Individual Plants and passages

This is an excerpt from the Book called “Robert Irwin Getty Garden  by Lawrence Weschler . Continue reading to learn more about Individual Plants and passages, thanks to the author.

Winter annuals: A rhapsody in gray; Things “Feeling Right”: Comparing the practices of artists and chemists; daydreaming and process. 

Irwin: That plant, by the way, that you just bumped up against is one of our little surprises. And we’re living with it as a surprise. We’ll have to get Jim to tell us the name of it. There are certain plants that you find that become kind of a feature. They can be features in different ways, in this case because of its very unusual physical characteristics. It’ll surprise you what it is: something out of the potato family (Solanum pyracanthum; left, top). 

Weschler: It has these amazing leaves that have thorns in the middle… 

 Irwin: Down the middle of the leaves, and all the way down the trunk. And they’re bright orange, which is really lovely, and they’ve got these little barriers. And these little purple flowers almost all year long. You see it and you say, “God, what’s that? “And then: “Where can I get one?” It’s a really interesting- looking plant. Look at how the thorns go both directions on it. Those people were looking at it. 

And not that untypically, we bought this plant and nobody had any idea what it was going to do. To begin with, would it survive? It could have just died immediately. We put it in there, just a little teeny thing. We still have no idea how big it’s going to get. This thing may end up being huge. Suddenly it got these barriers here at the end of the year, which we’d never seen before, which are amazing. 

We’ve got a number of plants that- not only does nobody know what they are- we don’t even know what the hell they’re going to do. It’s a real adventure. I mean, this thing may get so big… We needed this one in the beginning, but now it’s getting so big that it’s starting to become maybe out of character for this location. We may have to try to move it someplace else. 

Weschler: So, interestingly, this is a garden where this is here right now, but five years from now this may not be here. Five months from now it may not be here. 

Irwin: Very possible. In other words, we’re playing it as we go, you know- the plan is just a place to begin. We’ve got the whole thing in motion, and we’re just playing it as it lays and keeping it in play. 

This is something that we’ve just added into here for the winter, and it may also last this winter. All of a sudden I forgot its name. It’s a Scotch heather (Calluna Vulgaris; left, bottom), beautiful… But it’s a plant that’s not supposed to grow here. So it may only be here for the winter. 


And that’s another thing we’re trying to do here. You know most people plant annuals for the summer-time. We’re going to plant annuals that are just for the wintertime. This thing will likely not survive in the heat here, but it’ll do just terrific in the winter. So every winter we’ll plant it like an annual. Here’s another couple of plants that are in just for the winter. See the sticks. The red stick plant behind there (opposite). Here’s a yellow one over here. A white one. They’re really quite lovely. I like them because they’re really interesting bare. They’ve got real winter character to them. So for us, it’s an annual. 

This is a nice little succulent here too, isn’t it? 

Weschler: Now that’s a good example. That’s just an amazing- looking plant there. 

Irwin: Yeah, isn’t it? 

Weschler: Out of nowhere. Underneath the stick plant. Where did you find that? How did you find all these things? 

Irwin: Well, remember how I was saying about the industry being very limited? But there are so many people so in love with gardening and so in love with plants that you just have to know that somewhere in the world, somebody is doing all these different things. And so if you look long enough and you network back, literally go back into the woods in a way, you’ll find that there is somebody, in their backyard, growing this plant or propagating that one. Somebody, for instance, who is just in love with pelargoniums, and whereas you can find maybe five or six or seven in the nurseries, you can go there and they’ll have fifty of them. Now— 

Weschler: Finding that person. 

Irwin: Right, finding that person and getting them to let you have a plant or a cutting is another matter. Often they don’t produce them in any quantities, and getting them and then eventually being able to propagate them yourself, because you have to have a supply and you have to get them continually and that person may or may not be around very long… Plus, none of those people are really all that much in business, and they’re not that business like. We’ve found a couple of people who had some fascinating plants. But they never return phone calls. Or there, you know, “I‘ve only got one or two of those.” You can’t get them. But these people are terrific because they specialize in a plant and really get into it. And eventually you find out that if you look long enough, there’s somebody somewhere growing just about everything. 

And then there are the plant adventures like Gary Hammer, who purposefully travel all over the world discovering new and different species of plants and bringing them back to grow them themselves. The whole thing is an amazingly rich and exciting world. 

The thing about it is that by knowing that I didn’t know anything about gardening. I didn’t assume anything. And I knew I had to go out and do my homework. I’ll bet you I beat the bushes more than any other gardener around, because I had to. If landscape architects pursued things as much as I did, you’d see more plant material around, but you don’t. It might not be good economics, but it’s definitely where it’s at. Same as with the rocks and the butterflies I collected early on in my career, and the birds I used to have flying around my studio- they were all really incredible.

Plants and passages

Weschler: You mention the rocks, the butterflies, and the birds, but you weren’t dealing with plants in your early years too much, were you? 

Irwin: No. Gosh no. Not at all. But, God, they’re spectacular. 

Look at this little plant right here. I mean this is very, very subtle, but it’s really quite a beautiful plant (Athanasia acerosa). 

Weschler: We’re just on the other side of the second bridge. 

