See Like Irwin

Chinati Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 12, pp. 20-31, 2007

15 Pages Posted: 21 Jun 2012 Last revised: 2 Nov 2019

See all articles by Adrian Kohn

Adrian Kohn

Massachusetts College of Art and Design

Date Written: October 1, 2007


Robert Irwin learned to see more by studying the stripes in 'Crazy Otto' for days, gazing at different visual densities in front of the dot and disc paintings, and staring for hours into the silent darkness of an anechoic chamber. One can develop similar skills at the Chinati installation in Marfa, Texas. Having accumulated this knowledge though, Irwin warned against attempting to distill or translate it. In a 1978 symposium at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he proposed a thought experiment: 'Name all the events in a moment of perceptual experience. Do we have enough words to adequately reflect such a moment’s real complexity?' To get from here to the door, yes, we probably have a satisfactory vocabulary. However, if the moment in question was spent perceiving for its own sake, sensing as much as possible, then certainly not. 'The real actual phenomenon,' Irwin held, 'does not really exist in the painting [or] in the photograph [or] in the retelling.' Words do not suffice when trying to convey the strange findings made available by intensive observation. 'A lot of people look at you like you’ve dropped your cookies,' Irwin found. “It’s not a verbal experience. When you spend this long playing with non-verbal forms, it gets hard to talk. You don’t have a desire to talk about it. It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t feel right.' At some point, words must cease and one’s own senses take over.

Keywords: Robert Irwin, Adrian Kohn, Chinati Foundation

Suggested Citation

Kohn, Adrian, See Like Irwin (October 1, 2007). Chinati Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 12, pp. 20-31, 2007, Available at SSRN:

Adrian Kohn (Contact Author)

Massachusetts College of Art and Design ( email )

621 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States


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