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Window at Dia:Beacon in the Hudson River Valley.

Embeddedness: 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?”

Saint Francisco de Paola floating across the water on his cloak. A saint of good works—charitas bonitas—he is carrying flames against his chest, a physical manifestation of his passion for the word of God.

The Stories of Strangers: Mexican Ex-Voto Paintings

While visiting a church in Guadalupe in 1917, David Alfaro Siquieros, the great muralist painter of the Mexican Revolution, found, “along with broken candelabras and other typical church adornments,” a “true mountain” of small paintings tossed carelessly on the floor. He picked one up. It was “made of paper . . . painted with colored pencils but especially interesting, perhaps more primitive than the others, almost as if executed by a child.” And, thinking he was doing nothing wrong, he took it. A priest, witnessing the scene, shouted, “Thief!”—and armed sacristans dragged him off to the station.


Rory’s Story

It is an unusually warm morning in San Francisco. My parents are sitting on the back porch reading the paper, sipping coffee. Suddenly, there is the sound of broken glass as I come flying through the window behind them. A surreal moment—it’s difficult to tell who is more stunned, my parents or I.

While nearly the entire window is gone, I have only minor cuts. The one who will suffer as a result of this outburst is my younger brother, Rory, who pushed me.

A Berlin Epiphany

And now, there it came looming into view: an austere block-wide low-slung hive of graphite-gray monoliths: monoface rectangular plinths arrayed in a regular perpendicular grid over gently undulating terrain—more than three thousand of them spread across nearly five acres, some (near the perimeter) as low as a foot and a half, some farther into the hive (where the terrain fell away into some of its deeper undulations) as high as ten feet, the entire expanse crisscrossed by narrow paths between the parallel rows of vaguely pitched concrete plinths, paths that veritably beckoned those above on the busy city sidewalks into this uncanny maze of vaguely determinate remembrance.


Turnings and Returnings: The Art of Jake Berthot

Instead of the viewer’s gaze skimming off the surface like a skipped stone as in so much contemporary painting, Jake Berthot’s paintings hold you—stop you and engage you, stir you and disturb you. When you stand in front of one of Berthot’s recent paintings, you immediately become aware of depths in the painting and you are drawn out into them, feel some part of yourself emptying into them. But then the mysterious mutuality of reverie takes hold: into your newly created emptiness, something flows from the painting. And gradually, steadily, the experience of gazing at the canvas becomes a reciprocal emptying-out and filling, an ebb and flow. Depth speaks to depth. And when at last, after successive, calm, reciprocal emptyings and fillings, you break the spell of the encounter, you emerge changed in some quiet but definite way.


The Graphics of Solidarity

The Solidarity logo was designed by J. and K. Janiszewski, two marginally employed graphic artists living in Gdansk, during the second week of the August 1980 strike at their hometown’s mammoth Lenin Shipyards. Within a month it had become the ubiquitous emblem of a national worker’s movement. In this particular case we do have some knowledge of the graphic’s origins. With many of Solidarity’s posters, no such documentation exists. Some of Solidarity’s most powerful images, for that matter, are no longer available in any form. In the heat of confrontation, Solidarity didn’t have much time or interest in archival documentation. Paper and ink were scarce: what little could be foraged was quickly used and the resultant posters immediately slapped onto public walls, where they belonged. Weather, and in some cases official sabotage, took their toll before anybody realized that no record had been kept. The next day’s crisis—the next day’s occasion—was in any case already at hand.


Unfinished: On Vincent Desiderio’s Sleep

The painting—a stunningly ambitious tableau, eight feet high, fully twenty-four feet long, and portraying twelve mostly naked figures, as visioned from above, arrayed, recumbent, one beside the next, knotted up in sheets and tossed by sleep (or maybe unconscious, or maybe even dead, it was hard to tell)—had been one of the stand-out triumphs of Vincent Desiderio’s singularly impressive show at Manhattan’s Marlborough Gallery in January 2004. Despite its forbiddingly unwieldy dimensions, the piece had sold off the floor, to a private museum in Connecticut, on condition, however, that Desiderio would first be allowed to take the canvas back with him to his Ossining studio. For all its highly burnished finish, the work had been listed as still “in progress” in the exhibition’s catalog. And now, over a year later, with its new owners clamoring for the painting’s already frequently postponed final delivery, it was still very much a work in progress, changing dramatically from day to day. Dramatically, and yet hardly at all: for Desiderio had achieved one of those images of such layered complexity and tautly interwoven cross-reference that the slightest tweak—here, say, the new way light was being made to fall across this woman’s shoulder, or there, the manner in which that man’s arm had been stretched ever so slightly higher—reverberated across the entire panel, as if across a tightly stretched drum skin.