Q&A: Understanding David Ireland’s Art

Cup, spoon, concrete. Photo: Joe Rivano Barros / Mission Local.

On Friday, the former home of conceptual artist David Ireland opened at 500 Capp St. and visitors can now wander through and take tours to appreciate the work of the idiosyncratic artist who lived there from 1975 to 2005.

Karen Tsujimoto organized and wrote the accompanying book of a retrospective of Ireland’s work, The Art of David Ireland: The Way Things Are (2003) while she was senior curator of art at the Oakland Museum of California. (East Coast curator, Jennifer Gross, also contributed an essay.)  This week, Tsujimoto offered to answer a few questions about Ireland’s work.

 ML: In an oral history, Ireland called Marcel Duchamp, a patriarch, who set art free by saying everything we want to be art can be art. So, the urinal Duchamp finds on a New York Street in 1917, signs  and presents on its back to exhibit, becomes art. In much the same way, Ireland takes ordinary objects – brooms, wire, window frames and presents them differently. Where does Ireland depart from Duchamp?

KT: Whew, that’s a tough first question. Ireland is definitely part of Duchamp’s progeny. I don’t actually think David departs that far from Duchamp in philosophy.

Both wanted to strip the word “art” bare of all its accumulated historical and aesthetic meaning, reducing it to one of its most elemental states: art as a matter of personal choice. Hence: 500 Capp.

David once said he saw his work as embracing sculpture, painting, performance, and installation art.

He may have been less interested in readymades (i.e., Duchamp’s urinal), then in assisted readymades (such as his broom collection with boom). He was very interested in process, working with his hands.

In some of David’s late work he tips his hat to other artists he admires: among them John Cage, Yves Klein, Marcel Broodthaers, Joseph Beuys, and, of course, Duchamp, himself. His art is also influenced by Eastern thought and philosophy  such as Buddhism and Taoism, and his experiences in Africa. I don’t know that Duchamp ever went to Africa or Asia.

David was also more interested in a kind of environmental art, resulting in his work on 500 Capp, 65 Capp, Jade Garden, the Headlands Art Center, and other museum projects in which he physically and psychologically modified a given space. He spoke of this as “a sense of place.”

Bottom line, however, is that David comes from the same artistic gene pool as Duchamp.

ML: In the same interview – part of an oral history project at UC Berkeley – Ireland talks about his grandfather’s chair, its ordinariness and how it could have two fates : 1. Being sold. 2. Ending up in the house as a museum piece.  Does this demonstrate that art is all about context?

KT: Yes, art is largely about context and, I think, “choice.” David said this as well—but I think he was trying to break down the barriers. For example, the desk in his study is now considered a “historical artifact” because it’s in his handsomely preserved 500 Capp. Had the house been sold on the real estate market, the desk would have been seen as just an old item to discard.

Another example: David could have easily thrown away the brooms he found when initially clearing/cleaning out 500 Capp. But he chose to claim them as archaeological relics. SFMOMA owns the broom collection with boom, I think. I suspect that many SFMOMA visitors would be hard pressed to appreciate the piece in new gleaming, white galleries. The significance of the piece is best appreciated in the historical context of 500 Capp.

ML: For many viewers, conceptual art is hard to appreciate. How, for instance, should someone take in Broom Collection With Broom?

KT: David saved the brooms as “archaeological” evidence of the previous tenants of the house. Just as an anthropologist gathers pottery shards to piece together an artifact and a culture, David saved these modern relics to reflect the culture of 500 Capp and its previous use as a boarding house. Just imagine finding one very worn broom—let alone approximately 15 brooms— and pondering about the human labor and time that went into wearing the brooms down. And why were so many brooms saved?

The brooms were found scattered throughout 500 Capp. David initially wired them together into a freestanding sculpture, then later added the boom to stabilize the piece. Arranged from the least to the most worn broom, the work is not only a relic of 500 Capp, a social symbol of cleanliness, but it’s also a visual metaphor for the passage of time. How many days did it take to wear down one of the brooms?

Conceptual art is very hard to understand. Even I have a hard time with it. But with conceptual art, the “idea,” or the “concept” is the most important thing to the artist. Artfulness, beauty, or handsome design are of low priority. An example I often cite is a piece by Paul Kos, one of David’s good friends. He once created a piece titled “The Sound of Ice Melting,” 1970, for Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art, SF. For the work, Paul surrounded a block of ice with eight or nine microphones. This is but one of many mind-altering examples of conceptual art.

ML: As his career progressed was there a change in the kinds of objects he produced or the way in which he produced them?

KT:  Initially, David worked with a limited color palette: black, white, and  grey. I think he saw these as “non-colors”  and wanted to make art without the traditional “art” connotations (beautiful colors, handsome design, etc.) Beginning in the early 1990s, David started introducing vivid but limited colors into his work—red, yellow, blue—but the objects to which he applied the colors were still enigmatic.  When I queried him about this change in color sensibility, David admitted he puzzled about it, too, but in the end accepted where his intuition took him.

Yet, David admitted that color was always conceptually important to him. For example, he created a couple of early concrete paintings (ca. 1976) in red and yellow—colors that reveal his deep connection to Eastern thought. In Buddhist tradition red symbolizes activity, creativity, and life itself. In Hindu culture yellow signifies light, life, and truth.

David also later created pieces in a deep, rich blue—known among art folks as Yves Klein international blue. David’s decision to work with a blue so strongly identified with this French artist acknowledges his regard for Klein’s idea about using color to liberate the senses and intensify human experience. I don’t recall any “blue” pieces currently installed at 500 Capp. But some may be exhibited later.

Despite this change in color sensibility, I think David stayed true to his Duchampian roots: to make “art” that it need not be reasonable, logical, or beautiful.  What matters most is the will to discover.

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