Lawrence Weschler: Between Irwin & Hockney
Talking to Lawrence Weschler can be momentarily nerve-wracking. He seems to know something about almost everything, which I do not. And I become acutely, head-spinningly aware of this fact in his presence. But one quickly realizes that he’s open and enthusiastic about sharing what he knows. Damn happy to talk to you, in fact. He’s an avuncular Buddha with a museum of curiosities in his head. When he speaks about his passions, about what he finds to be wonderful, about the people he knows (there are many), the excitement becomes palpable; viral, even. He reaches back and forth through time and across borders, extracting political dramas and enhancing artistic revelations, seeing everything and forgetting nothing, finding connections where no one else has and setting everything alight. The world becomes smaller, more enthralling and accessible, and just as his interdisciplinary intellect is deeply engaged with the world, his unique narrative voice deeply engages his readers. He speaks in little explosions which set off chain reactions of amazement. No kidding.
A New Yorker contributor for twenty years, a Pulitzer nominee for 1995’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner for 2008’s Everything that Rises, “Ren” Weschler currently divides his time between NYU’s Institute for the Humanities, the Chicago Humanities Festival, several publications as editor and author (including the Virginia Quarterly Review, curator at large for Wholphin — a DVD quarterly filed with rare and unseen films — and about a dozen other equally interesting things that you’d probably like to be doing too. His latest two books chronicle decades of conversation with two of the most dynamic artists and thinkers of our time, artists who themselves explode with originality and constantly question the way we see: Robert Irwin and David Hockney.
“Irwin has been incredibly important in getting people, artists in particular, to focus on presence as opposed to image, which tends to create these little hints of immediate marvel, and to privilege those marvels; And Hockney has made some of the great iconic images of our time. His painting is extraordinarily beautiful.”
My stunned silence paused the conversation here. It took a moment for me to realize that I was hearing first-hand accounts about artists I had admired for much of my adult life.
“In a way, the book titles really sum up their purviews and great contributions. For Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, that is, being present to this thing before you, shutting up, being quiet, paying attention and observing yourself observing and casting off all associations, which is the true art to him; And that Hockney has been so True to Life, even in the midst of incredible personal tragedies he has thrown himself in and embraced life continually, he has not despaired, he has not lost the savor of liveliness, and he lets you know this with his art. I guess that’s what I have to say about those two,” Ren laughs.
Through him, as Weschler excitedly points out in the opening of True to Life, the two artists have been arguing, though neither is likely to admit it.
“They’ve been having a fascinating conversation about what the task of art is right now, you know, if you take cubism seriously, which they both do. Both of them think of themselves as true heirs of cubism,” he told me, “viewing it as the most important ongoing project out of this ancient tradition, this historical art movement, and what’s funny is that they have constantly and fundamentally disagreed on what is at stake.”
It was funny to me that an argument about the importance of cubism was funny to Ren. It also made me wonder what wasn’t funny to him.
“For Irwin,” he continued, “cubism is the systematic flattening of subject: from Christ, (the king of kings), to this other king, to this burgher, to his maid, to her red shawl, to the color red, to the process of seeing red; the marriage of figure and ground, and thus the elimination of the painting itself. Hockney insists, however, that cubism was about saving figuration, saving painting, in fact, from photography, which falsely claimed to be able to accomplish figuration better and more objectively, though it couldn’t capture what was most important about painting: the existence of time, of multiple vantages which are more truthful to how we actually see the world, and the sense of lived experience.”
David Hockney and Robert Irwin have never parsed their opinions face to face, and Ren says it’s not likely that they will. “They’re seventy and eighty years old, respectively, and they are both in the prime of their lives, making their most important work to date and so incredibly busy. They are certainly very aware of each other, and that may be enough.” He’s taken to referring to them as matter and anti-matter, telling a story of when they were both in New York at the same time a few months ago, even on the same block. “I was just cringing. I was worried that they might run into each other and that would be it! The world would just end!”
In the early 1980’s while at UCLA, Ren was working on an oral history of Los Angeles artists when he came across an interview with Irwin, whom he had never heard of. Intrigued, he sent a note asking if Irwin had read The Primacy of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. “Irwin was at my door the very next day, and we basically had lunch together for the next four years. He just planted himself under this tree at the north campus library, and we would meet there sometimes three or four days a week.” Had they met any earlier, Weschler is convinced that Irwin would have had nothing to say to him, but at that particular moment Irwin was becoming intensely interested in reading philosophy, which happened to be one of Weschler’s specialties.
