I Run My Hand Over the Race
The words in my title belong to Robert Irwin. I came across them years ago in Lawrence Weschler’s much-loved book of dialogues with the artist,1 and since then they’ve become something of a personal shibboleth. Referring to his technique for placing bets at the track (a second vocation in which he enjoyed great success), Irwin relayed that, after carefully studying the statistics for each horse, he would forget all the facts, close his eyes, and “run his hand over the race.” I don’t think I’ve encountered a better metaphor for tacit thinking: the kind of thinking we do unconsciously, without language, with and through our bodies. Nor can I think of better words to describe what I do, both in my work as an artist and in my art writing. For in both—and indeed in looking at art, itself a kind of art—my body is my primary instrument and most trusted informant.
Hands and the haptic sense are behind everything I do. It’s not just that I make things with my hands; I think and see with them too, if only internally, intramuscularly. But there’s another sense in which touch is fundamental to my work. In fact what all artists have in common, be they object makers or not, is that our work touches other bodies: transmitted as pulsations originating inside us, it enters and activates the flesh of others—sometimes, if we’re lucky, long after we’re dead. Rather than calling ourselves makers of objects, then, we might better say we craft corporeal experiences. We artists have our hands all over the place.
In the making of form in my studio, my hand demands a strict departure from language. It’s not that I want to dismiss it forever (God knows I’ll need it later, lest my world be reduced to chaos); it’s just that my instrument won’t fully show up otherwise. To give the latter a good tuning, some kind of physical movement is usually necessary: the twirling of a coin, a bit of pacing back and forth. Gradually, the I who thinks recedes and a greater intelligence emerges, articulating itself in visual rhythms and relationships. Qualities announce themselves—a sharp edge is needed here—often with an authority that takes me by surprise. Problems emerge and are resolved, all piloted by my knowing viscera. Concepts will show up later as a concession to reason, but I know the work’s real content is implicit in its form.
This insistence on implicit content is something I bring to the work of others. Knowing that the kind of empathic encounter I want will be violated if I’m assailed by concepts (and how often does an overeager gallerist deliver exactly this?), I avoid all explanatory literature until after a thorough viewing. Apprehension of the whole always comes first: the mood and atmosphere of the space, the smell of the materials. As my eye runs its hand along the contours of each work, my body registers new rhythms as I entrain with their qualities. Mental associations arise and are not dismissed, but are rather folded into my sensory experience. If I’m sufficiently moved, the shape of my consciousness shifts a little. If it shifts a lot I know I want to write about the work.
If my making and looking are done in the absence of language, the writing component of what I do of course cannot be. But here too my body maintains sovereignty. Since the act of reading is a somatic as well as mental event, here too I am crafting an experience for another body. Rather than what they will denote, then, it’s what the words want to do that comes first. What kind of rhythms and pacing; what structure and tone; what verbal atmosphere will transmit a felt sense of the work’s presence? Then there’s the aural texture, the chromatic resonance, of each word. And just as artists use negative space to give shape to form, what will be left unsaid is established early on, bounding my piece with its silent presence along the borders. Arriving last is the work’s explicit content, which is delivered, as it must be, in discursive prose. But the reader’s body knows better than to fall for this ruse. If I’m successful, her viscera will flicker with signals that have travelled all the way from the body of the artist, through her work into my flesh, on from me into the flesh of my words, and finally out from them into the electrochemistry of her organism. For I trust that the reader, too, consciously or not, will be running her own knowing hand over the race.
Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, University of California Press, 1982.