What is Seeing All About?

I’ve recently finished two books written by Lawrence Weschler, both consisting of reports on his conversations with a particular artist over multiple decades, and I thought both were excellent.  The first is an ‘expanded edition’ of “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees” on Robert Irwin from California (first edition in 1982), and the second is “True to Life” on David Hockney (a Brit, but long associated with southern California).  Above is Hockney’s “A Bigger Grand Canyon” painting.  Both artists became obsessed in different ways with the act of perception, and in particular vision.

Irwin was raised in Los Angeles, and started off as a painter in the late fifties.  His work tended in more and more minimal directions, such that by the late sixties he had pretty much stopped painting altogether.  He moved in the direction of art installations, typically not making any decision about what he would do at a site until he got there and studied the location.  Here’s what he said about the viewpoint he was rejecting: “The art world is highly invested in the idea that you can take an object and set it in a room, and the internal relationships will be so strong and so meaningful that all the kinds of change that take place on the object as a result of its being in a new environment will not critically affect our perception of the object.” (p. 151)  Instead, Irwin was interested in highlighting the most subtle variations in light and space perceptions.  The piece above is from 1969, and uses plastic discs and lights to create visual patterns.

The piece above, while much more recent, illustrates something of what Irwin is up to.  While in some sense nothing could be simpler than the three panels, one blue, one yellow and one red, with one set on the floor and one set hanging from the ceiling.  But is that what we’re truly seeing?  Look at the red panel on the floor – after the initial edge, most of it is not really red.  Nor is the ceiling panel above it.

Irwin spent much time pondering philosophy and perception, and at some points he resisted having any photographic documentation of his work (because he felt it turned the work into an object, and lost most of the qualities of the particular installation in space and time).  Here’s another quote from Irwin, on his distinction between reason and logic:

Scientists tend to operate through a logical process in the material world.  In science it seems necessary that your facts be concrete, repeatable, and predictable, which means there has to be an existing reliable form of reality.  And the only reliable forms of measure, as far as science is concerned, are pure abstractions, that is, abstract systems which can be overlaid onto the world of experience….   Reasoning appears to be more confused, more haphazard, partly because of the scale of what it tries to deal with.  The logical, in a sense, seems more successful because it cuts the scale down.  In fact, that’s what makes it logical: it takes a very concise cut in the world and simply defines or refines by deduction the properties of that cut, but it never deals with the overall complexities of the situation.  It only applies with the confines within which it operates, so it seems much clearer.  The artist, however, as a reasoning being, deals with the overall complexity of which all the logical subsystems are merely segments, and he deals with them through the intuitive side of his human potential – and here inconsistencies are as meaningful as consistencies.

Weschler got involved with Hockney after the first appearance of his Irwin book, as Hockney read it and felt that he disagreed with Irwin’s view of the world, yet couldn’t stop thinking about it.  It was around that time that Hockney began making photographic collages, first with Polaroids in square grids, then with photos that did not follow a grid pattern.  Below is an example, taken during a Scrabble game.

Here he was examining the act of seeing that takes place over time, with different views and viewpoints.  Hockney sees the cubist movement of the early 20th century as a very important visual revolution that in some ways was a reaction against photography.  He says “Juan Gris said that cubism wasn’t a style, it’s a way of life, and I subscribe to that.” Here’s Hockney on perspective:

… the major problem with traditional perspective, as it was developed in fifteenth century European painting and persists to this day in the approach of most standard photography, is that it stops time.  For perspective to be fixed, time has stopped and hence space has become frozen, petrified. Perspective takes away the body of  the viewer.  You have a fixed point, you have no movement; in short, you are not there, really.  This is the problem.  Photography hankers after the condition of the neutral observer.  But there can be no such thing as a neutral observer.  For something to be seen, it has to be looked at by somebody, and any true and real depiction should be an account of the experience of that looking.  In that sense it must deeply involve an observer whose body somehow has to be brought back in.

In the nineties, Hockney got very involved with research on European painting, and in particular proposed that many painters of the fifteenth-century and for years afterwards were using mirrors and lenses to help capture images by reflecting them onto a 2-D surface, and tracing the details.  Because most lenses had a small area of focus, they would need to be moved around to capture other areas of interest, leading to minor inconsistencies in perspective.  This notion was initially not well received by the art world, but seems to have become more accepted in recent years.

When photography emerged in the mid-1800s, this caused a series of revolutions in painting, and the idea of attempting to capture fully realistic details in painting became less interesting.

Hockney in recent years has gotten back into painting, mostly landscapes back in England, and he typically uses multiple painted panels.  This allows each panel its own viewpoint, but the whole creates a more lived experience of seeing through painting.

Weschler does a fantastic job of balancing the simultaneous goals of describing artworks, letting the artist express his intentions, and pulling the strands together.  Highly recommended if you’re interested.

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