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Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin
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Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin

4.32  ·  Rating details ·  1,988 ratings  ·  96 reviews
Traces the life and career of the California artist, who currently works with pure light and the subtle modulation of empty space.
Paperback, 215 pages
Published March 10th 1982 by University of California Press
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4.32  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,988 ratings  ·  96 reviews

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Jun 06, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Completely fascinating. It's a biography of Robert Irwin, a contemporary artist, and one whose rather minimal works (a canvas with two lines! an apparently empty room!) I'd previously have been inclined to dismiss unthinkingly. Irwin is a thoroughly amazing character, and Weschler subtly but expertly brings him out, largely through Irwin's own words. What feels to me like the core of the book -- and, if the biography is as honest as it feels, the artist -- is the dynamic between certainty, dedic ...more
Kayl Parker
Feb 11, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Firstly, I read this book at the recommendation of my Senior Seminar professor, who, instead of telling me to read the lengthened version, encouraged me to get the first edition with 100 less pages because it was cheaper. Instead, I figured if I was going to read it, I might as well read it all, and found the extended edition in the Harold Washington library which I have promptly renewed seven or eight times. I would highly suggest reading the extended version, as I didn't start gleaning pieces ...more
Lauren Albert
Oct 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
“It is precisely because Irwin insists that each progressive abstraction from perception to formalized truth implies a loss rather than a gain that he sees his own progressive deletions of the formalized requirements of the art object as a gain rather than a loss.” 184

“Art exists not in objects but in a way of seeing.” 190

“‘Duchamp bluntly illustrated that any object could be art if so called,’ [wrote Roberta Smith]. ‘Irwin’s work has been suggesting, with increasing insistence, that any situati
Oct 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: buddhism, art
An amazing portrait of Robert Irwin, a modern artist who I wasn't aware of until I began this book.

The title of this book captivated me when I came across it via a random link somewhere on the net. I found as I dug in that many of the themes Irwin deals with are the same I love to ponder: the abstract vs the concrete. The role of perception and thought in how one experiences the world. Spirituality and mysticism, and of course zen and buddhism. A fascinating book, and I _really_ want to find so
Mar 13, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Probably the best book about an artist you'll ever read (assuming you ever do read one).

Weschler does what any/every greater writer should do. That is, to coax the reader to invest (and perhaps even "care" about) a subject heretofore (yes, I just used heretofore in a sentence --- correctly?) thought/felt to be uninteresting.

If you're not reading Weschler, you're just not reading.*

*With god (intentional lower case) on my side (thanks Zimmerman) I'll be able to take a graduate course with Mr. Wes
May 13, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: artists
Shelves: art, non-fiction
I read this book on after reading an article about it online (I can't remember if it was NY Times or LA Times). Anyway, I've never really understood Irwin's type of art, that is until I read this book. I really wish that I could see some of the paintings that are described, the early ones that he wouldn't allow to be photographed.
Mar 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: life-changers
Maya Man
So the name of this book is really intriguing and I was super excited to read it but I didn't know anything about Robert Irwin. Well now I not only know a lot a out him but I am like WOW his mind was in a GOOD PLACE. I would say I am a person who likes art, but sometimes with the SUPER abstract contemporary stuff I am like hmmmmmm what! is! the deal! but now I realize the significance of conceptual art and how narrow mindedly I've perceived what is art for so long. This biography is beautifully ...more
Chris Beiser
Aug 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is one of very few books on art, especially from the high-arts perspective, that I’ve found that are, indeed, phenomenologically rigorous. Despite a definite Deweyan twist to the proceedings (at one point, Irwin and Turrell, along with collaborator Ed Wortz, write out that “If we define art as part of the realm of experience, we can assume that after a viewer looks at a piece, he “leaves” with the art, because the “art” has been experienced…All art is experience, yet not all experience is a ...more
May 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Bob by: Mary Lamb
Shelves: biography
A friend had recommended this to me for the early descriptions of Los Angeles in the 40's and 50's, but I read on, fascinated by Robert Irwin's dedication to an art that teaches us how we experience our world. The title comes from a poem by Paul Valery.
Mar 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Such an interesting look at an artist I didnt even know I was into! Thanks Austin Kleon for the suggestion (via his newsletter)
Feb 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book blew my mind a few times, and in between was super interesting. Recommended for anyone who makes art or is interested in understanding the past 75 years or so of visual art.
Jason , etc.
Jan 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Had anyone told me 2 to 30 years ago that I would 1) read a biography about a contemporary artist and 2) gave it 5 stars, I would've been HIGHLY skeptical. After having seen and heard this book mentioned and recommended multiple times in numerous types of media, I bit the bullet, found a used copy, and was astonished to find myself engrossed every time I picked it up.

