Lawrence Weiner

by Marjorie Welish

Lawrence Weiner, Vienna, 1991, Wiener Festwochen, Flakturm im Esterházypark. Photo by Christian Wachter.

Conceptual art is a visual art that is not retinal, or at least resists appealing to sight at the expense of thought. It often manifests itself in language that assumes the entire burden of compelling the viewer to read the signs on gallery walls. Conceptual art persists and is not amenable to the merchandising that subsequent decades have brought about. Whether they know it or not, formalists of the 1960s presupposed the early modern achievement of Russian and French artists and writers. Conceptual artists as well show the formal and structural bias of manipulating language operationally. Sites formerly intended for live events or “actions” now allow mental operations to substitute for physical behavior. Lawrence Weiner is among the most respected in the loose federation of artists that includes Robert Barry, Douglas Hueber and Joseph Kosuth, and extends to Sol LeWitt, who remains a key figure in artistic formalism. Weiner’s language refers to works both specific and general. In sites that are specific, yet treated categorically, Weiner’s words occupy the book, the gallery, the street, the stage. His words and work act as cultural irritants wherever they appear. Ranging from mildly to aggressively interventionist, Weiner’s verbal art uses formalism to drive a wedge into the cultural status quo.

Marjorie Welish The retrospective of your books and posters at the New York Public Library was titled Learn to Read Art. That’s just what viewers resist—why do you give us that imperative?

Lawrence Weiner That phrase is advertising a particular means with which you can go through life, it doesn’t tell you that if you don’t learn to read art you’re going to be fined, it just says: Learn to Read Art. I don’t see that as an imperative. All artists are attempting to communicate, in whatever form, and if you can learn to read that form then you can either accept it or reject it. If you can’t read it, then it doesn’t mean shit to you.

MW The word “read” replaces the word “see,” so it is provocative to those who somehow insist that art be taken in through the eyes.

LW Blind people read without seeing.

MW It’s both an invitation and a challenge—to read and, as the word implies, interpret—to engage in the visual in a more comprehensive way than through sight alone.

LW But we live in a world where each individual is unique and alone—and this is the definition from a $1.98 dictionary of existentialism—in an indifferent and often hostile world. If one finds oneself by virtue of one’s existence in an adversarial position to the world, if I find myself that way, then there must be at least another million people who do as well. That’s a lot of people. That’s a gold record.

MW What exactly was included in the show, and how did the show come about?

LW It was a presentation of all the books I’d made over the years. Small editions of about 300 to 1,000, so they are now quite rare. Robert Rainwater is one of those curators who is legendary in the United States. He doesn’t have any trouble with: Is it poetry? art? drawing? mock-up? . . . He can read it. I had a curator who could read. And a library that was devoted to reading, and they showed my books. And I was pleased as punch. It was probably the big show of my life. For a New York City kid from the South Bronx, the library was the most important part of my entire education. And having been involved a lot in political activity from Civil Rights on—I spent reasonable amounts of time in New York City lock-ups and holding tanks, so it was really rather nice that every son-of-a-bitch who ever thought I was crazy had to go by for four months and see my name on the front of the New York Public Library. I liked it.

MW In doing the show, did you learn anything? As you were reviewing the material, seeing it on display—did anything occur to you?

LW (pause) Quite frankly, no. I’m an artist, which means I’m in a position every time I start doing something to review things from the beginning. It’s only the production of one person, and sometimes as enormous as it looks, it’s still comprehensible to me. So I don’t think I learned anything aesthetically. Emotionally I learned a lot. I had to admit to myself that I made art because I was unsatisfied with the configuration that I saw before me. The reason I make art is to try and present another configuration to fuck up the one that I’m living in now.

MW Where do you see yourself now and where would you like to be artistically in, say, three years?

