1.5 / Work(er)

Interview with David Ireland

By Terri Cohn December 16, 2009
Rodeo Room (1987), David Ireland, commissioned by Headlands Center for the Arts, Marin Headlands, CA. Photo by Richard Barnes. Courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts.

David Ireland and Conceptual Art: Some Thoughts

September 2009

Throughout his career, David Ireland merged his life with his art in remarkable ways. As a sculptor whose vision was nurtured during the 1970s by the process- and concept-based practices of conceptual artists in the San Francisco Bay Area, his consistent interest was to restore a voice to objects, materials, and environments that have been neglected or overlooked.  One of Ireland’s primary ambitions was to create work that is so well integrated into existing spaces as to be fundamentally imperceptible, an approach that was kindled early on by his involvement in Tom Marioni’s The Restoration of a Portion of the Back Wall, Ceiling and Floor of the Main Gallery of the Museum of Conceptual Art (1976).

These introductory words, which I wrote as part of an essay about David Ireland’s work that was published in Sculpture in March 2005, grew out of a series of conversations we began in 2002. The first interview we did was part of a series I completed with sixteen artists who were central to the genesis of the Conceptual art movement in the San Francisco Bay Area during the early 1970s, among them Tom Marioni, Paul Kos, Linda Montano, Howard Fried, Bonnie Sherk, Jim Melchert, and Lynn Hershman. While these individuals are still actively engaged in their work as artists, a few artists in this group—Terry Fox and David Ireland—have recently passed away, Fox in 2008 and Ireland in May 2009.   These interviews are central to a book I am writing about the evolution of Conceptual art as it emerged on the West Coast, with a focus on the San Francisco, and the remarkable roles these artists played in experimenting with new approaches to art making.  Although there was little support and almost no place to show their work in the Bay Area in the early 1970s, the lack of existing venues for experimental work also meant it was fertile territory for development.

The invitation to contribute my interview with David Ireland to this first issue of Talking Cure quarterly has provided a chance to consider what aspect of David Ireland’s life and work would be most meaningful to share with those who are familiar with certain well-known facets of Ireland’s life and career-- particularly his house at 500 Capp Street and his process-based approach to working with materials and ideas—as well as with readers who know little about David Ireland and his work.  It became clear that the conversations David and I shared about his art and life--especially our discussion about what Conceptual art is--are particularly revealing, as he expressed his concerns about “idea art,” his deep relationship to materials, and the significance of process in linking them.  Ireland’s concerns about certain ideas central to Conceptual art led him to talk about the importance of tools to his way of thinking about Conceptual art, bringing to mind Sol Lewitt’s notion of how “the idea becomes the machine that makes the art.”  David also talked in depth about the importance of the community of artists in San Francisco--Paul Kos, Howard Fried, and especially Tom Marioni--who became his friends and influenced his thinking and approach.

This version of my interview with David Ireland is a portion of the longer interview which we edited together, that will be included in my forthcoming book. My one regret is the fact that David didn’t live long enough to read these words in print.  Fortunately, many other books and conversations with David Ireland were published during his lifetime.

It is with gratitude and respect for the chance to have spent time with this remarkable artist, learning more about his art, life, and thinking, that I dedicate this interview. 

Interview with David Ireland

Original interview October 8, 2002; transcription edit agreed upon with DI, April 11, 2003.

David Ireland: I wanted to say something here about never trusting my own feelings about the word “conceptual;” Conceptual art.

Terri Cohn: You have mentioned that before.  Why don’t you talk about that.

DI: Well, Conceptual Art is idea art, where there’s an idea, usually before you set out to make the work, or afterwards like a chance drawing of things like John Cage has done could be thought of as that.  It seemed that idea art was just for artists who had an idea, but it has really discredited people by making an assumption that if you are a painter, for example, you couldn’t be a Conceptual artist. So it’s a sensitive term, I think, that assumes that no one had an idea besides a Conceptual artist. I know I’ve talked about it before, and my feeling hasn’t changed too much about that.  I like to think of being an artist or being a sculptor, but not specifically a Conceptual artist who has only ideas. It’s interesting to look at all of the Conceptual artists that we’ve known. They have had some brilliant ideas, but we have to allow for artists who would refuse to acknowledge that they’re part of Conceptual art.

