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New Times / Cover Story

The following article was posted on July 24th, 2013, in the New Times - Volume 27, Issue 52 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 27, Issue 52

The Art of Seeing

San Luis Obispo artist Jeff Jamieson talks about working for Robert Irwin and the late Donald Judd

BY ANNA WELTNER


Robert Irwin’s current exhibition Double Blind at Secession in Vienna, Austria
PHOTOGRAPHY ©2013 PHILIPP SCHOLZ RITTERMANN

For an artist who has for decades made art about seeing, it’s interesting to note how many people do not see the work of Robert Irwin; there are people for whom an Irwin exhibit is just … an empty room. Imagine!

But I, for one, don’t need to imagine, because I can remember: The first time I saw an Irwin scrim piece, I was actually quite successful in not seeing it at all. I just walked right by, lured by the iridescent discs and dot paintings. I thought of art as belonging on walls in museums. I thought of walls in museums as things everyone pretended weren’t there, painted clinical white so as not to distract from the art, which was self-contained, holy, and indifferent to time and place. I imagined that the museums of the future would be invisible and that all the art would simply levitate in a kind of force field.

The piece I walked past consisted largely of a single piece of white scrim stretched across a corner of an upstairs room at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, so unobtrusive as to appear part of the wall. Depending upon the light, and where you stood, and your powers of observation, the scrim vacillated between transparent and opaque. You could trick yourself into looking through it one moment and at it the next. But I’d come to see things hanging on walls, labeled, with their borders clearly defined. And that was all I saw.

I didn’t know that artist and fellow San Luis Obispo resident Jeff Jamieson had worked with Irwin to realize the piece I walked past, pulling the scrim taut to make it appear a seamless extension of the space, or that Jamieson had in fact installed many such site-specific exhibits since he began working for Irwin around 2006.

Recently, Irwin has kept Jamieson quite busy indeed. A work that Irwin exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1977, a large-scale installation titled Scrim veil--Black rectangle--Natural light, has recently returned to the Whitney. Scrim veil, which is on view at the Whitney through Sept. 1, has been recreated exactly the way it first appeared, in the very room for which it was designed. Irwin itself wasn’t present during its installation; he didn’t need to be. He had Jamieson, who, with a small crew, put the piece together in a little more than a week. With the installation of Scrim Veil completed, Jamieson flew directly to Austria, unable to stay for the work’s opening. Another Irwin project awaited, this one at the exhibition hall of the Vienna Secession--the movement of painters, sculptors, and architects who, in 1897, had “seceded” from the Association of Austrian Artists (Gustav Klimt was the Secession’s first president; the exhibition hall is still run by artists to this day).

Irwin’s Double Blind, another work created in response to the space in which it is held, represented a far bigger challenge than Scrim Veil, Jamieson said: While the Whitney piece was a recreation of a successful work, Double Blind was an evolving piece to which Irwin made adjustments as he worked with Jamieson and the crew at Secession.

Jamieson once owned and operated San Luis Obispo’s Compact Gallery, a small space with big ideas that closed its doors in the spring of 2012. A sculptor in his own right, Jamieson also worked for the artist Donald Judd from 1989 until Judd’s death in 1994, and continues to work as a fabricator of Judd furniture. Like Irwin, with whom he sometimes traded work, Judd created art that had everything to do with its environment, eventually founding the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where he renovated old buildings and created permanent, site-specific installations. And though Jamieson recalls a time in Judd’s career when the outlook was bleak, today his work is as relevant as ever. Judd’s former home and studio, built in a renovated SoHo building at 101 Spring Street in New York, opened to the public last month after a three-year restoration. The first gallery exhibition of Judd’s work in London opened in late June as well.

“When I first worked for Don,” Jamieson  said, “he couldn’t even sell the artworks, the economy lapsed, and we worked … but his time was gone, in some funny way. And there was other art around then. It’s neat to see them--Bob too--still potent and powerful figures, that their careers and their legacies are holding up well.”

