Pillow of Air

A Monthly Amble Through the Visual World

by Lawrence Weschler

Remember how last time we were talking about Robert Irwin and his brilliantly confounding installation at the Whitney—the restaging, this past summer, of that 1977 piece of his in which museum visitors were delivered from out of the elevator onto an amorphous fourth floor entirely pithed of its usual internal walls and struts and light fixtures and transfigured into a seemingly empty football-field-sized space (all ceiling hive and slate-grid floor), though one bisected by a vast, translucent swath of taut scrim, stretching all the way across the length of the vastness from the far left to the far right, from ceiling down to eye level, whose fabric seemed to catch and hold the natural light of day as it poured forth, tide-like, from that strange, trapezoidal window way over to the left: a space, in short, initially almost impossible to put together in one’s mind, the occasion for a sort of perceptual free fall in which one actually got to experience, momentarily, as if in drop-jawed slow motion, all the sorts of things one is constantly doing to get one’s perceptual bearings in the world? Getting to “perceive oneself perceiving,” as Irwin likes to frame things, being for him the ultimate function of art.

A few weeks later I happened to be in Los Angeles and took advantage of the occasion to visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s concurrent retrospective survey of the work of Irwin’s onetime confederate James Turrell (the two had worked quite closely together at a fulcrum moment in each of their respective careers, during the late ’60s and early ’70s, though they’d gone their separate ways thereafter), and once again, like every other visitor to the show, in room after room, time after time, I was thrust into these moments of jaw-dropping experiential vertigo. (Turrell’s work can be so perceptually upending that in one famous instance, several decades ago, at his Whitney retrospective, one woman literally lost her footing and collapsed to the floor, spraining an ankle and thereafter suing both the artist and the museum for infliction of bodily harm: a singularly bracing review if ever there was one.)

In one room in particular at the LACMA show, one found oneself coming around a bend and there, on the far wall—or, wait, was it on the wall, or in the wall?—anyway, there was this fathomlessly deep, purpley-blue rectangle, utterly uniform in its appearance. How had he ever painted the thing? How could he have achieved such an even application of paint, and such luminous paint at that? Although, wait a second—was it paint? Maybe it was some sort of light box hanging out from the wall. Was “it” even there? Hesitantly, gingerly, one approached the purple rectangle—and was the thing actually almost throbbing, or was that just a trick of the eyes? For that matter, how had he managed those incredibly crisp, knife-sharp edges? Until, just a few inches from the wall, the whole piece fell away, almost literally, and one was confronted by a hole in the wall: a clean rectangle cut into a purple cave, or, rather, a white-walled aquarium of diffuse, powdery, violet-tinted light, light emanating from god only knows where. Magic!

And once again, one was given access to this sense of one’s sensory faculties as constantly active agents in the ongoing constitution of the world: the prehensility of one’s sensorium, as it were, the way sight might be understood as having a notional opposable thumb, such that it is constantly reaching out and grappling with the world it is receiving, turning it to this side and that, getting its bearings. Phenomenologists like to talk about intentionality, how all thought is thought of something, toward something—all experience is experience of something: it is directed out toward the world, but, until seeing the Irwin and Turrell shows in such close succession, I hadn’t so much realized the way that being in the world is in itself a species of constantly falling forward (tending forward, in that sense), of reaching out and steadying oneself and probing for solid footing in a constantly transmogrifying world. Most of the time we do all this automatically, as if by rote, so that we seldom stop (or are brought up short often enough) to think about it.

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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