By David L. Ulin
March 29, 2009
What Weschler's getting at is the density of everything, the way our lives, the Earth, the very universe are all matrices of overlapping influences, chaotic and predetermined at the same time. It's a double-edged sword for any writer but especially a writer of nonfiction: Once you accept this notion of saturation, how do you carve out a place for yourself, a place from which to engage your wonder, as it were?
And yet, on a recent Friday morning in Los Angeles, Weschler is all about wonder as he sits back in an office chair and talks in a low, fast voice about "Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Over Thirty Years of Conversations With Robert Irwin" (University of California Press: 310 pp., $24.95 paper) and "True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations With David Hockney" (University of California Press: 272 pp., $24.95 paper), twinned inquiries into the creative process and the nature of art.
At 57, his face still boyish behind a graying beard and glasses, he's excitable, voluble, riffing and digressing, framing these two books within the supersaturated context of his career. "One of the helixes running through my work," he explains, "was this 30-year project of talking to these two guys. And fairly early on it became clear to me that this was going to be a long thing."
This is classic Weschler: the project that feeds back on itself, that is never finished even after it's done. "Seeing Is Forgetting" is, after all, his first book, originally published in 1982; this edition has been updated with six new chapters and 24 pages of color plates. "True to Life," meanwhile, functions as a call-and-response, an alternate take, both distinct from and intimately connected to the other book. After the first edition of "Seeing Is Forgetting" appeared, Weschler got a phone call from Hockney, whom he recalls saying, "I've been reading this book of yours; I disagree with almost everything in it, but I can't stop thinking about it. Why don't you come up here and we'll talk about it?"
The piece Weschler wrote about their conversation, which opens "True to Life," was fashioned as a refutation, of sorts, of Irwin's thinking, which then led to another piece on Irwin refuting what Hockney had to say. This has been going on for 25 years. "It's not a personality conflict," Weschler says. "My experience is that these two very large, capacious, vital thinkers are basically having a fundamental argument about what both of them think of as the most important thing in the last 500 years, which is cubism -- an ongoing project. If you took it seriously, you would be doing what each of them is doing, and exactly not what the other one is doing. And yet, for all that, they are right on top of each other in terms of all sorts of issues." To make the point explicit, he closes the Irwin book with an afterword that leads directly into the preface of the Hockney book, as if he were building a bridge with words.
The notion of bridges, of connections -- of helixes, as he likes to put it -- is a key one, because Weschler is a writer with an idea. As with all enthusiasts, the idea is both simple and immensely complicated, having in his case to do with seeing, with "waking people, and myself, up to the possibilities. Slapping people. Notice. Take notice. This is amazing. This is so cool."
That's why, in addition to his writing, he is now director of the New York Institute for the Humanities and artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, setting up events such as last month's "Wonder Cabinet," a day-long symposium in New York that featured, among other things, Jonathan Lethem reading a new piece of fiction and a lecture on the history of kindergarten and its relationship to the modernism of Paul Klee and Frank Lloyd Wright. Weschler has focused on such flash points throughout his career, the moments when certainty blurs into indistinction and we must choose what to believe.
His 1995 book, "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder," helped put Culver City's Museum of Jurassic Technology on the map, framing the place as a three-dimensional art installation, in which oddity merges with fantasy until the line between truth and imagination is effaced. "Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences," which won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, juxtaposes unexpectedly similar images -- a Magritte painting and a New York Times Magazine cover; a photo of San Francisco after the 1989 earthquake and a bombed-out block in Baghdad -- to suggest the hidden likenesses that exist below the surfaces of the world.
Perhaps Weschler's most daring convergence comes in the title essay of "Vermeer in Bosnia," in which he uses the proceedings of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal to rethink the work of the Dutch painter, concluding that "when Vermeer was painting those images, which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity, all Europe was Bosnia (or had only just recently ceased to be): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation, wars of an at-that-time unprecedented violence and cruelty, replete with sieges and famines and massacres and mass rapes, unspeakable tortures and wholesale devastation." This, he suggests, is his responsibility as a writer: to point out the nuances, the complexities, the little details we ordinarily do not notice and in which everything may be revealed.
