[Robert Irwin] came to think of paintings as showing two faces, one as interpretable image and another as physical presence, and he saw the former as bleeding the intensity of the latter. To the extent that a canvas could be subsumed as a painting of something, it was no longer being confronted as an energy field in its own right. And what Irwin was increasingly after was this pure physicality.

…[Irwin noted:] “When you stop giving [the late line paintings] a literate or articulate read (the kind of read you give a Renaissance painting) and instead look at them perceptually, you find that your eye ends up suspended in mid-air, mid-space, or mid-stride: both time and space blend into a continuum. You lose your bearings for a moment. … The thing is you cease reading and you cease articulating and you fall into a state where nothing else is going on but the tactile, experimental process.

“…When I look at the world now, my posture is not one of focus but rather of attention.”

Lawrence Weschler, Robert Irwin / MATRIX 15 catalog essay, University Art Museum (now BAM/PFA), October 1, 1978 – December 31, 1978

Lawrence Weschler’s catalog essay for Robert Irwin’s MATRIX 15 project at BAM/PFA in 1978


“All my work is based on the potentiality of trust. Though we rarely speak of trust in relation to art, a work of art may well be the ultimate expression of trust. It is as if we trust, for instance, that some inked piece of paper or painted canvas will receive us and speak truly about our world and its own. It is this space of trust that enables dialogue to unfold. Dialogue is a group of people freely reaching a place and verbally exchanging thoughts in a present and immediate way whilst listening, not only to others but also to themselves with others, then coming together and exchanging again, and after having left, coming together yet again. Such gathering is never spontaneous; still, it must be proposed.”

Esther Shalev-Gerz, The Contemporary Art of Trusting Uncertainties and Unfolding Dialogues, Art & Theory Publishing.

–Esther Shalev-Gerz, The Trust Gap (2013)


Iran do Espírito Santo’s Poetics

Iran do Espírito Santo, Water Glass 2, 2008, crystal, edition 23/25, 14 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm. // Source: Ingleby Gallery, If you're ever not sure what to get me for my birthday, well, this would be nice.

Iran do Espírito Santo, Water Glass 2, 2008, crystal, edition 23/25, 14 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm. // Source: Ingleby Gallery, If you’re ever not sure what to get me for my birthday, look no further.

Tonight’s artist talk by Iran do Espírito Santo, a Brazilian sculptor and installation artist, energized me. It was part of the Public Art Fund’s excellent series of talks at the New School’s Vera List Center.

Santo constructed a slide lecture that began with a sequence of formally related artworks—a room with circular cutouts, followed by a plaster block with Swiss cheese holes dug out with coins from different currencies, followed by an installation of plaster hemispheres on gallery walls. From there, Santo showed site-specific wall paintings that referred back to the existing architecture, such as floor-to-ceiling brick pattern painted inside SFMOMA in 1997 referring to the brick façade outside. He showed “folding” glass plate installations, wall paintings of gradations of grey, and solid sculptures based on specific forms, such as tin cans, pint glasses, and lamps. 

IRAN do ESPÍRITO SANTO SWITCH, 2012 latex paint on wall dimensions variable unique // Source: Sean Kelly Gallery,

SWITCH, 2012
latex paint on wall
dimensions variable
unique // Source: Sean Kelly Gallery,

Santo delivered his talk in a matter-of-fact way: In this project I did this, this site was that. He didn’t get into what he was thinking or trying to do. At first, I wanted to hear more—to ask what Jon and Anna from Eastport asked me, because they wanted to ask all artists:

Why do artists make art?

I wanted to know why Santo made what he made.

As the images continued, however, the question seemed less pressing. Though Santo worked in many media, they all seemed to make sense as a body of work. There was a coherence of sensibility and thought to them, even if I couldn’t spell it out how or why.

I still tried to find a logic or connecting thread to them, and here’s what I formulated: Santo’s work is rarely representational but often mimetic (having a referent), while some of his work, such as the gradient paintings, aren’t mimetic. They are about perceptual experiences. What these divergent works shared is open-endedness, a need to be interpreted or looked at, which seemed to suggest generosity or consideration of the viewer.

Santo spoke beautifully about his concern for the viewer. He explained that he (I’m paraphrasing)

envisions his work operating cinematically, because as viewers, we are moving cameras.

I love this idea, because I think a lot about how the aesthetic experience unfolds over time, and how looking is a process that at times is simultaneous and at times sequential.

He also said something like

how the viewer accesses the work is part of the works’ poetics.

That’s a fantastic and fascinating choice of words. I am excited to continue to consider the idea of poetics in terms of art, mulling over theories of how things take an effect on viewers, in Santo’s art, and my own.

A few more insights I learned tonight are below. If you already like Santo’s work, you can skip this paragraph. The following info will not better equip you in your encounter with the work, as you already have what you need. Read on, however, if you’ve yet to be won over.

While I don’t want to conflate the artist with the art for oeuvres like this, more facts about Santo help contextualize his work. First, he has a background in photography, which he discussed during the Q&A when someone asked about the tension between the Platonic ideal and the found. (This is an uncommon case where the Platonic ideal is actually relevant, as so many of Santo’s work are in such a state of material perfection that they seem otherworldly.) Santo explained that perhaps his photo background relates to his interest in reducing images, simplifying forms, and seeing light. Another audience member’s question prompted Santo to discuss his interest in architecture, which formed the support and informed the content of his wall paintings. But for his objects, too, I can see a rigorous, almost severe formalism that seems related to architecture, or what we mean when we describe something as “architectural.”

Playground, Santo’s project for the Public Art Fund, is on view through February 16, 2014 in Central Park.

A few of Santo’s works will also be on view in a group show at Sean Kelly gallery that opens Friday.


This is your Brain on Art

In Jill Suttie’s review of Elaine Fox’s new book, “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain,” on the Greater Good Science Center blog (July 30, 2012), she shares some fascinating insights for optimism and aesthetic experiences.

I often wonder, in the course of my Irrational Exuberance projects, whether objects attract or repel viewers, how, and why. How does presenting art about happiness and pleasure impact viewers? Suttie and Fox might lend a clue:

if optimists and pessimists are exposed to pleasurable stimuli, like a picture of a beautiful sunset or a box of chocolates, both will experience good feelings in the moment; but optimists can better sustain those feelings longer, because of asymmetric brain activity in which the left side is more active than the right.

Further, I’d suspected that optimism and pessimism might be related to the trust or skepticism that viewer enact when they focus their attention on challenging contemporary works that don’t look like art.

This difference in brain activity may help explain why optimists are more likely to take risks in approaching potentially rewarding experiences while pessimists, who have greater activity in the right side of the brain, tend to be more cautious.

Researchers have also found that people who are anxious or depressed—who also tend to be more pessimistic—have less connection between the prefrontal cortex of the brain (associated with cognitive activity) and the amygdala (associated with a feeling of fear). This means that pessimists are less able to control their fear response with thoughts, making them susceptible to emotional trauma from non-threatening situations and to difficulty recovering from setbacks in their lives.

What an insightful review and promising book. I’ve been feeling cautious and anxious—yes, pessimistic—lately, so this sounds like the perfect reading to add to the mix of references this summer.