LW I see myself now, personally, in a very complicated part of my life—it’s not mid, late, or early, it’s basically nothing. I am one of those lucky artists who has been able to remain in exactly the same position as a human being as when I first jumped onto the ice floe. And luckily people have dropped sandwiches and cigarettes on the iceberg along the way, so I can sort of sit there. Where I’d like to be tomorrow is where I am now, doing public installations about things that interest me. I’m doing one in Denmark which takes over this whole city. I’m building the whole piece out of cobblestones. It breaks right into the highway, and on the highway people are offered a choice between paper and stone, and water and fire. Every single child knows what it means. I don’t know if adults know any longer. Fire and water means joining the circus; paper and stone is to make yourself a stable set up in that society. The piece runs through the vestibule of a building into this enormous courtyard, and in this courtyard it says, “When in doubt, play tic-tac-toe and hope for the best.” And all through the town this slogan is reiterated. So what do you do when a society starts to destroy its circles? You play tic-tac-toe and you hope for the best, you don’t just sit there and watch. That’s what we do as artists, our responsibility is to try to survive within society saying what the society might not be interested in hearing, but still surviving. Which is against this idea of the left-over left, that you have to lose. You don’t have to lose, but you do have to do what you do.

MW Then resistance in the form of silence is not an option?

LW Not for a person who stood up at one point in their life and said, “I am an artist.” If you are a fireperson and there’s a fire you are expected to go put it out; and if you are an artist and there is absolute brutalizing of the material value of either human beings or objects, you are beholden to say something.

Lawrence Weiner, Learn To Read Art, installation, New York Public Library, February 4 - April 8, 1995.

MW A recent installation of yours at the Castelli Gallery emphasized the word “stone” by incising that word many times into the gallery wall. Ampersands were introduced between each of those words. What did that mean?

LW What do you mean, what did that mean?

MW What did the introduction of the “&” as a graphic notation in a lexical display of the word “stone” mean?

LW I use the ampersand because of its difference from the plus sign. Plus is an additive thing and ampersand is an accompaniment thing. Sticks and stones with an ampersand is one thing. Sticks plus stones is another thing. But in this particular case—this was my 25th year of showing with Leo Castelli. (We’ve had a very wonderful, strange relationship of a dealer and an artist that was not about art dealing.) Leo always had a fantasy of having something cutting through the walls of the gallery. I figured, after 25 years, if that’s what Leo wanted, I would incise it into the wall. And it worked. Incising is how I address the idea of stones and stones and stones. With no implication of pond, no implication of thrown, no implication anyplace, just stones and stones and stones.

MW Incision induces a kind of materiality—

LW It’s a tattooing, that’s what it is. And once it’s tattooed, it’s just like painting it on the wall, the viewers still have to decide what to do with it. They have to decide if it functions for them or not.

MW That leads me to think about the nature of the sense and reference in what would otherwise seem to be a perfectly straightforward presentation of words. I’ve noticed elsewhere in your work that the words may seem to refer to something direct but they do not mimic . . .

LW No, they don’t resemble, they present. You ask where I want to be—I want to be able to be engaged in my existence. And at the same time I want the work that I’m doing to be informed by my contemporary existence, my existence now. I have to look at situations, at configurations, and essentially translate them into what their components are. The components themselves connote what will happen. There can be, as far as I can determine, four coherent truths for each individual act. The fifth has a tendency to contradict one of the four.

MW What are the four?

LW Whatever the four happen to be. That’s the point. If you mix stone and water, you will get about four different results—depending on what climate, depending on this and that. That means that I can determine and present what I see in the world with-out a metaphor. I place it somewhere, and the society that’s either trying to reject it or use it will give it its metaphor. That’s how art functions.

MW Then insisting on the formal relations between signs is a way of keeping the language on the level of language.

LW Because you really think that there’s a significance to the use of the ampersand which for years I called the “typewriter and.” It’s like the choice of saying “They are not,” or “They ain’t.” They’re both correct, but they both connote a different placement within society.

MW I’m interrogating you on the uses of language in your work. Formalisms that withhold their hedonism, or their hedonist possibilities, even as they present the challenge to create meaning, or an impression of meaning, is one of the most consistent principles I see when I look at your work. Does this ring true? And does material form not make your work, at least in some general sense, a kind of concrete poetry by emphasizing?