“It was fascinating to me that Irwin had, for the past ten or fifteen years, been working through this phenomenological reduction of the act of painting, and he was totally unschooled. He was just living it, but without any kind of philosophical method, and he was really very curious.” Weschler began to guide, to some extent, Irwin’s reading. Irwin, for his part, began telling Weschler stories about art and being an artist, and these conversations eventually led to Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, published in 1982. In February of this year the volume was largely expanded for re-issue to coincide with the release of True to Life, bringing at least the ideas of these two artists into close proximity.
That’s when the Irwin/Hockney/Weschler triumvirate began to coalesce. “After the book was published, I got a call from Hockney, who at that time I had never met but was certainly aware of,” Weschler said. “He invited me to his home in the Hollywood Hills and we had tea. It was all very nice. Then he told me that he had read the book and disagreed with almost everything in it, but said that he couldn’t get it out of his head, so he thought it would be a good idea to discuss the thing with me.”
They continued to talk, and eventually Hockney invited Ren to write a text for his new Cameraworks book, a collection of photo-collages attempting to squeeze as much meaning from the act of photography and the photograph itself, as he could. This was at a time when Hockney had come to a crossroads, as it were, feeling that he could no longer paint as he had up to that point in his career.
“He was a master of that kind of one-point perspective painting,” Weschler said, “but it felt like a straight jacket to him, and he basically spent the next 20 years — in his stage work, with the photo-collages, with his incredible scholarly pursuits about whether or not the old masters used optics, with his watercolors, with his fascination with Chinese scrolls, and with physics and so forth — trying to work through and wriggle his way out of that straight jacket of one-point perspective, which in fact we are all in.”
Weschler could get very worked up when digressing about being trapped in this straight jacket, voice cracking, ebbing, flowing, face getting red.
“Because of the photo-collage work, he has taken literally hundreds of thousands of snapshots, but it’s because he was trying to show what was wrong with photography. As he famously said at the time, ‘photography is ok if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops for a split second!’ but that’s not what the world is like.”
Ren continued, his voice going up in pitch as he became more excited, “He became convinced that cubism was an attempt to make a radical critique of this thing that was beginning to take over the world, which was this one-point perspective; whether with billboards, television, movies, or your computer screen, it all takes place in a narrowing tunnel of one-point perspective and holds you in it’s vice as if you were, in fact, a paralyzed Cyclops, whereas cubism was trying to imagine a world of multiple perspectives, of time, and finally, most importantly, he would argue, of space. Photography is very good at capturing surfaces but can’t capture space because space is something we encounter as we move in time.”
What Weschler wrote for Cameraworks was very consciously a refutation of the Irwin book, and no sooner was it published than Irwin responded to Weschler directly with a resounding ‘not true!’ having disagreed completely with Hockney’s take on photography and cubism. “Every time I would write something about one of them,” Ren laughs, “the other would call me up and say ‘no no no!’”
Irwin was infamous for his ban on the photographing of his own work, opposed to the fact that photos captured everything the art was not about (image) and nothing of what it was about (presence). Hockney initially found Irwin’s ban to be “fetishistic and preposterous,” though he later began to champion the idea, realizing that it was nearly impossible for someone to come across his frequently photographed work for the first time and with fresh eyes, instead recalling the poster, the book, the print of any particular painting.
Thus the volley began and continues to this day, nearly thirty years later, and though Hockney and Irwin seem diametrically opposed, Weschler’s ability to free-associate uncannily pinpoints the common ground in their disparate voices.
For example, Hockney refers to his new works, the immense nine-paneled landscape paintings of the Woldgate Woods of his youth, which seem to stretch out to the edges of ones peripheral vision, as figure paintings, though no figure exists in them. “You, the viewer, are the figure,” Hockney insists. The paintings would not be complete without the witness, the essential element, which is an entirely Irwin-esque position. Years ago, Irwin made a show of simply tying a line of string around a sun-kissed patch of grass, intent on pointing out to viewers that everything is art, that every detail, no matter how inconsequential it may appear to us, is worthy of our attention and at least momentary devotion. It is the importance of this human aspect, the human ability to perceive, to be present, where both Hockney and Irwin meet, and where Weschler is often most gleeful in his writing, frequently deploying exclamation points and a rapid rhythm which occasionally leaves a reader breathless.
Beyond this grand convergence of artistic ideology, the artists even mesh in smaller and seemingly more fleeting ways. Irwin took Ren on a roadside hunt looking for specific types of grass that he wanted to incorporate into the Getty Garden in Los Angeles. During the same period, Hockney, finally back to painting, was doing spontaneous watercolor renderings of individual types of grass he would come across while out and about, carrying with him a small sketchbook for just that purpose.
