A Way to Look at Things by Not Forgetting Their Names
Chinati Foundation Newsletter, vol. 20, 2015, pp. 52-63
14 Pages Posted: 17 Oct 2015 Last revised: 10 Jun 2017
Date Written: October 15, 2015
Actually I am not so sure that to look hard at a thing is to forget its name — Valéry’s hasty quip which says as much seems to duck the troublesome and ever-present tangle of sights and words. For, try as I might, I never quite break free from language when I take in a work of art by Irwin; studying it involves in some basic way either recognizing by name that which already has one, or else discovering that what is there does not yet have a name. Perhaps Valéry got it wrong on purpose, though. He may have wished to disrupt at any cost our habit of glancing at something in front of us only for the sake of identifying and classifying it with a term. To truly see such a thing, so the claim goes, is altogether different. For this we have to pick up on aspects of it that are unforeseeable beforehand, in spite of our familiarity with the category of things like it that its name names. But even if this is so, the word we have for the particular sort of a thing which is under examination proves helpful. As you set about viewing one of Irwin’s works, you can hazard names or descriptions or metaphors, and, having done this, thereupon attempt to figure out all that still remains unsaid. Seeing his art does not entail forgetting names, then, so much as verifying the limits of what they report. And writing about it amounts to settling on the best words you can find in anticipation of knowingly overburdening them. When you want to really focus in on Irwin’s art, it could be that you have got to adjust how you use language such that it plays a more noticeable role than ever before.
Keywords: Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Edward Wortz, Lawrence Weschler, Paul Valéry, Donald Judd, Chinati Foundation, Adrian Kohn
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