When Jamieson returned to San Luis Obispo from Vienna, I’d approached him about a story about his experiences working with such influential artists. Jamieson had been wary of the idea, not wanting to brag about his “connections” or use the fame of others to draw attention to himself. He only agreed to an interview if the story was about the artists and their work, and his own voice in it that of a mere observer. (Irwin, when he heard this, joked, “Well, I’ll only do it if it’s about Jeff; how’s that?”)

The Whitney piece


Robert Irwin (b. 1928). Detail. Scrim veil-Black rectangle-Natural light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1977. Cloth, metal, and wood, Overall: 144 x 1368 x 49in. (365.8 x 3474.7 x 124.5cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the artist; 77.45. © Robert Irwin
PHOTOGRAPH © WARREN SILVERMAN, 1977

As research material for the story, Jamieson had recommended several essays and articles, and four books--two on Irwin, two on Judd--as well as, curiously, director Louis Malle’s 1981 film My Dinner with Andre, starring Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, and then, on top of that--why not?--the script of Wallace Shawn’s play The Designated Mourner, in case I finished reading early and had extra time.

Among the books on Irwin was Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Weschler’s biography of the artist, gleaned from conversations with Irwin over the course of 30 years. The 1977 Whitney retrospective, where Irwin first unveiled Scrim veil, gets its own chapter. (The chapter following is titled “Since the Whitney.”)

Weschler describes the scrim piece:

“The only light was the natural light of day streaming in from that large, peculiar window over to the side and spreading the length of the hauntingly sheer scrim that, suspended from the ceiling down to eye level, bisected the room longitudinally. Also at eye level, a thin black line skirted the walls of the room, describing a huge rectangle and then flashing out along the base of the bisecting scrim. The pristine scrim was by turns utterly transparent and then utterly opaque, both at the same time, and then neither at once.”

Reactions to Scrim veil varied widely, Weschler writes: As the elevator doors opened on the fourth floor, affording a first glimpse of the piece, some viewers would take one look at the thing and hop back inside. Others claimed it was merely an empty room; that there was nothing there.

The 1977 reception was unusual. Although Scrim veil--Black rectangle--Natural light was meant to be seen during the day, sunlight streaming in, the museum had insisted on having the reception in the evening, as was the norm. As a result, the opening essentially ended with a crowd of art viewers drinking in the dark, unable to see anything.

The Whitney piece is now seen as a jumping-off point in Irwin’s career; “a pivotal moment that would set the course for Irwin’s subsequent artistic practice,” as the museum’s description of the piece reads. Both Jamieson, and Irwin himself, seem to disagree.

“No. Not a turning point, no,” Irwin said in a phone interview, when I asked him if he saw the piece that way. “Listen, I thought it was a good opportunity and the piece turned out good, but there were a lot of years before that. The column”--here he was referring to an acrylic column piece he’d finally found a home for at the San Diego courthouse--“was done in 1971. And prior to that I did the discs, the dot paintings--that was all done in the ’60s. So you could hardly say something I did in 1977 was a turning point. It’s just another in the progression.”

 

The progression


Robert Irwin (b. 1928). Detail. Scrim veil-Black rectangle-Natural light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1977. Cloth, metal, and wood, Overall: 144 x 1368 x 49in. (365.8 x 3474.7 x 124.5cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the artist; 77.45. © Robert Irwin
PHOTOGRAPH © WARREN SILVERMAN, 1977

Irwin began painting during the Abstract Expressionist movement, and his early works were done in that style. But as Irwin became aware of the medium’s limitations, he began several series of works that took painting as far as it would go, moving as far away from symbolism as possible, often using light and shadow to blur the lines between the work and its setting. By 1970, Irwin had largely stopped making objects at all. He sold his studio, abandoning his projects, art supplies, equipment, and works by other artists which he’d collected.

While pondering what to do next, Irwin took several trips to the Mojave Desert, where he would experiment with arranging a few objects--concrete, wire, steel--against the backdrop of the vast, arid landscape. The experience further shaped his ideas about creating art in response to place, and gradually led him to his next move, which he described as a “project of general peripatetic availability.” Irwin made himself available to go anywhere--museums, schools, wherever--and create work in response to his environment, for free.

Wasn’t this a terrifying idea, I wanted know? Did he agonize over whether it was the right choice?

