Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One SeesTrue  to Life

On Tuesday, February 17, 2009, Kenneth Baker, a San Francisco Chronicle Art Critic, did a question and answer session with UC Press author, Lawrence Weschler. Below, is a re-posting of the session.

Special thanks to Kenneth Baker and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Most people probably still associate Lawrence Weschler with the New
Yorker, where many of his most-read essays – including some collected
in his two new books – first appeared. But Weschler quit the New Yorker
eight years ago. He now directs the New York Institute for the
Humanities at New York University, while serving as artistic director
of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Weschler, who turned 57 on Friday, came to the Bay Area to talk about
his two books of interviews, “Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the
Thing One Sees,” with light and space artist Robert Irwin, and “True to
Life,” with painter David Hockney. The University of California Press
has just released both in paperback.

Q: Aside from their being great talkers, why did these two artists get such attention from you?

A: I was working at UCLA in the
mid-’70s, and while editing an interview with Irwin … I sent him a
note asking if he had ever read Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “The Primacy of
Perception.” This happened to be the first time in his life that he
wanted to read philosophy, so he was at my door the next day, and we
had lunch together for the next three years. …

Then the Irwin book came out, and I got a call from David Hockney,
who said, “I read this book. I disagree with everything in it, but I
can’t stop thinking about it, so why don’t you come up here and we’ll
talk about it?” He happened to be doing his Polaroid photo collages and
invited me to write a text about them, republished in “True to Life,”
which is quite consciously a refutation of the Irwin book.

Irwin read that book and called me up and said, “Bull-.” … And this has been going on for 25 years without them ever talking with each other.

Q: Is there any subject you wouldn’t take on?

A: There really isn’t. Well …
who was that historian who was given exclusive access to Ronald Reagan
for the official biography? I remember the day he got that job, I
thought, “That poor guy; he’s going to go insane.” And he did; the book
came out and it was completely insane. So I think to safeguard my
sanity, I would not take on the exclusive authorized biography of
George W. Bush.

Q: What’s the last great book about art – not by you – that you’ve read?

A: It turns out that English lit
professors write great books about art that don’t get read by art
historians. Edward Snow’s book about Vermeer is a great book. His book
about Brueghel is even better – 15 years of looking at one painting. It
is so smart. And then Richard Halpern wrote a book on Norman Rockwell
that takes Rockwell seriously, claiming that Rockwell’s much more
sophisticated than he’s given credit for. I did a whole conference
around the book at NYU, which was called “Shocked! Shocked! Just How
Many Times Can This Country Lose Its Innocence?” It turned out to be
about Abu Ghraib.

Q: Do you have another book about art under way?

A: I am going to be doing a book
called “The Ones That Got Away,” which will be a kind of anti-memoir of
all the pieces I’ve meant to write but have never got around to
writing, a kind of subjunctive case memoir.