Weschler's writing style is straightforward, conversational, and a pleasure to read. And this was incredibly important, because i
Jan 15, 2008 rated it really liked it
This was a difficult book to read becausse of my separate reaction to Robert Irwin as a person and a thinker. Before reading 20 pages, I had the opinion that Irwin is a self-involved prat.

But, his ideas about art and experience dovetail nicely with my recent meditations. Due to my recent introduction to traditional African art (where the question whether what is displayed in museums is art divorced as it is from its performance context--especially in regards to the masks), I've been examining w
May 06, 2007 added it
Recommends it for: people who are interested in west coast conceptual art in the 50s
I'm reading this A: Because I looooooved Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders and B: Because I most often find myself writing about art and artists, and always want the writing to stand on its own, as just that: writing. The reviews of this book give it real merit as a great story brilliantly told, period. So I'm excited to really get into it. I just got my hands on it, and then some new shelves arrived, so the book is currently lost in my "to reshelve" piles. Drat.

OK, I tried. I really did. But this
Jul 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): As if she hasn’t given me enough already, last time I saw Darcey Steinke, she gave me a copy of Lawrence Weschler’s book on Robert Irwin: Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. I knew Irwin’s work, but was by no means an aficionado; I don’t know how Darcey knew it would, but this book absolutely captivated me. Weschler is succinct but almost chatty as he takes us through Irwin’s early life and the post-war west coast art-scene, and as he walks ...more
Jan 01, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Was a life-changing event when I picked this book up. Irwin is a reason I still paint and observe. You will be affected by this book in one way or another, but in my way I found joy in not just the making and painting, but thinking about what I was making and painting. If you've never seen an Irwin in person, especially one of the light and shadow works go to Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art I know there is one there right now. I read this before I had seen a piece and it made it that much more o ...more
Jan 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-we-love
Allyson Paty (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Lawrence Weschler’s biography of artist Robert Irwin, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees follows Irwin’s artistic practice and interests over the course of his entire career. Irwin states that he “one day got hooked on [his] own curiosity and decided to live it,” and the book tracks the trajectory of Irwin’s thinking about formal elements art—beginning with questions of the canvas, figuration, and line, and gradually giving wa ...more
Sep 18, 2012 rated it liked it
I'm supposed to be all totally in love with this book being an art man, but I'm not. I can see why some folks are, but it's just not for me. There's plenty of interesting stuff in there though, and I wouldn't go so far as to dissuade an artist from reading it. In fact I could easily see it being & know that it has been inspiring for many of certain types of artists. I'm just not the type of artist that is super stoked on hyper cerebral art/visual/phenomenological theory. I also just think I ...more
Nov 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I am astounded over and over at the simplicity with which Irwin expounds upon what has been a life-time of the deepest, richest and most engaged exploration of his practice. He plumbs the depths of his investigation with a sweetly humane approach. Unrelentingly devoted to the question, and then the next question. Not willing that anything should be precious or become precious. Fetishistic and detached at the same time. An artist that has not shown much of what he has made because the act of maki ...more
Dec 10, 2007 rated it it was amazing
So there I am, sitting in my undergrad studio. I've got Ad Reinhardt, Franz Kline, Pierrre Soulages, etc surrounding me..struggling to paint my white canvas white in a way that resonates, vibrates. Why am I reading about a guy who stared at two lines on a canvas for two years two and a half years later!! If I read this then...
I believe things happen for a come to the things you need when you're ready, or when the universe is ready to give you a break or whatever...but what an impact
Jun 07, 2007 rated it really liked it
what i enjoyed about this books was that instead of it reading as just another biography it reads more as a documentation of the artist as an interview as oppose to anything learn not just about him and his thought process but the little silly things that somehow actually matter even though usually they are kept brings up interesting ideas...its funny and serious i recommend it to a book that is written about an artist...reading things like this articles and s ...more
If Robert Irwin does a lot for the art world what John Cage did for the music world, I'm glad there's a Lawrence Weschler there to tell his story-- great artists are so often truly terrible writers (Cage, I'm looking at you). And it's not so much that I was interested in Irwin's life story, as I only had a passing familiarity with his work, it's that (like probably a lot of the readers on here) I wanted to see how Weschler did a biography. And he did a damn good one, especially considering how n ...more
Shin Yu
Dec 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a great and all-encompassing primer on Irwin's work written through interviews conducted between Weschler and the artist over a 20-year period and is considered a must-read for young artists. Read this book and then go to the LA Moca to see Irwin's early line painting, pieces from his dots phase, and his early disc work. When you're done with that, drive up to the Getty to walk in the garden that the museum commissioned of the artist. The book traces Irwin's growth as an artist and chang ...more
Feb 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is a great book. Irwin's line of inquiry from swing-dancing and working on cars as a kid through painting to installation and public 'sculpture' in his later life evidences a curious mind more interested in questions than answers.
Get the more recent publication with more recent conversations.

