Back in 1982, I published my first book, a midlife portrait of the California “light and space” artist Robert Irwin, entitled Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a title that paradoxically, in this instance, said it all. Which is to say that the book surveyed all the things that Robert Irwin, sequentially over a period of about two decades (1958–78), had had to bracket out of his practice—figure, image, line (which is to say, associations of any kind), focus, any made or permanent object, signature, and presently even exhibition itself—before he was able to arrive at what he’d come to comprehend as the true subject of art: the sheer wonder of perception itself, or, as he sometimes parsed matters, “all the marvel inherent in our perceiving ourselves perceiving.”
Shortly after that book’s publication I got a call from another artist famously associated with California, David Hockney, a painter I’d never met but one whose work I naturally knew well. He invited me up to the Hollywood Hills home into which he’d recently moved, and, after cordially offering me tea and making me feel quite at ease, he began by telling me he’d recently finished reading my book about Irwin, and though he disagreed with almost every single thing in it, still, he couldn’t get it out of his head, such that he thought it might be a good idea to discuss the thing with me.
“I’ve never met Irwin,” he noted, “though I’ve of course been quite aware of his work, as what artist, especially here in L.A., wouldn’t be?” Already then, Irwin was regarded as one of the most significant artists and thinkers on artistic practice anywhere in the country, at least among fellow artists (though his reputation was considerably less well established among the public at large); within a few months he would become the first visual artist to be awarded one of the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called genius grants. “I mean,” Hockney continued, “I’ve observed his progress, though at times that was by no means easy, and for the longest time I felt that his position on the photographing of his work”—a flat prohibition, as it happens (which is one of the principal reasons he was so much less well known among the public at large)—“was pretty preposterous, and somewhat fetishistic.” Irwin for his part accounted for that absolutist injunction by arguing that a photograph could 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), so why bother?
Hockney paused and took a drag on a cigarette before going on to confound me entirely: “The thing is,” he now said, “with time I’ve come to see that Irwin was right about that ban on photographing his work; I wish I’d imposed a similar ban regarding my own from the outset.” (This from an artist whose work was more photographed and more ubiquitously visible in the world than that of just about anybody else, with the possible exception of Andy Warhol!) “I mean, no one can come upon one of my paintings in a museum, say, and simply see it; instead they see the poster in their college dorm or the dentist’s office or the jacket on the book they are reading, all sorts of second-rate mediations getting in the way of experiencing the work as if from scratch.”
Our conversation went on from there, and gradually Hockney proceeded to lay out the profound divergence from Irwin he nevertheless felt, which essentially came down to a radical disagreement over the true significance of the cubist achievement and how one ought to be required to proceed as an artist if one were going to take that achievement seriously. (Both artists considered cubism to constitute the seminal movement of our age, and both considered its work to be far from over.)
For Irwin, cubism represents the culmination of a five-hundred-year-long process of flattening, as it were, in the subject deemed worthy of artistic attention (from Christ, to this king, to this burgher, to his maid, to her red shawl, to the color red, to the process of seeing the color red); and if one were to take seriously its greatest accomplishment—which is to say the so-called marriage of figure and ground—one couldn’t very well go on making paintings, which would necessarily have to read as figures to the wall’s ground, thereby undermining the whole point of the artistic project. Many critics of the Hilton Kramer variety saw despair in Irwin’s minimalist abnegation of traditional artistic practice, but to be clear: Irwin wasn’t suggesting that everything in the art world level out to a groundlike Zen backdrop; on the contrary, he was advocating a way of being in the world in which everything all around would get tended to (or at least be seen as being worthy of being tended to) with the same sort of heightened attention one used to lavish only on the figure in a work of art (hence his eventual progression to such improbably maximalist projects as the Central Gardens at the Getty or the overall design for DIA Beacon).
Even so, Hockney emphatically disagreed with Irwin’s characterization of the cubist challenge, already insisting to me just a few weeks later (for in the meantime he’d invited me to start visiting more regularly so that I might compose a text for a planned coffee-table book surveying the photocollage cameraworks series on which he’d only just launched out upon), “No! Cubism was precisely about saving the possibility of figuration, this ages-old need of human beings, going all the way back to Lascaux, to render the world in two dimensions, and saving that possibility at the moment of its greatest crisis, what with the onslaught of photography with all its false claims to being able to accomplish such figuration better and more objectively. It was about asserting all the things photography couldn’t capture: time, multiple vantages, and the sense of lived and living experience.” (For his part, critics often got Hockney all wrong as well, misinterpreting the intensity of the ways he would presently be engaging photography—taking literally hundreds of thousands of photos, coming to feel that the Old Masters themselves had been in thrall to a similar optical aesthetic—as a celebration of the photographic over the painterly, and specifically the post-optical painterly, when in fact all along he’d been engaged in a rigorous critique of photography and the optical as “all right,” in his words, “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 how the world really is.”)
Hockney that day back in 1982 went on to acknowledge that ever-greater degrees of abstraction constituted one possible path out of cubism. But he for one was sure that Picasso and Braque, from early on, would have realized that such a path would lead only to a dead end or, as he put it, “an empty room.” That last comment seemed a direct dig at Irwin (who for his part disagreed completely—I know because he subsequently told me so, characterizing Picasso’s and Braque’s failure to pursue such a path as a failure of nerve), and in a sense that entire first Hockney essay of mine could be read as a refutation of the earlier Irwin book. Just as the essay I subsequently wrote for the 1993 Irwin retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles would come to stand quite consciously as, among other things, a refutation of my intervening Hockney writings.
Indeed, for some twenty-five years now, whenever I have written about one or the other of these two giants of contemporary art (arguably the two most significant artists to come out of the late-twentieth-century California art milieu), the other one has called effectively 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 to the other’s existence though in fact deeply seized by the work); instead they have been carrying on this quite vivid argument for over two decades, through me, as it were.
I should perhaps myself note, however, the way that curiously, while the two artists have been engaged in entirely different artistic enterprises—undergirded, they would argue, by entirely opposite readings of history—many of Hockney’s and Irwin’s core concerns have come to seem, to me at any rate, almost entirely identical: the emphasis, for instance, on the critique of photography, the countervailing celebration of the human quality of looking and experience, the focus on the centrality of the observer, the vitality of the periphery, the interpenetrations of art and science, the dialogue of immanence.
Hockney recently embarked on an extended series of lush landscape paintings documenting the changing seasons in the beloved eastern Yorkshire of his youth. And, granted, what could possibly seem more retrograde from Irwin’s point of view? (“You get me all wrong,” Irwin once said to me with regard to Hockney, before concluding, witheringly, “I’ve always thought him a first-rate practitioner.”) But what in turn is one to make of Hockney’s recent characterization to me of those deliriously colorful nature studies, devoid of any human presence, as figure paintings? Figure, I asked him, taking the bait, what figure? There’s no figure in these paintings. “You,” Hockney replied triumphantly, “you, the viewer, are the figure.” And one can’t imagine Irwin’s having parsed things any plainer.