TRUE TO LIFE
Twenty-five Years of Conversations with David Hockney
By Lawrence Weschler
University of California Press, 272 pages, $29.95
SEEING IS FORGETTING THE NAME OF THE THING ONE SEES
Over Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin (Expanded Edition)
By Lawrence Weschler
University of California Press, 310 pages, $29.95
It's time to add another entry to the Human List of Poles and Dichotomies (where there are Hate and Love, Love and Lust, Light and Darkness, Doubt and Faith): Research and Performance. In Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Weschler's extended essay on the work of Californian, post-abstract expressionist artist Robert Irwin, Weschler quotes him on the difference between what an artist is doing when creating something with a question in mind, and creating something with an image in mind: "In my own career, my growing commitment to [asking]questions has in fact led to something of a dearth in the area of performance. I get to an idea, I perform on it for a certain period of time, and then I'm done ... so on a performance level, it's true, I've left a slightly shaky record."
First published in 1982, Weschler's Seeing filled in the record, particularly necessary in the case of Irwin, not only because of his lack of interest in performance, but because he forbade any photo documentation of the work that did result, arguing that photographs were good at capturing an art work's image, but not its presence. Weschler's book, then, served to disseminate Irwin's work and process, and did it so successfully that The New York Times credited the original with having "convinced more young people to become artists than the Velvet Underground has created rockers."
This year, the book is being reissued with 10 further years of conversations with Irwin, alongside a companion volume: True To Life, featuring 25 years of conversations with David Hockney, one of the foremost painters in the late 20th century, based alternately in England and Los Angeles.
These books are companions at root. Hockney, after reading Seeing back in the 1980s, wrote to Weschler and told him that he had gone through the book with great fascination, but disagreed with almost everything Irwin said, and wanted to speak with Weschler personally. This was the beginning of their association, and so on it went: Weschler talking to Irwin, Weschler talking to Hockney, back and forth, publishing essays on both of them, fielding their responses to one another's words.
"They'd been fighting with each other for 20 years through me," Weschler writes. "They were very much like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who were living here at the same time and never talked to each other."
Weschler, who is one of the pre-eminent non-fiction writers in the United States, has published a dozen books and essay collections, served as a staff writer at The New Yorker for 20 years and is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities. As a young man, he was editor of UCLA's Oral History Program, where he discovered Irwin on tape and immediately contacted the artist. The two started taking lunchtime strolls, recorder clutched in Weschler's hand.
The books are essentially long essays, structured chronologically, in which Weschler transcribes the artists' words at length. They feel like monologues, but only because Weschler's hand is so light. The pieces are accompanied by subtle stage-setting, thoughtful art-historical connections and seamless descriptions of the artists' work and lives.
Here is Irwin as a teenager in the 1940s, obsessively retooling old cars in the streets of L.A., which perhaps teaches him how to approach art (with that same degree of concentration and love). Here is Hockney raging against draconian anti-smoking laws. In a typically brilliant aside, Weschler suggests that "these anti-smoking rants of David's shouldn't be taken all that seriously: they are like conceptual screen savers, the sound David's mind makes in idle while it gathers up energy for its next more serious intellectual onslaught."
The result is two deeply engaging volumes, intimate portraits of what it feels like to think about art for so long, and to be on a passionate search. Weschler writes with the suspense and pacing of a detective novelist, and we intimately accompany the artists through their epiphanies, doubts and discoveries, wondering what corner they're likely to turn next.
The nexus of Hockney and Irwin's disagreement is around the most useful elaboration of cubism. Both find it a fertile site to be returned to and exploited, but while Irwin sees in cubism a call to further erase the distinction between figure and ground (leading him to manipulate light and space directly: in a museum, in his studio), for Hockney, cubism's radical act was its break with single- or vanishing-point perspective in order to reveal how the eye actually experiences the world. This leads him to his photo-collage experiments (for which he photographs the same scene from slightly different perspectives and in successive moments, pasting them together to create a more immediate sense of movement than a single photograph conveys).
Later, we see Hockney grow obsessed with his theory that Renaissance painters used lenses or mirrors as ocular devices to develop the single-point perspective that marks their work - the pinnacle of "realist painting," from which cubism dissented.
Though each artist pursues his own path, they are bound by a deep affinity, believing that conveying human perception is the single greatest problem in contemporary art. They want to know what it is to see, and to convey the reality of seeing. In their attempts, they proceed more like scientists - following a line of inquiry - than practitioners of a craft.
These men have no vision; they have a mystery. One question provokes other questions, which they explore through their materials, resulting in work which they sometimes exhibit and sometimes do not, but which always leads to further questioning.
The reader puts down these volumes with new eyes, seeing the world as if for the first time, or as if one has stepped out of a great art museum on an afternoon on which one has been particularly receptive.
At the end of these books, Weschler respectively thanks Robert Irwin, "[my]subject, my teacher," and Hockney, "my subject and my teacher and in the end my friend." What did these artists teach Weschler, who was in his 20s when he began this project?
If both take as their starting gun cubism's birth, then possibly Weschler's own interest also became bound to the energies of cubism; the edict to focus less on how objects (not apples, in this case, but artists) customarily ought to look, than on how they are truly perceived in relation to time and space and ourselves.
What does one who truly perceives an artist uncover? As an interviewer, this curiosity and questioning is, of course, at the root of Weschler's task.
What is great art? we humans are forever asking. One possibility, these books convincingly suggest, is that it's the traces left by research.
Sheila Heti is the author of Ticknor and The Middle Stories