TC: I agree, there has been a lot of misunderstanding about the term Conceptual art, certainly among young artists today. I read a really good essay that Arthur Danto wrote in his book The Madonna of the Future.  He was talking about Robert Morris’ sculpture, and exploring the idea of when a pile of dirt is a pile of dirt, and when a pile of dirt is a work of art. It’s tricky area of discussion, because when you work as a Conceptual artist-- as artists of the ‘70s used the term--the idea was actually decided on ahead of time.  Since then, Conceptual art has come to be all kinds of stuff.  Everybody today is a “Conceptual artist.”

DI: That’s right.  But do the young artists today call themselves Conceptual artists, or just call themselves artists?

TC: I’ve heard them call themselves various things.  Anyway, as I understand it, with Conceptual art, the idea is decided upon ahead of time and then the idea becomes manifest with materials.

DI: Well that’s a little iffy too, don’t you think? Because theoretically, you would sit down like Sol Lewitt and start looking at possibilities of lines that are contained within a drawing and you would make an observation. I wanted to be an idea artist, of course, but I don’t think you go around saying “I want to be this” or “I want to be that”; you do it. You just do it, do what you do because you like it and it feels good to do it. My own thing is, I could see some kind of a credential was necessary: that you develop your credential. Then maybe you look at different artists that you would have overlooked otherwise, and maybe you had to go back to school to study a little differently, whatever that might mean.

I think I got that idea of a credential from Alan Kaprow.  He felt he needed the credentials so he could do what he wanted to do. In other words, he wanted the credential to be more advanced degrees than just an MFA, but he didn’t have a degree in art history or art psychology or some other thing. The general academic community accepted him based on what they knew of anything. So when he got his foot in the door because he had these endorsements from the art history department at UC San Diego, he did all his creative happenings.  But he needed the support of the academic community before they would get up out of their chair and take note.

…In terms of my work, I wondered, “what can I do with printmaking that will not be looked at as printmaking, but it will be done using printmaking tools?  The key word here is tool. That no longer using media, but the tool is what allows us to manifest--to make known--that it’s an observation that we want to make. I think Sol LeWitt keeps coming to my mind because he can sit down at a table and work out some wonderful drawings, and they’re all based on the different possibilities that are available to him…. The tool is in place of the medium. Some ask, “what medium is used”? I say, “I don’t use a medium, I use a tool, and if the work has failed, then I used the wrong tool.”   The wrong tool is when the artist didn’t have a clear vision of what he wanted to say, or what he wanted to be seen by the viewer.

TC: Did you feel that being here in San Francisco during the 70s supported you in your thinking?

DI: I’ve never asked Howard Fried or Tom (Marioni) or Paul Kos what their position was about this. Tom has got a great selection of tools for the things that he can see to do with an art work.  It has helped me consider the possibilities, like with his Drum Brush Drawings.  It was good to see that there was the possibility to make an artwork like he does, by drumming on a piece of paper.  Paul was doing wonderful work, and Howard, of course, but he’s part of a younger community. I learned a lot from those guys, from observing them and seeing how they’ve handled particular situations.  That’s part of the fun too. I think among the four or five or six of us, we are kind of a “rat pack!” We overlap maybe, but we don’t encroach on somebody else’s work.  If I notice I am doing that, I know I have to look for new territory.

TC: How does that relate to the question, how do you feel living in San Francisco has supported your vision in what you’ve tried to do?

DI: We stick close together, those of us who we consider a “family” of artists.

TC: It seems that during the early ‘70s there was huge potential to do what you wanted because there wasn’t much of an art scene here.  And, it seems that the climate in San Francisco at that time was ripe for an artist like yourself who was interested in breaking the rules.

