Remember the days when you were a student? Can you clearly picture yourself almost drinking every word uttered by your favorite teacher or can you only see the blur of the parties?
What about going from one class to the next, head bent watching your steps, on automatic pilot. Fully absorbed in your thoughts on managing your work load with all your upcoming deadlines, how often did you remember to look up?
What about today? What does it take to look up and what difference does it make to your day?
This is a subject dear to Robert Irwin’s heart, a Californian artist who keeps inspiring my vision of life. His art is all about engaging you to look, not just see.
Between 1981-1983, he had an opportunity to fight what he so aptly calls “habituation” in a place where this matters most crucially. A university campus.
Try walking through a university some time. Each time I do I can’t help but think about which one of these bright kids is thinking hard about a new approach or a new discovery that will change the world we know.
If these students succumb to “habituation” and become immune to their surroundings to the point of not seeing, let alone looking, how will they break new paths?
As one of the first artists to contribute to what is now the Stuart Collection on the UCSD university campus, Robert Irwin selected a eucalyptus grove and a path well travelled by attending students for his Two Running Violet V Forms.
Made of stainless steel poles with 2 V-shaped panels of small-gauge chain link fence material attached way up high 9-feet above ground, it can look incongruous at first yet Robert Irwin forces you to look up and see more.
Tongue-in-cheek, UCSD has even planted an Emergency Phone ahead of the grove, screaming for attention in a bright blue echoing the “specially ordered blue-violet paint” of the installation. You really have no excuse.
So, open your eyes. What are those blue violet nets in between the trees?
From up close, the fence is almost colorless, letting me see the eucalypti clearly.
I realise I am looking at the trees with more focus because I have to look through such scrims. This is a device Irwin likes to use to force you to attention.
As he says ever so eloquently, “we see what we seek to see so that moment of attending the world is probably the single most important force in the world”. Long after students have left UCSD, I bet you they will fondly remember these trees.
With some distance comes optical opacity and a more saturated blue color, moving through the grove with varying angles, “like a ray of color refracted through the vegetation”.
The V forms take a life of their own, like ribbons shooting through the trees which, now that I am looking intently, actually seem to also absorb the stainless steel poles as if they were trees themselves. How can trees and such industrial materials blend together so well with the effect of light and color?
Maybe the answer is that the trees and the art never quite look the same.
Take the bark of each eucalyptus tree: cool grey with almost metallic quality one day, changing to the glorious sun-kissed gold of the late afternoon hours.
Lately with a heavy marine layer shrouding the campus, the bright blue coated paint virtually disappeared.
Visit at different times of the day or the year and Two Running Violet V Forms take on different shades of blue turning to violet.
More than 100 years ago, Monet knew he had “discovered the color of the atmosphere: it is violet”. It’s barely there so we’re lucky Robert Irwin is assisting our vision of it.
Maybe because as much as the violet blue of the chain link fence looks foreign in the midst of the eucalyptus grove, it turns out to match the color of the San Diego sky on most days as you look up.
Nothing industrial about such sky.
No risk of “habituation” for me…and hopefully none for the students of this world and none for you too, wherever you are.
Find out about Fallen Star by Do Ho Suh, also in the Stuart Collection at UCSD, by clicking the blue link.
Find out about Robert Irwin’s Garden at the Getty in my introductory blog post.
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© 2017 Ingrid Westlake
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 Hugh Davies and Robert Irwin, Robert Irwin : Primaries and Secondaries, p.32
 Beebe, Simon & Storr, Landmarks, p.71
 Ibid, p.37
 Quoted in Simon Jennings, The Collins Artists’ Colour Manual, p.55