Such a notion explains Weschler's long interest in the visual arts. His first job after graduating from UC Santa Cruz's Cowell College in 1974 was at UCLA, where he worked as an editor on a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded oral history of the Los Angeles art scene. It was here that he first heard of Irwin, who was approaching what he would later call "Point Zero," the place of ultimate reduction in which he sought to eradicate the distinction between art and the outside world. If this sounds abstract, it is, but it's also highly concrete -- the kind of apparent contradiction on which Weschler thrives.
"When I first encountered Irwin," he says, "he had step-by-step gotten rid of image, frame, signature, room; he had dismantled the entire art apparatus systematically, getting to the point where he believed that the way light fell on a lawn was art, and more specifically that perceiving yourself perceiving was the art." Before they met, Irwin spent three years working on a series of 10 paintings, each of which featured a pair of lines. "What?" Weschler exclaims. "Sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, three years, and he emerges with 10 paintings of two lines? But boy, does he understand lines."
The same is true of Hockney, who, when Weschler met him, had begun to realize he could no longer paint as he had before. Read through such a filter, "Seeing Is Forgetting" and "True to Life" are not only about the artists talking to Weschler or, through him, to each other; they're about the artists talking to themselves. "At the beginning of the book," Weschler says, "Hockney hits a wall. 'I can't do paintings any more. I don't know what I'm doing.' You have to start from scratch. And sometimes that involves the craziest things. Cutting up pictures and putting them in collages. 'I hate photography, but I'm taking a million photographs' -- it's insane."
Of course, it's precisely in these desperate moments that things become most fascinating, because we have no choice but to set our preconceptions aside. "I'm interested," Weschler says, "in what it's like when people or places suddenly catch fire." This can be an aesthetic process or it can be political, or, as in the case of "Vermeer in Bosnia," it can be both. It's also a pretty good description of Weschler's own approach to writing, which is, by turns, literary and journalistic, an idiosyncratic mix of the reported and the inferred.
"What I say," he argues, "is that every narrative voice -- and especially every nonfiction narrative voice -- is a fiction. And the world of writing and reading is divided into those who know this and those who don't. When I report, I aspire to accuracy, fairness, all those things, but after I've gathered the material and I have this pile of notes on the table, that's when the fun starts."
For Weschler, everything grows out of voice, which is, at heart, a fictionalizing factor: a constructed, and often highly stylized, frame. The narrator -- who is almost always Weschler, or some reflection of him ("My journalism," he gleefully admits, "is first-person journalism, not out of megalomania but out of modesty") -- is the first character, creating meaning out of the maelstrom of raw fact.
"Talk about helixes," Weschler says. "There's a pair of twinned paradoxes at the heart of every portrayal. One is what everybody who is true to themselves knows: that everything is complete chaos. The other is that everything that happens happens exactly the way it had to happen; otherwise, it would have happened some other way. In both cases, the reporter has to figure out a way to write about it, which is necessarily a fictional activity. It's a fiction in the sense that it is a version, something I composed. At this moment, to the best of my ability, this is what it seems like. Borges says there are two worlds, the world of language and the world of reality, and they don't intersect at any point. And any attempt to fashion a representation of one in terms of the other is a fiction."
This brings Weschler back to Hockney and Irwin, the one still trying to represent the world in painting, the other seeking to make art out of the world. In recent years, Hockney has created a body of landscape work that he calls "figure paintings." "If you say to him that there's no figure there," Weschler notes, chuckling, "he says, 'You are the figure.' " Irwin, meanwhile, has moved directly into the landscape, designing, among other things, the Central Garden at the Getty Center, working with the stuff of nature itself.
Twenty-five years later, they still have not met, nor do they seem inclined to -- although given Weschler's sense of the universe as chaotic and determined, that may be for the best. "It was literally the case last week," he says, "that Irwin and Hockney were both in New York at the same time and I knew they were a block away from each other. I was dreading that they might bump into each other and it would be like matter and antimatter. The world would cease to exist."
Ulin is book editor of The Times.
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