DI: I think what brought me back from New York was that I could see that the fun work was being done in San Francisco and not in New York. New York was still working on the market.  I was going to gut my house to be a studio, a living studio one floor down and then up. Then I got into the house and saw it not in an architectural way, but in a sculptural way, which really was about sculpture the way I was completing it and cleaning it up and urethaning the walls and doing things. That satisfied me. But I also had to do what every artist at some time has to do, and that is maintain your own life. 

TC: Was it the house that led you to start to deconstruct buildings--to take them apart?

DI: Yes, but I have to be completely honest. I thought that here would be an opportunity to do what I’ve done at the Headlands, but make it more public. I went through the "tool" phase, where I literally had the doors opened  for people to come in and look around.

TC: In the house?

DI: In the house, yes. That got kind of scary after a couple of years of having an open door policy. Headlands, in actuality, produced the kind of space that I needed to recreate this kind of thing. It was like a Vermeer painting, something like that.  It followed the light that came in to the project. A quality of light, just like we have (in the house) right now.

TC: It’s gorgeous.

DI: It changes through the day.  The Headlands presented the same opportunity for work like that. So I started to get a reputation for doing distressed work. Something that was distressed would appeal to me.  There were several other things like this distressed space. I never used that word before, but it seems like a good term, distressed space.  It kind of asks, does one want to be thought of as an archaeologist?  There were other artists working that way during the 70s. I wasn’t even thinking about them.  Artists like Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson.  Smithson died in the early ‘70s.  I liked looking at his work, and Matta-Clark’s and Michael Heizer’s;  there were about a half dozen artists in that group who were working on a big scale, which I liked.  But I wasn’t looking and seeing what they were doing; I was just doing my thing. In a way it felt like I was part of that group of guys.

TC: Did they serve as like an inspiration in some ways to you?

DI: I would say to myself “I could do something with this space that’s not being done by anyone else.  No one to this day has said “You must have taken that idea off of somebody else.”   Somehow, the idea of Conceptual art is freedom. You adhere to it and its principles, which are simple, but you can do anything.

TC: It’s an interesting connection, that through process you became involved in the Dumb Ball work.

DI: Exactly.  That was a pure process piece, and the success of it was inherent to the process. If you didn’t adhere to the process, the end wouldn’t work. So I think I still cling to that process notion.  Again, I have to repeat that its failure to work is the failure of the artist who brings together necessary ingredients that makes it work, and that makes it work conceptually.  That’s probably as concise as I can make it….Thinking about this house, there may be a whole bunch of metaphors happening here, and there are some smaller objects which I’ve kind of quarried, like a mine quarry in the basement where there’s lots of dirt.  Every once in a while I have something that I want to do with some dirt.  So I call the basement the “Gold Mine”.  Working with the dirt is really very much like alchemy.

TC: Seems there’s sort of a holistic relationship of parts.

DI: Yes.  Like in this cabinet over here, which was my parents’. I put a painting inside to propose that as soon as it entered that cabinet, it became sculpture. There’s got to be some reason for putting the painting in the cabinet, and the cabinet positions were clear. I put the cabinet there to protect the painting, but in that act of doing that, it became sculpture.

TC: It’s interesting how it reframes, so to speak, what the painting is… .

DI: This is one way to do it. I’ve done several cabinets, and they’re for protection or for isolation. Isolation is an important issue as well.

TC: How so?

DI: Isolation means we’re offering something some protection.  My thought about the varnish on the walls was that it was protecting the work...protecting the Vermeer painting by isolating it! The wall is historic, so I’m kind of referring to that.

TC:  It also accentuates that play with light by both absorbing and reflecting it.  It enhances the quality of the wall and what the light and the wall do, or the light and the painting do.

DI: You’ll find, as time goes on, that I’m full of contradictions.  That's a privilege I think of as a Conceptual artist. …More and more I think the search for clarity on my part is not dissimilar from the writer’s position: the artist who makes an artwork that’s significant and well thought-out, and the writer who wants to write about something using the most complete, concise, significant, important words.


Terri Cohn is a writer, curator, and art historian, was was a contributing editor to Artweek magazine for twenty years. Fascinated by the zeitgeist for decadess, she is currently intrigued by contemporary interpretations of traditional genres, the conceptual life of objects, and a return to storytelling.

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