LW I don’t know how to read hedonistic as non-sensual. If non-hedonistic is non-sensual, then I don’t agree with you. One of the hallmarks of art is its sensuality. There is a sensuality in all materials. There is certainly a sensuality between any relationship of one material to another. The acceptance of sensuality is a necessity, and its existence is not hedonistic, it’s just realistic.

MW Many people would respond to your work as a cerebral enterprise, a withholding of pleasure.

LW We’d have to get into what constitutes pleasure. But withholding is a whole other story. I’m not withholding anything from anybody, because nobody asked me anything. That’s what everybody seems to forget with an artist. Everything I’ve done is this selfstanding “thing” . . . it’s not really in response to anything; I’m not trying to be a Pied Piper, I’m doing my job. I have to be a personality in order to get paid. Someone has to know where to send the check. We accept that. But the work itself, nobody asked for it! There’s no withholding. This is the way I would prefer people to approach their relationship to the world. So I present art in the manner I would prefer they approach it.

MW Exactly, against certain expectations of what “art” ought to be . . . . the withholding could be perceived by some as, “Where’s the visualization? . . . ”

LW There is no analogy that I can make. Because it’s not foreplay, it’s the whole thing: the immediate tactile response. There’s nothing, nothing, being held back. That’s all there is. And if that’s not enough, then I have a problem, and maybe contemporary art history has a problem. As far as its relationship to concrete poetry, there is none. Most of our academic concrete poetry is nice, but it’s bourgeois, it’s “Let us go against this.”

Lawrence Weiner, Stones & Stones & Stones..., 1997. Courtesy of Leo Castelli. Photo by Dorothy Zeidman.

MW I’d like to discuss the process of making your work by looking at some of the plans for works in progress here in your studio.

LW You don’t see work in progress on the walls. What you see is the means of figuring out how to present it to a public. If I want to be allowed to have this straight relationship to materials, and to live my life amongst objects, volatile and non-volatile, as an artist I have to present that, and each individual situation becomes the best way to present that particular kind of work. It may be a movie . . . it might end up in three or four different works looking for its place. Almost every work of mine doesn’t have a place. It doesn’t belong anywhere.

MW Are the works conceived before opportunities for showing take place?

LW I get fascinated by materials, and then I get involved in the fact that without any kind of watching, these materials start to mix together. They molecularly bind in some way. The work itself never has a place. Neither has it to be installed at any given time. It’s information being passed on.

I just did a show in St. Gallan, in Switzerland, based on this idea. For years we’ve been stuck in this problem of geometry being the necessity of our existence, geometry as we know it, because you have to get from one side of the river to the other. If you go to a place like New Guinea, they still accept the idea that they can build a bridge that’s not geometric, and it still gets you across the river—you don’t fall in the river, and you don’t get eaten by crocodiles. That’s the whole point of a bridge. So I would like to deal with the fact that the reason materials work and don’t work is not because the culture has found, in Calvinistic terms, the correct way things should be done; but it’s because for that particular point in time those materials chose to work that way. What’s interesting with quantum physics is that they’ve discovered they can have no theories, because if the metal is not enticed, it might not hold together that day, and it just falls down. Each individual material has with it a certain amount of energy, and the material itself, by response to the stimuli presented to it, decides whether to function that way or not.

MW And what do we see here?

LW You see here the rough scheme of a piece for Barcelona, a place called L’Avinguda Mistral. You see here, within a city resplendent with statues standing high above the population, podium after podium marked with the words of Frederik Mistral, this poet from Provence. The populace walks among the piece. There are three concrete pillars, or blocks, which are found standing among the fallen podiums. So what we have are the concrete pillars themselves taken off from their essential stance, and placed within the landscape, which is rolling. I had an intuitive feeling about the size of the concrete. I wanted it to be six meters long and they said, “No, why don’t you go for twelve, because there’s the problem of seeing and not seeing.” I said, “Six,” and we went out, and it turns out in the old town from facade to facade is six meters. So there’s six meter long slabs of concrete to which I mixed color—terra-cotta, ochre, blue—essentially as close as one can get to the concept of Mediterranean and Catalan colors. And then I decided what the substance of a popular sculpture would be. This is a working-class district, and I’m a working-class person. So essentially what became the necessity became the text: And something given to the sea, and something woven, and something forged, in Catalan in stainless steel inside the concrete.

