Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review


Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review


Article excerpt

Robert Irwin in His Seventies

HARD TO BELIEVE how I myself am now older, older by far, than Robert Irwin was when we first began having our conversations, coming on thirty years ago. Fresh out of college, a classic, overstuffed instance of surplus education, I had been working at the UCLA Oral History Program, editing other people's oral histories of various local luminaries in the context of an NEH-sponsored series, "L.A. Art Scene: A Group Portrait," when, working my way through someone else's interview with this artist I had up to that point barely even heard of (which, granted, said more about me at the time than about him), increasingly engrossed, I decided to hazard writing the guy a note, which read, in its entirety, "Have you ever read Merleau-Ponty's The Primacy of Perception?" Whereupon there he came knocking at our door the very next morning. I've always felt that had I sent Irwin that note even six months earlier, he'd likely have dismissed it as so much hyperintellectualizing claptrap. But it just happened that he was at a point where he was going to be giving himself over to precisely that sort of reading for a while.

And so we ended up having lunch together for the next three years; which is to say that he pretty much planted himself under a tree up by the North Campus library, doggedly poring through the great classics of the philosophic tradition for hours and hours at a time, such that I always knew where to find him during my lunch breaks. Two or three times a week I'd head over and there he'd be, drilling away, dark baseball cap scrunched over his broad forehead, colored pens clutched in his fist, the book in question splayed prone; and we'd take to conversing, me telling him stories about philosophy and history and suchlike, and him telling me stories about art and cars and horses, stories which in turn would come to form the basis for Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, the book, my first, that I was subsequently able to fashion and bring out five years later, at a moment, it occurs to me, when he was still younger than I am now.

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ON. And yet, once again, it starts, as it almost always seems to, with his pulling in to pick me up in his new car (this time, improbably, a snazzy silver BMW coupe), the car radio wafting forth the usual medley of forties swing, and our heading out into the balmy breezy Southern California light, just getting going with our catching up when he almost immediately has to interrupt things to pull in to his current neighborhood Cola boîte (this time an otherwise nondescript gas station/car wash/mini-mart/sushi bar), whereupon, replenished ("Where were we?"), he proceeds to squire me over to his latest digs.

Which this time turned out, even more improbably than usual, to be in the heart of a gleaming new medium-upscale tract development, the Gables, embedded in the middle of a yet wider Spielbergian subdivision, Torrey Hills, part of the relentless suburban sprawl north of San Diego, one two-story Cape Cod pressed against the next, narrow front lawns, ostentatious porticoes, faux-Corinthian columns, gently fanning sprinklers, the sidewalks lined with tricycles and miscellaneous other kiddie roadsters abandoned in midspree, basketball hoops hanging from double-garage entries, every single home girdled in the colored lights of the just concluded Christmas season. "Yeah," Irwin admits, "I broke out laughing the first time I saw it, too. But our daughterAnna Grace was growing up and we were fast outgrowing that apartment overlooking the harbor, and I asked my wife Adele what she'd want in our next neighborhood if we were to move, and the first thing she said was, 'Kids on the block,' and, as you can see, there are plenty of kids. And as it happens, our own house . .. this one ... right here," he gracefully swung the Beamer into the driveway and pulled to a stop, killing the swing, "is actually quite nice."

Which indeed it was: tall ceilings, high windows, clean through lines to a cozy backyard, beyond which spread an empty open expanse, and off in the middle distance, a freshly graded, beige-bare, suburban hillside, rutted in dry rivulets (like a Georgia O'Keeffe mesa); while back inside, a little three-sided patio graced the middle of the compound (a two-story lightwell, as it were), along one flank of which he'd secreted his office-the same office, cleanly transplanted: angled drafting table, high director's chair, swivel lamp, fanned-out color swaths, reference texts, architect's plans curled into long tube canisters. …

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