Ren’s predisposition to such meetings, acting often as a kind of flux through which opposing forces collide or converge – as with both Hockney and Irwin – has informed his rich and unique body of work. For example, the title piece of his 2004 collection, Vermeer in Bosnia, illustrates a convergence between the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the 1990’s and painter Johannes Vermeer in the 1600’s. Renowned for the tranquility and peace they exude, Vermeer’s paintings were actually created in the midst of religious persecution and unprecedented violence rained upon the Netherlands from both England and France over dozens of years, literally the artists lifetime. The through-line Weschler finds starts with a juror of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal’s preliminary hearings, who found himself constantly retreating from the horrors of testimony to visit Vermeer’s work, where he found emotional and psychic release and solace. Present and past flow from there in Weschler’s able hands, as both violent histories unfold and entwine, and it’s so undeniably compelling that it startles you awake, reminds you that life is saturated with connectivity, all the more important in an era where people tend to feel the opposite.
Acknowledging and expanding such associations has always been a part of Weschler’s outlook, going back to before he ever found his living in the written word. He likes to tell the story of how, when he was fresh out of college, a family friend who was a psychologist offered to help him figure out what he should do with his life by presenting him with a battery of tests. “There were these questions like ‘what would you rather be, an arsonist or a firefighter?’ Eight hundred questions! We did the Rorschach test and all kinds of other weird stuff. Apparently he (the psychologist) had never seen anything like it,” Weschler recalls fondly. “He told me, ‘this is not a good thing. This is going to give you serious problems in your life.’”
Looking back, Weschler realized that Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees was really an attempt to save himself from the chaos of such free and far ranging associations, as Irwin represents the exact opposite quality, sloughing off each and every association for the sake of pure perception. It was a valiant attempt, though it may be possible that even as he tried to deny this quality in his early writing, it insisted upon surfacing in his life. At the precise moment that Robert Irwin was craving philosophy, in walks Lawrence Weschler, student of philosophy. And just as David Hockney felt exiled from painting and began exploring the truthfulness, or lack there of, in photography, Weschler, also schooled in phenomenology, appeared with the Irwin book, which not only touched on what photography could and could not do, but examined a line of perceptual inquiry entirely similar to Hockney’s.
It could have been purely coincidental, or it could be exactly as it was supposed to be. Regardless, as Weschler investigates all the life around him and tells his stories, the people and places that enter his orbit tend to ignite, if they haven’t already, and though he’ll probably be the last to admit it, his enthusiasms and talents often fan those flames.
“In many regards, I would say that those two ways of being in the world are an intention in my work and in my life. On the one hand, just being open to the wild convergence, and on the other hand being able to say ‘shut up and tend to this, see what’s in front of you and leave your baggage at the door!’ I try to have both. At the New Yorker I used to say that I went back and forth between cultural comedies and local tragedies. Another way of looking at it is that I have a body of political writing and then separately, a body of what I call ‘Passions and Wonders,’ like Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder and Boggs Bills, which were a pair and designed to be read together, one as a deconstruction of museums, the other one as a deconstruction of money.”
Ren continued, “At the end of the day what really interests me is what happens when people catch fire, when they slowly come alive. And when it happens individually it can be kind of funny, as with Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder or Boggs Bills. And when it happens to a body politic, it’s enthralling. Take Poland and solidarity, for example (The Passion of Poland, 1984), and that incredible repression, if you think about it, is the attempt to extinguish that catching of fire. Solidarity was an expression of the subjectivity of the Polish nation, from which they invented the capacity to act as the subject of history rather than the object of history, which is literally grammatical transformation! Conversely, repression is the attempt to take people who have been acting like subjects and turn them back into good little objects, and that’s where torture comes in. And then you have resistance, the refusal to be turned back into an object.
“So “Passions and Wonders” is all about coming alive, suddenly being in the middle of your day and just catching fire, but the political writing is about that too. They’re both about the fervency, the necessity, and against all evidence, the possibility that it could work, that you can change, that you can make some kind of change. You can either crumble up and be destroyed under the weight of the world or you can respond by just throwing yourself back at it, and in some ways I think that both the Hockney and Irwin book are profoundly political, that one of the first things we have to do in order to change is wake up to how we’re sleepwalking, and that is what artists do. They wake up, they question, and they invite us to question as well. That is especially what these two artists do.”
Ren continued, “There may not be any reason for them to ever meet.” And with such an able conduit of information between the two artists, he may be right. Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees and True to Life not only describe the process of art making, but the process of communicating about and experiencing the world. They read as roadmaps of the evolution of the act of being, and it seems that when the travelers live as willfully and truthfully as Robert Irwin, David Hockney, and Lawrence Weschler, life and art cease to imitate each other. They simply converge.