MW I want to discuss the drawing. Hand-drawn phrases, “Atop, the placement of the place.”

LW That is just so the architect knows where they go. Then there’s a cut in negative stencil . . . there’s a poem about the language of Provencal; it’s in English, Catalan, Provencal, and I fought for Spanish. They didn’t want Spanish, and I said, You can’t do that, 40 percent of the population speaks Spanish, and just because someone is racist towards you, you don’t have to be racist towards them. These are the things which human beings have brought from the objects and materials of the earth, which is what artists are supposed to deal with. That’s why they hire an artist to do it. They want poetry, they go to a poet.

MW A slogan, actually hand-lettered on a diagonal, crosses the represented site. And on either side of the drawn park on this piece of paper are large Xs whose size are the same size as the lettering of the slogans themselves. To the right of all this is a legend of graffitied plinths in their site, and off to the right is Mistral’s poem. Your graphics reveal stylistic choices.

LW Artistic notations.

MW They are and they’re not. They’re more of a visualization of the verbal content than the final result, what the actual sculpture, will be. They’re a totally graphically dynamic presentation of something that will be much more homogeneous once existing in an actuality.

LW Okay, what you’re reacting to is interesting, it’s different publics. This is for the people who have to build it, the others are for the people who can use it. In fact, they can’t use it until they’ve built it.

MW But this drawing implicates a rhetoric—this is not a challenge, it’s an observation—the rhetoric of the Russian avant-garde in its self-conscious visualization of the space of the page. [Vasili] Kamensky slices the corner of his page, so that his four-sided page becomes five-sided.

LW His interest is for it to become five-sided. I used to take this paper and say, “I’m not going to sit here and say this isn’t an object.” It is an object and with it comes a tradition of design and political decisions on how to present things to the people who are going to build them. So, you take off the corners, and you make them into an object, there’s no more question that it’s some sort of ethereal thing.

MW Exactly. This is the real space of the page, not the illusion of the page. In these drawings, if I may call them that, these schemas, dynamism is introduced within the given space of the page. But it’s decidedly there. The diagonal alone gives you away.

LW It’s the street—the diagonal is the way the street is designed.

MW Yeah (laughter), but the style of your artistic solution is deliberate; the style itself signals a choice for semi-controlled anarchism.

LW I have something to say. And it’s about class. And it’s about consumption. Yes, whatever you’re saying is correct. But you have to remember that when you consume a CD, a play, an exhibition . . . that’s your interaction, not yours personally, but one part of the public’s interaction with the work. That’s the consumption aspect of the work. In order to build anything, there’s another whole set of problems, and in order to solve those problems and to make meaning clear to somebody else, you are required to make real political decisions about how you want to explain things to working people. I chose to be able to explain things to the installers who work in museums, and in public projects, and in movies, by telling them how I would like it to be—and I take it for granted that although I’m supposed to know an enormous amount about this, at the same time, I want them to bring their craft to it. And if they know they can build something that’s not going to fall down by adding two millimeters or two centimeters to it, it’s not a question for me. If they can mix the same color that I want by using something different, it’s not a question. My point is to get across the general idea of what I’m putting out. So these drawings are for the people who have to pour the damn concrete, who have to haul the stuff, and place in the letters. They are for them to read, and to give them a general sense of—I hate to use the word—the grandeur of whatever the object is that I’m trying to present, or whatever the experience is that I’m trying to present to somebody else. I’m having a relationship with them through these drawings that has really nothing much to do with the public. Often they print these drawings along with the presentation of the piece. I always think that’s funny, but I like the drawings, so it’s okay.

