Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees
Lawrence Weschler’s books about the artists Robert Irwin and David Hockney
“To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” —Paul Valéry
The “California Light and Space artist” artist Robert Irwin, “who early on stopped making paintings in favor of creating ephemeral and sometimes intangible art environments,” died a few weeks ago at the age of 95. “The primary medium of Irwin’s art is not painting or sculpture,” Michael Govan writes, “nor walls and trees, but rather our perception, our curiosity, and our desire to make sense of the world around us.”
Lawrence Weschler wrote a marvelous book about Irwin called Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which was first published in 1982. Upon reading that book, the British artist David Hockney, who was then also associated with California, but who very much considered himself a picture maker, called Weschler and said that although he disagreed with almost everything Irwin had to say, he couldn’t get the book out of his head. He invited Weschler to visit him at his studio in the Hollywood Hills to discuss it.
In his book of conversations with Hockney, True To Life (2008), Weschler describes what happened next:
For some twenty-five years now, whenever I have written about one or the other of these two giants of contemporary art… the other one has called me to tell me, “Wrong, wrong, wrong.” The two have never met or conversed in person (straddling that Southern California scene like Schoenberg and Stravinsky before them, each seemingly oblivious of the other’s existence though in fact deepy seized by the work); instead they have been carrying on this quite vivid argument for over two decades, through me, as it were.
While either of these books can be read and enjoyed on their own, their effect is multiplied when they are read together and cross-referenced as a kind of “metaconversation” between the two artists.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Austin Kleon to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.