Olson

No hay camino / se hace camino al andar (There is no road, the road is made by walking) -- From a poem by Antonio MachadoImage


The Argentinean writer/poet Jorge Louis Borges believed that every moment in your life, whether mundane or dramatic, becomes a part of your autobiographical content, and thus, your creative output and spirit. I remembered his theory recently when a Landscape Architecture grad student stopped by Rolu for a studio visit. He seemed puzzled when, after asking about my favorite landscape architects, I explained that I don’t really have any. I told him I’d rather talk about art and music and architecture and literature... and so it will go for me as a contributor here. It’s my hope to get at the spirit of what Borges meant by exploring and celebrating the things that influence my life and work as a landscape designer.

So it’s perfect timing then that The Walker Art Center is currently showing a piece called Slant/Light/Volume, by Robert Irwin, an artist whose work has profoundly affected my sense of space and how I design. It was commissioned in 1971 to celebrate the opening of the, then new, Edward Larrabee designed building that served as the museum’s home until its expansion in 2005. The, work hasn’t been shown since and I highly recommend you a visit. It is a stunning, gentle, quiet installation that almost forces you to be meditative and it's a perfect example of what makes Robert Irwin one of my favorite artists.

Throughout the fifties and into the sixties Robert Irwin was an abstract expressionist painter. While he himself doesn’t look back fondly on the work he was making during his early years, he was an artist of note and was affiliated with the eminent Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles which was a representative of the west coast’s art avant-garde (they gave Andy Warhol his first solo show; paintings were $100.) During the sixties, Irwin started growing more and more restless as a painter and it was around this time that he, in his own words, first “painted something that went beyond the edges of the canvas.” He “looked out into the world and saw that there were no frames around things”. A transformation began with his work and he became one of the founding members of the West Coast Light and Space Movement. He wanted to take the ‘object’ out of art and he began exploring how he might create a ‘set of conditions’ or an environment that could become art.


Once he was free of the canvas, he never looked back. He started manipulating light, shadow and space in large installations with ephemeral materials like theater scrim and other fabric. He challenged how we’re used to seeing and perceiving things. Slant/Light/Volume at the Walker is a perfect example of this and it’s great thinking back over his career with this piece in mind. He has continued to explore the connections between the sentient and the intellectual through perception bending installations as well as work in architecture and landscape design at Dia: Beacon and also the Getty in Los Angeles.

I could go on about Slant/Light/Volume and other elements of Irwin’s work but, it’s not just his art that excites me. It’s his spirit. I’ve come to think of him as a teacher, an aesthetic philosopher, even as a mentor. While I love his art, it’s his sense of the journey, his constant reinvention, his insatiably curious tone and spirit, along with his positive nature that make him such a frequent presence in my thoughts. It's the way the scope of his work seems to widen and at the very same time it becomes more focused. Ultimately, his work seems to have influenced his life as much as his life has influenced his work.


What I love most about my chosen career is that I know both my life and work will be best served if I stay a perpetual student. I look to people like Irwin for inspiration as they continue to challenge themselves and thus us, on how to think about and see the world. If you find yourself at the Walker's Slant/Light/Volume, I encourage you to bask not only in the light and ethereal beauty the work creates but also in the ideas and spirit that led Robert Irwin to make it. Doing so might help you use art for what I think its grandest purpose can be, improving your life.

Finally, upon thinking about Irwin as more than just an artist, as a man who's traveling a road of reduction I propose adding the following words to the title of this post, then using them as a tool to shape each day: “There is no road, the road is made by walking... and walking backwards sometimes take you forward.”

4 comments:

Mark F. said...

Well done Matt. Open-hearted, just like you. Interesting that the Borges bit about every aspect of our lives adding to our "autobiographical content" precedes the part about irwin wanting to get rid of 'the object.' It made me think of the poet Robert Creeley's phrase "Form is never any more than an extension of content." That somehow the perpetually unresolved creative tension between objects and their meanings ends up being the 'place' we all share.

Andrew said...

Very nicely written. I was taken into that space by the mood of your writing style and felt like I could experience his work as if I were there in person. Thanks for exposing me to Irwin's work!

Tom said...

Thanks for letting us know it was back! How many precious wonders the Walker must have packed away... I'm going to Free Thursday and checking it out!

Phillip said...

As much as I like the concept of the piece, my experience of the recent installation was disappointing. Since Irwin's original was tailor made for the Barnes' galleries (which are still there but horribly chopped up into dark little rooms and hallways) I'm perplexed why the piece was installed in one of the new Herzog galleries. A much taller space, the curators needed to build a large bulkhead down from the ceiling - which interrupts the horizontal expansiveness of the piece. And then there is the column, which again distracts from the purity of the lit scrim. Most upsetting is the grey line of tape on the floor which the Walker installs so gallery attendants know when to bark at enthusiastic patrons to stand away from the art. Unlike the wonderful photo posted on this blog (from the original Barnes gallery installation), Irwin fans are now kept a good 20 feet away from the surface of the scrim. In short, I got much more out of the experience of reading about the piece and looking at historic photos than the much compromised "real" experience of the latest installation.