Charlatans spread scepticism. Frauds unmasked make critics look fools. When new work looks very simple, and very easy to do, eyes narrow and muttering starts about the emperor's new clothes. The gap, between those willing to take risks and those unwilling to look fools, widens. Lawrence Weschler's life of the Californian artist Robert Irwin is the best description I know of why spending months deciding how to put two orange lines on an orange square, or why offering a strip of black tape round the skirting of a gallery as your contribution to an exhibition, could be serious, intellectually-taxing activities. Enough critics have seen in Irwin's work what he said he was trying to put there for communication at some level to have been established. For us, the success of what he has done is something which must be taken on trust. Much of Irwin's work was ephemeral; those pieces now in public galleries are, we are told, displayed in ways which nullify the effects they were made to produce. Photographs are beside the point. The works depend on those things - scale, texture, the third dimension - which photography can record but not recreate. Yet the life would have been worth writing even if the work was not worth seeing.
LRB 17 March 1983 | PDF Download