A conversation with Lawrence Weiner
one of the pioneers of conceptual art. In the beginning, Lawrence Weiner
still worked on canvas; since the late sixties, language has been his
preferred medium, serving him as "sculptural material." Weiner’s is an art
that shifts the responsibility of realization to the viewer, whose
reaction is required to complete the work.
Weiner conceives his
language sculptures for public places, books, films as well as gallery and
museum installations. The New York-born artist took part in documenta in
1972 and 1982; in 2000, his installation
"NACH ALLES/AFTER ALL" could be seen at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. Cheryl
Kaplan met with Lawrence Weiner and spoke to him about his preference
for books, Johnny Appleseed and Öyvind Fahlström.
Weiner: NYC MANHOLE COVER, 2004
Eddie 'MacDawg' McShane, 2004
If you've been in New
York, chances are you've stepped on Lawrence
Weiner's work. In 2000, the Public
Art Fund commissioned the artist to create nineteen Con
covers. If you look down, you can still spot them. And if you look up,
wherever you are in the world, you'll just as easily find his work on the
sides of buildings, straddling towers, near a port, or etched in glass on
a local school building. The work takes the form of public art,
installations in galleries and museums, performances, films, records,
internet projects, and books - and can even be secretly patched into the
inside of your jacket.
I talked with Lawrence recently in
Switzerland, where he was on the jury of the Locarno
Film Festival. Dividing his time between Europe and New York, Weiner
is preparing for two major retrospectives, one at the Whitney
Museum of American Art in New York and the other at MOCA
in Los Angeles, both scheduled for 2007. I also visited him in his West
Village studio in New York. The walls of his studio are packed with
projects in progress, slated for every major city.
Photo: © Cheryl
Kaplan 2005, All Rights Reserved.
Kaplan: Your work uses language as a
sculptural material. Aristotle
talked about systems of barter and equivalents for money, for instance
that many pairs of shoes might be exchanged for a house. How does language
function in your work as a system for barter?
Weiner: In terms of barter or trade-off, if somebody accepts
responsibility for a work of mine they not only have the work attached to
their psyche, they're making it possible for a continuation of production
that enters the culture and keeps it going, where they think it's worth
Lauwrence Weiner, Installation in Madrid
People pass your work on public buildings and it becomes internal to them
and they take it away.
They do and they
don't have to know who the artist is. There are no credentials necessary.
It's like the manhole covers in New York or the Flakturm
in Vienna - the public pieces enter into their configuration in the world.
People on the street having no idea who I am; they'll talk to me about a
work as if it was a sculpture of an unknown artist.
to California in the 50s, you left sculptures on the side of the road like
road kill for the public to find.
I had a fantasy, and still
do, that artists are like Johnny
Appleseed or Simon
Rodia: you build something within a context and leave it for people to
figure out how to use it. I wasn't the only one. The sculptures were
adding marks within the society. It was a living attempt to be a part of
the general culture.
You've said: "De
Kooning figured out his life had more value than his place within
society." How did that observation change your thinking about art?
Photo: © Cheryl
Kaplan, 2005 All Rights Reserved
engagement of art for De Kooning took place on a canvas, while for me it
took place in whatever interaction I could arrange. It was a continuing
conversation within society that led one to realize that art was a service
industry rather than a building of objects. As Daniel
Buren would have called them, the objects were souvenirs. Some of
them, in De Kooning's case, are absolutely exquisite souvenirs of
conversation with the culture at a given moment. Art presents material
realities that, if you accept them, change your perceptions of the world.
If you don't, you can go your merry way.
What was your
connection to Pollock,
DeKooning, and Twombly ?
in New York was impressed by the Abstract
Expressionists. They were extremely generous. There were conversations
in public into the late 60s and 70s in Max's
Kansas City. DeKooning was a regular, so was Barnett
Newman. Other people were able to deal with that as well, from Robert
Smithson to Carl
Andre to Richard Serra
. I never met Pollock, but DeKooning I met, and Franz
Kline, and those were the people publicly present where my head was
You've described yourself as a "wandering sort of person
since you were a kid."
I see myself as a guest worker most
of the time, wherever I'm invited to work, taking an interest in the
culture I find myself in.