Pillow of Air

A Monthly Amble Through the Visual World

by Lawrence Weschler

A few months ago, early one midsummer evening, I happened to be up on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum in New York, experiencing—or perhaps I should say reexperiencing—its restaging of Robert Irwin’s legendary 1977 Scrim veil—Black rectangle—Natural light installation, the piece in which the California artist had emptied out virtually the entire floor, stripping it down to its barest essentials (the dark slate flooring, the gray hive ceiling, that stark trapezoidal window off to the side) and then bisected the resultant vast empty space with a shimmering, pearlescent expanse of white scrim, held taut from ceiling down to eye level by a black metal bar, which in turn echoed the black painted stripe he’d applied to the perimeter of the rest of the room: that and nothing more. A piece, in short, that forced one to find one’s bearings in the midst of a free fall in one’s initial expectations (and to savor the marvel of how one is always having to adjust one’s bearings like that: falling, gauging, steadying)—and then, beyond that, that allowed one to experience the sheer hushed marvel of natural light itself, spreading (as if in a Vermeer) like a tide across the scrim-cut room.

I say “happened to be” there, but actually I was there because a half hour hence, downstairs in the basement, I was going to be delivering a talk on Irwin, the subject of my first book, from 1982, called Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which in fact had culminated with a depiction of the original rendition of this very piece. Many of those who would soon be in the audience were likewise milling about, taking in the approaching eveningtide, and presently I found myself conversing with one of them, a compact gentleman in a leather jacket, who turned out to be the eminent ’80s-generation artist Robert Longo, famous, for example, for his startlingly realistic depictions of snazzily dressed urban men and women, eerily arrested in mid-swoon.

Longo began to tell me a story about the first time he met Irwin, back in 1977, and it was getting to be a good story, so I interrupted him and asked whether he’d be willing to share it with everyone later, down at my presentation. And he said OK.

So, about an hour later, when I got to the part in my talk where I described how across the ’60s and into the early ’70s Irwin had systematically dismantled all the usual requirements of the art act (image, line, focus, signature, object) till he got to the point where he abandoned his studio altogether and simply announced that he would go anywhere, anytime in response to any invitation to come talk with anyone about the nature of art and perception, I said, “Actually we have someone here who took him up on the offer,” whereupon I invited Longo to come up and tell his story. Longo approached the podium shyly (somewhat surprisingly so in such a hip, seemingly self-assured, almost macho fellow) and launched into his tale about how in those days he’d been a graduate art student at SUNY Buffalo, experimenting in all sorts of directions, and people kept telling him how his work reminded them of the work of Bruce Nauman (whom he’d heard of) and Robert Irwin (whom he really hadn’t—not surprisingly, since in those days Irwin was forbidding the photographic reproduction of his work on the grounds that such reproduction would capture everything that the work was not about, which is to say its image, and nothing that it was about, which is to say its presence, such that hardly anyone had actually seen any of the work). Anyway, Longo continued, he’d read how Irwin was going to be having this show down in the city and he wrote him to ask if he might come over to meet him and perhaps help with the installation, and Irwin wrote back, “Sure,” which is how it came to pass, Longo now related, that he and his then-girlfriend, Cindy Sherman, piled into a van and headed east—but that the van stalled out a few dozen miles outside of Buffalo and he’d had to call Irwin to explain that he wasn’t going to be able to make it after all. Irwin, though, told him not to worry, that after he’d finished with the installation, he’d just come up to Buffalo himself and they could all meet after all. Which is how it came to pass, Longo went on—and suddenly his voice halted, catching everyone in the audience quite off guard, for presently he was almost sobbing at the memory—that this great artist Irwin had traveled all the way up to his remote town, and planted himself in his kitchen, and just spoke to him and his girlfriend, these two nobody graduate students (I’m paraphrasing here), for five hours straight, at which point he, Longo, asked whether he, Irwin, would mind if he asked some fellow students to come join them—and that Irwin then stayed on for two whole days, simply engaging all of them in some of the most profoundly energizing conversations they’d ever had, and how (Longo began to compose himself) it had been one of the signal events of his early life as an artist. At which point he went back and took his seat.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Lawrence Weschler’s more than fifteen books—running from political tragedies through cultural comedies—include Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (on artist Robert Irwin); Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (on the Museum of Jurassic Technology); Vermeer in Bosnia; Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences; and, most recently, Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative.

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