“Well, yes and no,” Irwin said. “I got to a certain point, and I looked at the painting, and a couple of good questions came up. One was, that’s not how we see the world. We don’t see the world in frames. We see the world very differently. We see it with all of our senses, all of our body. And there’s a whole sentient process there. And so how can I be a painter anymore? I mean, because I really think it’s always been about seeing, teaching people to see and informing people through seeing.”

Painting, he said, had also “been tangled up with different kinds of illustration of the flora and fauna, and the illustration of the text and so on and so forth. Most people still are tied up with the whole idea of the painting being reflective of some kind of meaning, OK? … People used to look at these so-called abstract things, and they would say, ‘What is it?’ Which is a literary question, saying, ‘I want to understand this, not by looking at it, but by associating it with something.’ So I thought that the history of modern art basically was presenting us a whole new way of looking, and so when I realized that the painting is a highly stylized, learned logic--beautiful, brilliant, all of those things--that is no longer necessarily relevant, I wasn’t a painter.”

There’s more.

“So the question was, OK, how do I deal with that? And in the very beginning, that was alarming, of course, because I hadn’t the slightest idea how to do that. So one thing that I noticed, which was interesting for me, is that the shadow which was around most paintings--framed and what have you--there’s a shadow on the wall. That’s quantitative, not qualitative. Quantitative, you look at the shadow and it has real importance or meaning. And you can’t weigh it, and you can’t measure it, and if you move the light, the shadow would disappear. So in the qualitative realm of the shadow, it has no importance whatsoever. You can frame it and put it on a velvet wall and so on and so forth. But qualitatively, we couldn’t see without the shadow. Shadows are crucial to how we see. So I have another break there, where I see something that is no longer a part of one whole kind of logic and it’s now become part of an entirely different way of going. So that’s why I got rid of the studio, because I knew if I stayed in the studio, I, in one way or another, would still make objects. It no longer made sense to me, so that’s what I did. I sat out in the desert for a while, which was the kind of place that doesn’t have a whole lot of structure and meaning to it.”

 

Irwin, Judd, and for some reason Wallace Shawn


Jeff Jamieson works on Robert Irwin’s installation piece Double Blind at Secession in Vienna, Austria.
PHOTO BY DEBORAH DENKER

Irwin’s experiences in the desert helped him shape his ideas about creating work in response to place. For Judd, the open landscape of Marfa, Texas was the starting point for a series of permanent indoor and outdoor installations. Judd began construction and installation of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa in 1979.

“Chinati’s an amazing institution of permanent installation, or sculpture, or works, that are put in place with the artist’s input and left,” Jamieson said. “Don hated the museum culture and the gallery culture of this traveling show that would fuck people’s work up and put it in bad light, bad conditions, mishandle it, and not give a shit because they just wanted to sell tickets. And they felt that way in 1969, you know? And I think it’s very accurate of the big blockbuster museum show. So he made his own museum, in the end. Chinati’s pretty much a museum, but it’s a careful museum. It’s a loving museum. Artists first.”

Why the desert, I wondered?

“I think it’s finding light and peace, kinda … they both were interested in spaces, you know? Interior and exterior. I think that Bob has paid great attention to the landscape and brought it inside in a way, and I think Don always loved the big landscape, and if you ever come to Marfa, you’ll see his use of it. … It’s a huge component of the way the work is experienced.”

At Chinati, Judd renovated a series of old buildings--former homes, a bank, an artillery shed--and created exhibitions there that took both the buildings and the landscape into consideration. Before Marfa, however, Judd’s first such project was 101 Spring Street, the dilapidated cast-iron building in New York which Judd purchased in 1968 and gradually transformed into his home and studio. Today, the Spring Street building is seen as the birthplace of “permanent installation,” in addition to providing inspiration for the now-ubiquitous “industrial” look.

“I spent a great deal of time placing the art and a great deal designing the renovation in accordance,” Judd wrote in 1989, in an essay called “101 Spring Street.” “Everything from the first was intended to be thoroughly considered and to be permanent.”

