Who you are and what you do greatly influences your opinions of the books you read. I have the feeling that when Lawrence Weschler wrote Robert Irwin's biography, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, he meant to make it a book for everyone, but that it just didn't turn out that way.
Weschler carefully sets up his book, starting with Irwin's boyhood. Chronicling his days in high school, showing us a man who started out just like the rest of us. He moves carefully into interviews with Irwin's mother about Irwin's childhood. This was easy to follow, easy to relate to, but after about the first 40 pages the book dives into Irwin's art.
Minimalism is something I've never understood. And hearing Irwin's reasoning behind painting two lines on a canvas or building clear glass columns was interesting. However, there was many times in this book where the explanations seemed to be too much. Even before he began spending all day cleaning and perfecting his studio, the ideas behind it seemed a bit far-fetched. Maybe if I had been an artist I would have understood his explanation on things like the neutral gesture:
"...the very fact of its being there, it draws a certain amount of perceptual attention. Let's say it drags a weight of .06 in the over all thing... and some elements contribute more than others. If its drawing .06 in attention, let's say it's got to give back .12 in energy. Otherwise there's no reason for it being there..."
(Weschler, Page 60)
Hearing Irwin's explanations and thoughts behind his work, it is apparent that he sees what he is doing, but as for me, it was hard to understand. In the book, a quote is taken from Ed Wortz about Irwin:
"I mean, Bob really understands a line. I don't understand a line, but I am firmly convinced that he does. He understands it deep in his nervous system. He understands it from his cortex right down his spinal column."
(Weschler, page 130)
If this is what Weschler's objective was, to share Irwin's thoughts and understandings, he did an excellent job, but if he was trying to explain them to me, he fell a bit short.
The book seems a bit elitist. More like a conversation to other artists, than a book for just anyone to enjoy. Which seems kind of contradictory to some of Irwin's art. An example would be his work in the room of the Museum of Modern Art, where Weschler writes:
"Ironically, the more sophisticated one was, it seemed, the less chance one had of 'getting it.'"
(Weschler, page 153)
It is unfortunate that this isn't the case with the book.
It is hard to form an opinion of Irwin's art itself from the book alone. While much of it is described, the descriptions tend to focus more on his process than on the actual appearance. And, from the book, the impression is left that one must not just see a photograph of Irwin's work, but experience it. His concentration on the nuances of light, texture, and surroundings could not be captured on film. The book does contain photos in the center, but there are only a few of them, and several of only of Irwin and his friends. To someone never having seen Irwin before, an illustration for each major movement of his art may have been helpful in obtaining a rough understanding of exactly what he was doing.
Weschler's writing style is clear and helps to move along the lengthy quotes from Irwin. This is obviously a book he invested much time in writing. It is apparent hours of interviews and research had been spent. This is a carefully crafted book, and it shows even though its audience may be more specialized than had been intended.
This is a review of the book, other opinions are welcomed.