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November 20, 2002

Celebrity Smack Down


As you know, one of our readers, Felix Salmon (not gregdotorg as I mistakenly mentioned when I first posted this story--sorry, Greg), in hotly defending the value of conceptual art, made a comparison between Robert Irwin and Thomas Cole, which he seemed to feel would favor Mr. Irwin:

Do you really think that Thomas Cole would win a Celebrity Smack-down against Robert Irwin? The latter, just for starters, could easily lay claim to having a genuinely American vision, as opposed to simply taking Netherlandish lanscape painting, blowing it up a bit in size, and painting medium-sized mountains instead of fields with cows.

Well, this got me to looking at both men’s works, something I hadn’t done for a few years—and along the way, I ran across some examples of their writings (the Internet is a wonder, ain’t it?) After studying these, I think any suggestion of a battle royale between Irwin and Cole is kind of misplaced. The two men seem more like artistic brothers (making allowance for the century and a half of artistic and intellectual evolution that separates them.)

T. Cole, Schroon Mountain, Adirondacks,1838; R. Irwin, Double Diamond, 1997-8

A quote from Robert Irwin:

If light is the medium and space is the medium, then, in a sense, the universe is a medium. I know the impracticality of it right now but when I say that the medium is the universe, that maybe the world is an art form, then the gardening of our universe or our consciousness would be the level of our art participation.

A quote from Thomas Cole:

[American scenery] is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for, whether he beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic--explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery--it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity--all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!
R. Irwin, Double Diamond, 1997-8; T. Cole, The Oxbow, 1836

The verdict in our celebrity smack down would appear--to me anyway--a draw, with both artists articulating an "genuinely American vision."



posted by Friedrich at November 20, 2002


I'm of the school of art criticism that holds that anything I don't understand is either nonsense or trying to make a fool of me or both. So, score my vote for Cole!

Posted by: The Sanity Inspector on November 20, 2002 4:45 PM

If Mr Inspector is having difficulty understanding Robert Irwin, I would point him to quite one of the best books ever written on any artist: Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, by Lawrence Weschler.

And if gregdotorg is feeling unjustly accused of philoconceptualism, I must admit that it was I, and not he, who posted the comment quoted.

As for "artistic brothers," I think Friedrich might be over-egging the pudding just the tiniest bit. If you want, we might even ask Mr Irwin whether he feels any kinship to Mr Cole: I wager he'd say he doesn't, the fact that he's in the middle of a major project in the Hudson Valley notwithstanding.

Posted by: Felix Salmon on November 20, 2002 5:30 PM

Felix, I wonder if it isn't more a propos to notice and make connections for ourselves than to worry about whether or not the artist reports feeling a direct connection.

I don't mean to gang up here, and Friedrich can (and will!) speak for himself. But I think Friedrich has a point: there's a concern with space, light, and veiling effects, as well as a kind of rhapsodic, even spiritual American romanticism, in both Irwin and Cole.

Or at least so it seems to me. Do you see other values predominating?

Best, Michael

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 20, 2002 6:21 PM

Yeah...what Michael said is just what I was going to say.

But seriously, last time I talked to Mr. Irwin, he seemed to be a very reasonable guy and pretty well up on his art history, and I can't imagine he would deny the "chain" leading back from his conceptual art through his abstract paintings to landscape art. In any event, whether he consciously associates himself with the Hudson Valley painters or not, he clearly shares a number of their concerns, perhaps chief among them the attempt to heighten the viewer/participant's consciousness of the world around him, as the quote listed in the story makes fairly clear. Since art structure is usually driven by such concerns, the formal resemblances--which I think are clear to see in the pictures--are not terribly unexpected. But if you take it up with Mr. Irwin, I'd be fascinated to know what he thinks on the subject.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 20, 2002 7:47 PM

No doubt Irwin is up on his art history. But here's a passage from the Weschler book:

With each new trip [to Europe] Irwin began spending more and more time in the museums. As his own involvement in art grew, his interest in the masters expanded – but only to a point. "After going through the Louvre 20 times – after a while it got to the point where I'd enter a room and just twirl around and go to the next one... I mean, it got to the point where if I ever saw another fucking brown painting... I was so fucking tired of brown paintings. I mean, they all looked exactly the same!"
He then goes on to say nice things about David and Vermeer, but it seems clear that he's really not into a painterly tradition.

(Of course, Michael, it's entirely possible that Irwin and Cole are aesthetic siamese twins without Irwin knowing it. It's just a mite improbable.)

I do think it's interesting that Irwin is working in the middle of the Hudson Valley right now, designing a new car park (!) for the Dia Center in Beacon. (Somehow I can't see Thomas Cole ever designing a car park.) They've obviously reacted to the landscape in very different ways. Irwin I think has a much more unflinching eye than Cole: he was always very interested in subtleties, in the way that a crack in the wall might change the effect of a canvas, say. When he uses veiling effects, they act directly on our senses. We're meant to concentrate on the veiling, not on what it obscures. Whereas Cole's veiling effects were more akin to vaseline on a lens: he would never see the crack in the wall, and would purge his landscapes of any sign of industry. Cole's vision, in other words, is romantic, while Irwin's isn't, and their concern with light etc is put to completely different uses.

And then there's space, and whether it's real or imaginary... but I don't want to get into a disquisition on the way in which art practice now is so radically different from what it was in Cole's time that the two things really count as different disciplines. Suffice to say that if you look hard enough, you could find similarities between Irwin and Ingres, or between Cole and Kosuth. Doesn't really mean much, though.

Posted by: Felix on November 21, 2002 3:06 AM

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