It was in 1989 as well that Jamieson began working for Judd, first at Spring Street and later in Marfa.

“When I moved to New York in ’84 my studio ended up becoming with a guy who already was working for him, and that was just serendipitous. And through him--Judd was actually having a retrospective at the Whitney--I got hired right then. And I painted the diamond-plate sidewalk in front of his studio.”

Despite the artist’s formidable reputation, Jamieson found Judd remarkably easy to get along with, he recalled:  

“He was really super soft-spoken, and had this incredibly gnarly reputation for being argumentative and fighting, but I never thought that was the case. He was really nice, and always generous to me too. He was just a nice, soft-spoken guy--who would occasionally go after people, let’s say, but it was never mean.”

Chinati at the time was just three years old, and much of Jamieson’s work at the time consisted of transporting things between New York and Marfa:

“In the very beginning we used to load up a truck from Spring Street in New York and take Don’s stuff down. We’d take pieces of art of his, we’d take other artist’s stuff”--Judd collected works by Claes Oldenberg, Marcel Duchamp, and Don Flavin, among others--“we’d take food, we’d take furniture we’d made, and we’d drive it down there, and then we’d go and work in the buildings he’d bought, and fix them up, or install art, and put furniture in. The first time I went to Chinati was, I think, 1990. We brought loads of stuff. If they had known what we were doing …” he laughed. “We used to have millions of dollars’ worth of crap in the trucks with a big padlock on it. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing in the world. But yes, we used to move big truckloads of art down. It was crazy! We used to be a little uptight about that. We’d be on the road and we’d be sleeping in some motel and, like, ‘Can you see the truck? I don’t know, can you see it?’ It was a little nerve-wracking.”

Jamieson worked with Judd until his death in 1994. The same year, he left New York and moved to San Luis Obispo, seeking a peaceful environment in which to raise his children. But he continued working as a fabricator of Judd furniture, and remained involved with various projects in Marfa.

It was through Chinati that Jamieson met the playwright and character actor Wallace Shawn, who directed a stage reading of his play Marie and Bruce as a fundraiser for the foundation.   

“We all got parts, and I was the nervousest--most nervous--I’ve ever been in my entire life. We did this thing two nights in a row with 300 people, and we read the play. I was a guy who argued with someone about a record collection.”

Seeing as Jamieson had brought it up, I asked him why My Dinner with Andre, starring and co-written by Shawn, had been on his list of suggested research materials. The film had come out in 1981; Weschler’s Seeing is Forgetting in 1982. Both concerned themselves philosophically with the nature of seeing; was Jamieson suggesting they had something to do with one other?

“I bet they didn’t have anything to do with each other at all. But they were huge for me as an art student. That was the significance. They both came out … right around the same time, and had a big influence on myself and a circle of friends who were paying attention to that. We were just like, oh shit. The game is much more complicated and fuckin’ intense than we thought. And we’re pussies, you know? We don’t know shit. We gotta pay more attention. It was like a call to seriousness. I had a bunch of friends who, we all were making art and trying our hardest, and some just dropped out, like, two months later. Just stopped. And it was so weird.”

It was through another project at Chinati that Jamieson started working with Irwin.

 

The game


Jeff Jamieson works on Robert Irwin’s installation piece Double Blind at Secession in Vienna, Austria.
PHOTO BY DEBORAH DENKER

Jamieson referred several times to the work of Judd and Irwin as “the game.” This choice of words initially communicated to me a lack of seriousness. But upon further reflection, the word seemed apropos. Both artists had made their moves only after considering themselves as players in something larger than themselves; pieces on a board. Through careful weighing of the options, the next logical step would show itself. So naturally, they would take that step, even if it meant making one’s own museum, or abandoning one’s studio, or getting an unflattering review in the Times, as Irwin’s scrim piece at the Whitney did.

Jamieson sees Irwin’s paintings from the ’60s as “a clever mind figuring out a beautiful niche to fit a paint on the canvas still,” he said. “But I think he realized that, for him, it was an artistic dead end. Thank goodness he trusted his philosophical meanderings to lead him to the place he got. Because it’s much more exciting.”