Irwin: There’s a bigger one over here, I think. But look at the color and the texture in this thing. Look at the one right behind it. Now, this is the area where the leaves are supposedly gray. Look at that one and look at that one and look at that one. You know, “No color at all. “Dull gray, you know. Blah-blah-blah. But, I mean, look at these things. I mean, isn’t that a beautiful plant? Look at the color green inside there. And then it gets this incredible gray. And look at the texture on this thing, and look at the texture on that, and look at the texture of that. Just think of those three textures. I mean, absolutely spectacular. And add that one in right there. Putting that one next to that big one right there. Look at the color: the silver color, only only with a gray- green into it. And this one here with the kind of almost a yellow- green to it. And yet it’s not: there’s no yellow in there. There’s no green in there. But I mean, aren’t they fascinating? And here’s two more. Look at this for a second. See the little sword thing, with the silver on the edge of it (Astelia nivicola ‘Red Gem’;left). All right. See how the silver edge on this in a sense is repeated by the white edge on that, but at a different scale. But the same kind of interlocking strategies. So these plants are very compatible on lots of different levels. They’re all doing exactly the same thing, same strategy, but all doing it at different scales, with slightly different characteristics. 

Weschler: And, as you say, all of this with what is traditionally regarded as one of the blandest of colors. One talks about somebody who slaves away in an office: “Oh, he wears a gray suit.” 

Irwin:  Yeah. Well, the point is there are no boring colors. The only difference between gray and the other ones is the level of subtlety. In other words, gray enquires a little bit more attention because it doesn’t slap you across the face. But one of the things about grays that’s more interesting than all the other colors is that gray can be influenced. In other words, red is so red that when you put other things next to it, it’s still just red. But grays…. as the light changes across the day, you will see it in the gray much more than you’ll see it in the red. The red will always tend to appear essentially the same. Whereas the grays will get pinkish. They’ll cast this way, say to a warm coloration, and then they’ll cast that way and become violet and later blue or green. And you can do special things with the grays that you can’t do with more saturated colors. In other words, you can set up a series of grays and then you can put in a color which will suddenly cause them all to lean one direction. Or on occasion to go opposite of what their normal inclination would be so gray actually has much more subtlety to it, a lot more richness in a lot of ways. You can do a lot more with grays than you can with other colors in some ways.

Weschler: I remember one of your favourite artists among the Abstract Expressionists was Philip Guston. 

Irwin: Yeah. I liked him a lot. 

Weschler: The grays and the pinks there… 

Irwin: And these plants here have a lot of that Guston quality. 

Weschler: I was going to say: the scrumbly quality of the gray.  

Irwin: Yeah. Right. And again, you can start talking about edges and the relationship of that to that- all these things touch each other, and they are all doing it on a textural level. And they can really. 

People tend to prefer, like, a single rose, That’s the sentimental favourite. It stands up, bang, and there it is.  But often it doesn’t relate well to anything, you know? Strangely, sometimes, they don’t even relate well to the plant they’re growing on. I mean, I’ve got some of those sorts of one- shot bangs scattered around the garden, but I basically prefer the ones that are interacting, touching and intertwining, and plants where the plant is in synch. I think they’re much more interesting.


 And it’s something you can only court: you can’t control it. It just does it or it doesn’t do it, but when it does it, it does it in such a way that you say, “God, I could’ve never planned that. I could’ve never done that.” 

Weschler: Looking at this specific instance here, what did you plan? 

Irwin: I didn’t plan anything, I found a number of plants that. I really liked that had different kinds of compatibilities, different kinds of overlaps. Some overlapped in terms of scale, some overlapped in terms of color, some overlapped in terms of texture, some overlapped in terms of structure. You find these overlapping capabilities and then you compose them together so that they act and interact and relate to each other. 

Weschler: And at the level of composing, what do you say to Jim? “I want that as ground. And I want this above it. And I want two of these.” Or what? 

Irvin: No, I just say “Gee, I really like this plant. Let’s out it over here. And that one… God, that one looks great next to it. Let’s put that in there and see what happens “. And then I’ll come back a few weeks later and I’ll say. “Nah, that’s a little too obvious. It’s not unlike how a chemist works; it’s all trial and error. You try this, you try that. You try this, you try that. 

Weschler: Talk about that analogy with the activity of a chemist. 

Irwin: Yeah. When an artist says, “It feels right,” people think, well, that’s just some kind of out-of- the blue, sort of “intuitive” statement. How can he say that? You know, what’s behind that statement? It’s always a little too vague. But it’s not as vague as they think it is, in the sense that a chemist, too, starts out with a concept and he sets out a kind of hypothesis and he has a strategy and he then does a process of trial and error. He’s got an idea where he thinks it’s going to go, and he tries this and he tries that, and he writes it down. This one reaction, whereas this one nothing happened. Every now and then he might make a discovery along the way, if he was paying attention. So that after he’s done ten thousand of them, you say” Oh my God, he discovered this thing, and this is how he did it”. 

What an artist does in a painting is not all that different. You start with the square of the painting is not all that different. You start with the square of the painting. You have a hypothesis, you have a strategy, and you start putting it together in terms of all these choices about what you include, what you exclude. You try this and you try that. You try and try and you finally come to a point where you go beyond. “Okay, I like that. I think that’s good. But what happens if I did this and this and this? “Some days you try all these things and finally, like a reverse- proof in mathematics, you end up confirming that it’s true because you’ve tried all the alternatives. 

If you do that for a few hundred year’s- or anyway, excuse me, for twenty years or so- you do that on like five thousand paintings, making these tactile decisions over and over, when you say something feels right, it’s the sum total of those ten thousand or two  hundred million decisions you’ve made. So it’s not just floating around somewhere in thin air. 

The same thing goes with this garden. Only there’s never been a more complex palette, and believe me, you can drown in this world. 

Weschler: I’ve been thinking for some reason as you were talking about the garden as a kind of daydreaming. Or of thinking, reasoning.  Letting your mind go. Letting the plants go. Letting the thoughts go. 

Irwin: Well, yes and no. I understand what you’re saying, but it’s much more contextually bound that that. There are boundaries, like I was saying about color, and it is more of a trial and error. And yet, at the same time you do definitely float. You’ve got to float when you’re doing it because it’s not a system, it’s a process.

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Individual Plants and passages
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