Lawrence Weiner, Place Mendes-France, La Marelle, Villeurbanne, France, 1990.

MW Of course these are functional drawings. But I can’t help noticing that along with their functional aspect is an aesthetic—and it is an aesthetic—that accords with certain avant-gardes, Russian avantgarde, and perhaps in this case Dutch avant-garde notation . . .

LW Or Dutch socialist aesthetic, like Piet Swart, whose drawings of a telephone instruction manual set the tone for how generations of Dutch people relate to the telephone. Sunlight in Barcelona is intense, so anything that’s stainless steel will reflect onto something else. So you might see Something Given to the Sea, or parts of it reflected from the stainless steel onto trees backwards or onto the sky because there’s a mist. This is a place that has more sunlight than you could ever imagine. It’s going to glisten, and it literally is going to have that ephemeral feeling of glistening in time. You can’t see stainless steel buildings in the heat without them having this funny fuzz and aura around them. And you’ll see in every one of these pieces, 70 percent of their existence will be glimmering in front of you. That’s the sense that I’m trying to convey. I want the builders to understand that when it’s sitting in the concrete it doesn’t have to be read like an advertisement. It’s not selling a product. People will have to move in order to read it, they have to get the glare, the glint, out of their eye.

MW Then this drawing would represent an effect or an expression of the intended material result?

LW For the people who are building it. It’s being socially responsible and allows me to question myself as to how I want this to look. Once this exists in society, they can print it in the back of a book, on a banner, on their ass, it’s all the same.

MW In the course of doing this presentation or any other, were there any stages in which heavy revision was necessary, a revision of your concept that shows in the drawing proper?

LW Yes. Installation drawings or instructions of mine from the sixties and seventies attempted to incorporate what I saw as a rejection of the superfluous within drawing. Slowly, I began to re-examine what was superfluous and what was not superfluous and how you can do it in a clear way.

MW But in the course of introducing many variables into an installation, surely you have determined how it will look. I’m asking you to recall an instance in which some revision of the concept was necessary.

LW I wouldn’t be able to determine that, it’s a natural process. I see decisions being made every day. So when you ask about developments within projects, let’s just say, you play games with things. It’s one of your prerogatives as a poet, and it’s one of my prerogatives as an artist. You’re allowed to play games with things, but in fact they’re real. So once you play that game and you find that it’s doing what you want it to do, you just keep playing it and you forget that you ever played it another way. So when you ask me to remember an incident, I already don’t. I remember necessities where I think something is not working.

MW But the nature of the game that’s being played is a kind of formalism with real results. Addressing that issue: Has there been revision, or if revision is an unacceptable word, how do you adapt the concept . . .

LW There are things politically I will not accept in presentation.

MW I’m talking about the present, a given drawing at a given time, in which there is a problem to be solved. I’m not talking about how the past looks upon the future or the future on the past, but about the nature of thought within the process of arriving at an installation or a presentation. Let’s talk about another presentation or drawing, this one is a stage set.

LW The kyogen is the entr’acte in Japanese Noh theater, a skit within the play. The Noh theater is quite idealistic and involved with the history and pageant of life. In the middle of this, somebody comes out and presents a skit that reminds you that you shit, piss, eat and fuck. It’s very earthy, and it’s always about that kind of thing. I’m making a little stage set edition that’s about the stage set they want to do. It pops up and says in Japanese, Apples and Eggs in blue. It pops up and says in Japanese, Salt and Pepper, in Looney Tunes colors, blue, red, yellow, black, and shiny white. Then in English it says: Apples and Eggs. Salt and Pepper. That’s the set for Madame Butterfly. Apples and eggs are something the Japanese culture is very involved in. And the American naval officer’s idea of refinement is salt and pepper. It’s called Stage Set for a Kyogen for the Noh Play of Our Lives. Our lives, meaning the Japanese and English. I made this out of cardboard, it’s an inexpensive edition.

MW Is this a proposal for an actual stage set?