After the Whitney piece, Irwin didn’t make anything for a while. After about nine months, however, he began making more site-specific works, some indoors but others outdoors, in the form of public art works that often consisted of subtle, considered alterations to the landscape.

I don’t have a product, as it were,” Irwin said. “In fact, I haven’t had anything to sell, really, for a long time. But I start off with each site as a unique set of circumstances, and I try and do something that makes sense with that site. And that’s really been the sort of bottom line for what I do … I start with a set of conditions and see if I can’t do something with that particular set of conditions. That’s probably the most important aspect of what I do.”

Take, for instance, Irwin’s scrim piece Double Blind at Secession. The work responded to the grid created by the lights on the ceiling, as well as the shape of the room and the lines of the floor.

Irwin began developing his ideas for Double Blind after visiting the site in the summer of 2012. He sent his drawings to Jamieson, who visited the site himself in January of this year, where he met with the staff and did some consulting on the project.

In June, Jamieson spent a total of 20 days working on the piece at Secession, though Irwin didn’t arrive until the middle of the process. Jamieson admitted to some initial uneasiness as to how the exhibit would turn out.

Double Blind, he said, “was a big grind with a big crew and a lot of work. And I had a few doubts about the piece, like, oh my god, is this going to be good? And so we got going, and we started pulling fabric finally after about eight days or something, or maybe not quite that long, and you didn’t know whether it was going to be good. And then Bob got there, we’d had 28 of 30 pieces of scrim pulled, and we’d saved the last two for him to see, and then we started cutting doors in and making adjustments, which made it much stronger a piece, which was good.

 “The Whitney is a very definitive bold slash, let’s say, bisecting the building, and full of power and full of majestic kind of mystery in a way, and diffuses the light, and it takes up no room in a sense, the Whitney one. Whereas the Secession piece is a series of volumes, truly. Spaces inside a space. And registering or reacting to the ceiling grid and the floor grid, and you can only see that stuff if you pay attention for a while, but it’s really about volume and sitting and weighted and multiple views, so it’s a completely different kind of animal. The piercings in the doorways helped a great deal. And then there were--a couple walls were painted black, which just did a tonal thing. And then the doors to the outside, outside the museum, were left wide open, with a guard, and then the big doors in the front were open. So you create this inside-outside portal, and all of that is very different in the way it works on your brain and body, than the Whitney one. … But Vienna was fraught with nervousness, you know.”

(If Jamieson was worried, Irwin apparently wasn’t. In our phone interview, the artist expressed his complete confidence in Jamieson’s abilities to realize his work:

“Oh, Jeff is incredible. … I’m thrilled and lucky to have him working with me. Because basically, the projects that I work on, I figure out what I want to do, and he does it, and he does it economically. I can go to bed and sleep. I totally trust Jeff. He’s terrific. He has a great sensibility, and a real good work ethic. And a great understanding of the nature of the task. He’s very special. He’s quite gifted. He’s a sweetheart.”)

When Irwin himself arrived in Vienna, he made several adjustments to Double Blind. One of these was to cut doorway-sized holes in the layers of scrim fabric that had been stretched from floor to ceiling. To do this, a member of the team had to rappel into the then-completely-sealed piece and secure the frames that held the scrim in place, before an opening could be cut to let him out.

Irwin, Jamieson said, “had a great deal of super guidance … making changes and working to the last second. And something I greatly respect about him as an artist is pushing all the time and not being scared to fail. Going for it and not knowing what you’re going to get. Altering things and trying new things out all the time. He’s making a different piece each time. And that’s the deal he makes with these museum or gallery people: ‘I don’t know if it’s going to be good.’ He says it all the time. And he goes for it and tries stuff and has a kit of things--scrim, paint, contact paper--for certain kinds of installations that he uses. Tinting on windows. We tried tinting all the skylights, not tinting, tinting with two layers. Painting walls gray. Painting them black. Whether to put paper on the floor to make the thing illuminate. All these things were tried to see how they looked. And it’s crazy, for us. I mean, it’s fun. But it’s crazy.”

 

Arts Editor Anna Weltner can be reached at aweltner@newtimesslo.com.