An Interview with Robert Irwin

By: Phil Van Soelen

Phil Van Soelen is the co-owner with Sherrie Althouse of California Flora Nursery, a small, unconventional nursery devoted to California…

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The Central Garden at the Getty Center

As a complement to the article by Paula Panich on the Central Garden at the Getty Center, in the January 2009 issue of Pacific Horticulture, we offer her interview of the artist Robert Irwin, originally published in the Los Angeles Times.

At the Getty Center’s Central Garden with Robert Irwin: An Interview

By Paula Panich, special to the Los Angeles Times

July 24, 2008

ARTIST Robert Irwin, designer of the Central Garden at the Getty Center, sits on a small curved bench in the dappled shade of London plane trees he chose. In the ten years since the garden opened, the trees haven’t quite created the canopy Irwin envisioned, but they will — just without him around.

After walking this landscape once a month for a decade, watching it change, noting every plant and responding with his artist’s eye, Irwin quietly retired this year, ending his role as shepherd of what he has long called “sculpture in the form of a garden.” Artistic oversight of the design, considered by the J. Paul Getty Museum to be an important piece of its collection, will fall to Irwin’s collaborator, plantsman Jim Duggan.

It’s a milestone for a garden long marked by controversy. Initially, many asked: Why choose an artist without garden experience? Why combine plants so unconventionally?

Love it or not, millions have engaged the three parts of Irwin’s design — the Stream Garden, the Plaza and the Bowl Garden. They have zig-zagged down the stream’s path, passed the bougainvillea shooting from rebar bowers, crossed over the water cascading into the pool below, then strolled into the intimate, exuberant spirals of the Bowl, centered on its water-bound azalea maze.

The artist, who turned eighty in 2008, has been consistent in his view that “art doesn’t reside in the object but in the moment.” He recently took a break from his busy schedule for one more walk through the garden and a Q & A marking its tenth year.

Question: What could you not have imagined a decade ago?

Answer: I had no idea that this many people would come — twelve million or something. It probably would have been a frightening idea in the beginning. And then the level of commitment a garden requires…gardens are intense. It’s really an issue of values.

How so?

It’s my observation that gardeners and gardening for a very long time have had to take a back seat. Architects are very famous; they’ve got huge projects. What goes on in and around them has been relegated to a very minor role. When I talk to these people [landscape designers], I’m inclined to point out that this could be their day in court, you know.

When I first started making proposals for the garden . . . they said, “You can’t do this.” They all said, “It’s not really a garden.” And I was very taken back by that, because I couldn’t understand approaching something with everything already defined. And it seemed to me that that’s an odd way to approach the world, especially a world as rich as the world of plants. There’s no palette as rich as a garden. And the intensity of it…I make this statement all the time: you can’t plan nature; you court her.

How did that work here?

You have to start somewhere, with some kind of plan. But almost every time, somehow nature just took over and did something much more exuberant, much richer, much more complicated. There are things that happen in this garden with the way plants group together — they do things that are just extraordinary. So you are always going through it and feeding back: “God, look at that. I would have never thought of that. So let’s play with it, let’s push that a little bit.”

How did you think about the garden in the beginning?

I was going to try to do a garden that somehow represents this moment in time. But what would a twentieth century garden look like? I saw some famous ones from the 1930s. They were essentially gardens laid out like a Cubist painting. They were ways of looking at the world. That’s not what a garden is. A garden is an adventure, and nature is probably the closest thing you’re going to get to that kind of — moving in a world, you know — push-pull, in-out, up-down, right and wrong. After a certain time, once the garden got going, it changed all the rules. It did things that were so much better than I had thought. . . .

Even today…I haven’t been here in a while. I’m no longer working here. I’m no longer monitoring it or whatever I did. I had trepidations about that. I still do. But it’s looking good. It’s looking great, so I’m feeling much more comfortable about it. I don’t know how long that will last.

There was much controversy when it opened. How did you react?

It was humorous then, and it’s humorous now. There was a lady who wrote an article in The Times, saying, “You can’t grow azaleas in the sun. You can’t this and this and that” — you know? But the idea that I would be dumb enough to do something like that on my own — I wouldn’t.

You’ve spoken of color — its weight, physicality and density. This is a discussion many gardeners have not heard. Would you comment?

If I hold up a red square for thirty seconds and take it away, you will see a perfect green square. It’s how the eye works. So if you want to paint a really good red painting, you have to strategically place in some green, so the eye is brought back. . . .

The thing about a plant is, let’s say it will have fifty or a hundred little points of bright red. If you look at the thing as it goes down, it becomes green in a way. . . . It is way more spectacular than pointillist paintings where these things are played with, but never to the level of what happens in nature. You start looking at this stuff and it just blows your mind.

In 1998, you addressed the question of what would happen when you would no longer be involved with the garden. You said its spirit, strategies, scale and relationships would still be here — that it would have the strength to survive being lived in. Do you still feel that way?

If you start doing things in the public domain, it has to live with change. It’s inevitable. It’s going to happen, so it has to be strong enough to have enough character, enough backbone in a way, that you stick a piece of sculpture in it, it didn’t kill the garden. [To Irwin's dismay, a 1950s Leger sculpture was placed on the garden's plaza.] It was inappropriate and invasive, but the garden is strong. . .

And then if it really has that kind of authority, then people begin to chaperon it and take responsibility for it. Then it lasts into another era, and then it becomes both really an enrichment and a problem. So people start using it as a precedent — and everything is a precedent, you know?

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