The Center of a Present Action
The average person will look at a work of art for 27.2 seconds.1 In this moment, what will they see, what do they think, what can they know? Let’s take a longer moment to look at a particular work of the artist David Ireland: a concrete painting from A Portion of: From the Year of Doing the Same Work Each Day (1975).
Start by looking at the cracks, the bevels, the rough and ragged surface of the concrete. See the uneven, worn structure. Look at how its surface seems so familiar and think how this could be any of the worn and depleted, weathered strips of concrete found anywhere. Know that David Ireland was fully familiar with the concrete of a city like New York. He could see the concrete on walks to his studio each day. Looking down, he could see it under his feet as sidewalks and streets marking changes from one place to another. Towering upwards, the concrete buildings rising high into the sky are symbols of progress and mastery by man over an elemental material. Ireland could see how concrete interacted with the environment and knew how it could act as a universal and basic tool.2
Take a moment to consider the concrete itself. Look at the folds and layers piled up on themselves. See how the familiarity of the concrete can lead to the sensation of feeling, the feeling of concrete burning under the summer sun or frozen over in winter. Just by looking long enough, you even get a sense for the dusty and rugged odor that permeates from the work. Ireland discovered this sensation of concrete as a tool following earlier experiments with other tactile material – copperplates, dirt, folds, and creases in paper– leading him to the idea that a deliberate process and repetition could integrate somatic experiences and bodily sensations into the artwork.3
Look closer still. Look past the surface of the concrete and the flakes of clay, sand, and shards of hardened gravel. Think to the moment before this was solid concrete – when it was all still a cement mixture of limestone and clay, sand, and gravel. Think of that moment, just before the cement was mixed with water to create a slurry. See the variations in the material itself and see those moments of Ireland spreading the cement over the canvas, forcing the wet cement to interact both with and against itself. Think of the transformation from one thing to another, beginning at one point before ending up as something else entirely.
Know that cement was cheap and available for Ireland. He could easily find a 94-pound bag of cement and use it again and again, over and over, every day. Know that Ireland spent his days in 1975 going to his studio, laying out a carpet of cement and immersing himself in an environment of gray dust that he would mix with water before covering over the canvas. Know that he repeated these actions until there was nothing left of that 94-pound bag of cement.4
Look to the color or lack thereof. See the variations of gray, the coldness and the distance it creates. Look at the nothingness that it appears to have in its seemingly monochrome and minimal aesthetic – its sparseness and reductive nature. See that emptiness, that void. See also, the capaciousness contained therein. Consider this emptiness, this space, containing all of the things that are not there. Know that we are left to confront this work, on our own, and on equal terms. Here, there is no painterly mark or signature style of a painter. See how Ireland removed himself from the artwork in his rejection of twentieth-century painting’s history of mark-making along with its associated symbols of the id and the ego. Know that Ireland rejected the idea of mastery over a material in favor of collaboration– that the material and the process itself was enough.5
Know that when the cement bag had been depleted and all of the canvases were covered, their surface having been transformed into concrete, Ireland discovered that he could continue the gesture of absence, of detachment. So, he began to discard each work – one each day – until they were gone, into the void. And this transformed the artwork once again, into something conceptual, into 94-pound Discard. But the discard was not entire. Ireland kept a few of these works, and it was this act of holding on that made it a relic of what had come before.6 And thus, this process of artmaking became transformed once more through Irelands conception towards his own experience with these objects. So, now, here in this moment, as we experience looking at the object, this relic allows us to think about one last thing.
If we take the time to look at all of the things present here before us, materially and conceptually, then maybe we can see in this Portion of: From the Year of Doing the Same Work Each Day, that the things contained by their own materiality are bound to all of the things that came before, and to all of the things that followed. This artwork shows us how a deliberate process can materialize the myriad moments that make up the nature of daily life. So, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that a series of concrete drawings, then concrete discards, then concrete relics, allows us to experience the world fully without overlooking it.
“All bodies, however, exist not only in space but also in time. They continue, and at any moment of their continuance, may assume a different appearance and stand in different relations. Every one of these momentary appearances and groupings was the result of a preceding, may become the cause of a following, and is therefore the center of a present action.“
– Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
- L.F. Smith, J.K. Smith. and P.P.L. Tinio. “Time spent viewing art and reading labels,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11 no. 1 (2017), 77-85. https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000049
- Diego Villalobos and Bob Linder, “The David Ireland House,” Open Space – Field Notes, May 1, 2017, https://openspace.sfmoma.org/2017/05/the-david-ireland-house/
- Karen Tsujimoto and Jennifer R. Gross, The Way Things Are: the Art of David Ireland (Berkley: University of California Press, 2003), 11.
- Karen Tsujimoto and Jennifer R. Gross, The Way Things Are: the Art of David Ireland (Berkley: University of California Press, 2003), 7.
- Betty Klausner, Touching Time and Space: a Portrait of David Ireland (Milano: Charta, 2003), 74.
- Karen Tsujimoto and Jennifer R. Gross, The Way Things Are: the Art of David Ireland (Berkley: University of California Press, 2003), 23-24.
Steven Loscutoff (He/Him) is a Bay Area native with a background in arts administration in advancement and development. Loscutoff has held positions at California Humanities, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and SFJAZZ. Prior to working in the nonprofit field, he operated his own art and design business creating paper goods. Loscutoff is pursuing an MA in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, earned a B.A. in Art History from Arizona State University and two Associate degrees from City College of San Francisco in Arts and Humanities and Marketing. Loscutoff joined The David Ireland House in 2020 as an Artist Guide.