I'd like to read the companion to this book, which is a collection of conversations Weschler had with David Hockney that parallel and dispute some of the ideas presented by Irwin on the trajectory of t
Dec 02, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: all artists
I had been in love with Robert Irwin's light and form experiments long before I knew what his name was. I had seen them in SF's MOMA and at the Norton Simon and the LACMA. A friend gave me this book because he thought I and Irwin thought along similar patterns. It's an undeserved flattery, but I LOVED this book from beginning to end. Allows the reader to not only get a revealing look at one of the great minds of latter-20th-century art, but a look into the movements (by his own admission or not) ...more
Aug 07, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Somehow, a biography of an artist that has never interested me who works in a style that has never pulled at the heartstrings of mine eye was the catalyst for some of the best creative energy that ever ran through these veins. Page after page poured out, winterlit on the back porch during the slow closing shift, shirking duty as a bundle of sweaters and earflapped hat. Coincidentally, it also took me back to Baudelaire.
An excellent look into the life and mind of minimalist artist Robert Irwin. The connections he makes between early Southern California car culture and how it informs his work is fascinating in itself.

For artists, there is a discussion about how to create the illusion of a perfect square and the resulting ratio he arrived at. Inspiring in its illustration of Irwin's dedication to and pursuit of excellence in his work.
Feb 05, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art_architecture
Picked this up at the Marfa Bookstore (worth a visit if in the area). As it says in the title, a new expanded 'artist biography' on Irwin, bringing his story up to date since 1985, including what looks to be juicy reading on his experience designing the Getty Center 'Acropolis' Gardens and his clashes with Meier's intentions. The original book is as important as a volume of Rilke, and Irwin's meditations and insights into his artistic process are the equal of Richard Serra's.
Jan 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A classic, life-changing book. Weschler makes a hero out of Irwin. An artist who rarely let his work be photographed needed a book like this to be written to describe his life and work. The result is a fantasy world of art and California life. The most satisfying thing is that when you actually see Irwin's work in person, you learn that it's true. His work leaves you invigorated, mystified, and changed.
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Lawrence Weschler, a graduate of Cowell College of the University of California at Santa Cruz (1974), was for over twenty years (1981-2002) a staff writer at The New Yorker, where his work shuttled between political tragedies and cultural comedies. He is a two-time winner of the George Polk Award (for Cultural Reporting in 1988 and Magazine Reporting in 1992) and was also a recipient of Lannan Lit ...more