LW You can get it built. I would like to see a stage where they came out with these things on cardboard plaques, do the kyogen, clear it off, and let the actors come back out and finish their Noh play. See, art’s not supposed to interrupt the flow of life, it’s supposed to bring to you information that changes the next course. Do you understand what I’m saying? It’s not a barrier, it doesn’t stop you from doing what you’re doing, but it changes the flavor.

Lawrence Weiner, Placed Upon the Horizon..., 1990, Vancouver Art Gallery Collection. Photo by Hartley Charach.

MW In this case it doesn’t stop the action, dramatically speaking. What would constitute a failure in the conception of a style of one of your installations?

LW The content of the work is something which fails for me when it has no material relationship of substance, when the material relationship that I’ve become fascinated with, in fact, has no significance. And that happens often.

MW Is that because the site that you had anticipated was other than expected, or is it about a formal relation that doesn’t kick in?

LW You’re still not allowing me to have this divergence between what’s being presented and the presentation.

MW Well, I’m investigating . . .

LW Presentation can fail because it’s klutzy. You’re a pro, you go into a situation, it could be the worst, broken-down alternative space situation or the worst, over-designed contemporary museum situation or the worst off-Broadway theater . . . whatever it is, your job is to be able to present your content within that in a correct manner. And if you don’t do it correctly, you fucked up, you’re klutzy. You just didn’t have enough of an attunement with what the space was. You couldn’t determine the space in a way that your content was not lost. Content is something else: the sculpture, the whole reason for doing all the rest of the stuff. That fails when it becomes obvious that the materials which fascinated you had too shallow a relationship or a relationship that was imaginary, and the materials themselves are not of enough substance to constitute any meaning for anybody.

MW Among the kinds of discourse floating around the art world now are those resisting rational language, structural relations, formal relations, and even a certain disposition of material relations in language. One sees it in art writing and art criticism where deliberately and lavishly irrational subjectivity is the very point of the discourse. It’s meant to confront the tradition of rationalism. Do you see this effort as an alternative world of language that is interesting in itself but of no interest to you, or do you see it as totally misconceived and misguided?

LW I’d say I’m not a believer in inherent structure, and yet I find this phenomenon of the irrationality you were just speaking of—although it does produce interesting products every once in a while (and certainly not misguided because it does serve the intellectual views every once in a while), it is effectively bourgeois. If you’re only reacting to one specific idea in the structure of language, one specific idea of the structure of history, and one specific idea of the comprehension of language and history, then you’re accepting something that your work is claiming it does not want to accept. Why not just do something without having to make the reference to what is not acceptable? That would be my major complaint with the whole thing.

MW There’s a precalculation of the reception of something that puts the sociology ahead of the ideal or the problem being addressed.

LW But that’s rather shrewd. My parents were from the South Bronx, Jewish, working class. And I never graduated from college. I’m considered to be a paradigm of the American WASP intellectual because I’m blonde and blue-eyed. In their eyes I was able to do what I do because I was that WASP. I came from a big family, I got a very good education . . . Now, I never said I was; I never said anything. Their presupposition was a commodification of the artist. I was on a panel once in Belgium. And somebody in the audience asked, “How do you people intend to make a living?” This was maybe 1971-72. I had a child I was raising and sort of getting by. But not enough in their eyes. And Carl Andre looked up and said, “That’s not my problem. The genius of the middle class is that they can figure out how to buy anything. My problem is to make it.” As an artist, your concern is to make this product, this thing, to stand for exactly what it’s supposed to, and not to worry about how somebody is going to put it in a bag and carry it home. They can figure that out, that’s part of their job. That’s division of labor. That’s the same thing as these drawings you’ve been looking at. I give a dignity to the people who say they can build something. I don’t have to tell them how to do it. To put that on paper would be a gross insult to their skill. Their skill is to translate my intentions into this thing. The artist presents art, it’s useful to the society; the society knows it’s spending time making money. Society pays the artist for that which enriches life, the artist uses the money to buy time to continue this work.

Art history
Visual culture
Installation art
Conceptual art
Winter 1996
The cover of BOMB 54