Abstract: Robert Irwin’s ‘Line’ Paintings: Enabling Constraints and Clichés

Recently, I was told that my proposed paper I submitted to the First International Deleuze Conference in Asia was accepted. This is great news because I have never been to Taiwan before, but have wanted to go for some time.

Below is the abstract I submitted. It focuses on the “Line” paintings of Robert Irwin through the filter of Deleuze’s notion of the cliché found in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation and Brian Massumi and Erin Manning’s notion of enabling constraints found in Massumi’s recent book Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts and Manning’s Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy.


Robert Irwin’s ‘Line’ Paintings: Enabling Constraints and Clichés

An abstract for First International Conference in Asia.

Following the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s, painter Robert Irwin sought to capture in his work the same forceful dynamism these earlier artists produced in their work. With his “Line” series (1960-64), Irwin created a set of paintings that was more about the feeling activated in the seeing, rather than the imagery viewers might come to see. Through the use of simple marks and gestures on the canvas, Irwin composed these paintings so that the dynamic forces these works generated would be bought to the forefront of the viewers’ attention, backgrounding any potential representational interpretations.

This paper will argue that the techniques Irwin invents in order for his “Line” paintings to bring the dynamism are what Erin Manning and Brian Massumi call enabling constraints. Enabling constraints are techniques developed in order to modulate the diagrammatic forces of a work into an emergent form. I will assert that Irwin’s use of enabling constraints maximizes the presence of these forces within the shared experience between his paintings and viewers, while simultaneously attempting to curtail the emergence of what Gilles Deleuze calls clichés. For Deleuze, clichés are everywhere. They are techniques, ideas, or occasions that are or have become too familiar and are ready at hand for use. If Irwin was to create paintings that avoided clichés altogether, he had to ensure that he was not filling his work with them. He had to constantly question whether the techniques he used were enabling constraints or clichés.

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