Lawrence Weiner, an artist whose medium was language, dies at the age of 79
Lawrence Weiner, who used language as the material for a vast amount of visual art that operated outside the confines of poetry and aphorism in a very distinct, sometimes Delphic and generally hopeful human language, died Thursday in his Manhattan home and studio. He was 79.
The Marian Goodman Gallery, who had represented him for more than three decades, announced the death. The gallery did not name the cause, but Mr. Weiner had battled cancer for several years.
A pioneer of the conceptual art movement (a description he rejected and preferred to simply call himself a sculptor), Mr. Weiner came of age in the 1960s when art radically evolved away from objects towards ideas and actions as the basis of a type of work that shared with philosophy, linguistics and anti-capitalist politics. More than any other artist of this generation, Mr. Weiner relied on words – stencils on walls and floors, written on manhole covers, printed on posters, billboards, book pages, matchstick envelopes, lifebuoys and T-shirts – as his profession.
In the past, the works often functioned as sober descriptions of actions that could, but did not necessarily have to be, performed in order to create physical manifestations of art – “A 36” X 36 “REMOVING PLASTER OR WALL FLOOR FROM A WALL TO THE LATHE OR SUPPORTING WALL”; “TWO MINUTES OF SPRAY PAINT DIRECTLY ON THE FLOOR FROM A STANDARD SPRAY CAN.”
But in the course of time the pieces, which he described as “language + the materials mentioned”, were less associated with conceivable scenarios, but more with states of being, linguistic structures and abstract thinking: “AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE”; “A little matter and a little more”; “(FREQUENTLY FOUND) IN THE FRAMEWORK OF EFFECTIVENESS / FROM LARGE TO SMALL / FROM SMALL TO LARGE /.”
The interaction between the work and the viewer, who take on a great responsibility for absorbing, reflecting and integrating or trying to integrate it into their own experience, is of the greatest importance to him. Such an exchange naturally takes place with every work of art. But Mr. Weiner (pronounced WEEN-er) found his work very collaborative, an ongoing resistance to what he called the “aesthetic fascism” of the concepts of masterpiece and genius that had prevailed for centuries.
If his work was sometimes difficult to get to grips with, even deliberately absurd, he said it was because he himself messed around with the meaning, which he believed to be the artist’s basic right to exist.
“I was one of those who decided that the concept of being an artist should be baffled in public,” he told curator Donna De Salvo in 2007 at a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York. “That was just the role of the artist, because the artist was supposed to be invested in things to which there was no clear answer.”
In another conversation, included in the “Having Been Said” collection, he formulated the idea more clearly: “The only art that interests me is the art that I don’t understand right away. If you understand it right away, it’s really of no use except as nostalgia. “
Lawrence Charles Weiner was born on February 10, 1942 in Manhattan and grew up in the South Bronx, where his parents Harold Weiner and Toba (Horowitz) Weiner ran a small candy store. He described his upbringing in the working class as basically happy, although by the age of 12 he worked part-time on the docks to make extra money and would later recall being threatened with reformatory for various bouts of delinquency.
He was inducted into the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and graduated at the age of 16. Then he took odd jobs and wandered the country, soaking up the beat mentality and trying to figure out what he wanted to do, studying philosophy and occasionally experimenting with Expressionist paintings.
In 1960, when he hitchhiked to California, he marked his progress by leaving small sculptures on the side of the road. In Mill Valley, near San Francisco, with the help of friends, he created his first work, “Cratering Piece”, a kind of anti-sculpture that was formed by triggering a series of dynamite charges, which unauthorized voids in the site a state park. This work anticipated many things in its details: made public, politically unstable, with scanty resources and rendered useless.
The real revelation came in 1968 during an exhibition at Windham College in Putney, Vt., With fellow young artists Carl Andre and Robert Barry. Mr. Weiner, who was still engaged in minimalist painting at the time, decided to create a replacement outdoor sculpture by forming a grid with 34 wooden stakes in a field and tying the stakes with twine. But it turned out that the field was being used for touch football games, and the players quickly got rid of what seemed like some kind of surveying arrangement to them – certainly no art.
When Mr. Weiner saw the dismantled piece, he later said: “It didn’t seem as if the philistines had done any particular damage to the work.” The description of the work as a possible guide suddenly sufficed. “And that was it,” he said. “That was certainly no reason to go out and beat someone up.”
Shortly afterwards he wrote a series of principles that served him and some of his fellow artists as a kind of Nican creed of conceptualism: “The artist can construct the piece. The piece can be fabricated. The piece doesn’t have to be built. Since all are equal and in accordance with the artist’s intention, the decision on the condition on the occasion of the administration rests with the bankruptcy administrator.
Over the next several years his work was included in a number of exhibitions that marked a turning point in the history of conceptual art, including “Live in the head: when attitudes become form” 1969 in the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland; “Information” in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 1970; and “Document 5” 1972 in Kassel.
With an innovative contract formulated by curator Seth Siegelaub and lawyer Robert Projansky, Mr. Weiner sold his work in the form of documents that gave owners legal ownership of the concept and the freedom to implement it in various ways. He also referred to a number of works as “public property” that could never be bought or sold and that could be realized in consultation with him.
For many years his work did little to support him financially, despite widespread critical admiration and a procession of awards. “The whole problem is that we accepted a long time ago that brick could be a sculpture,” he says said curator Benjamin Buchloh in 2017. “We accepted long ago that fluorescent light could be a painting. We have accepted all of this; we accept a gesture as a sculpture. “
But it goes south quickly, he said, “the moment you suggest that language itself is a component in making a sculpture.”
Mr Weiner and his long-time partner Alice Zimmerman Weiner (they met in 1967 and married in 2003) partially raised their daughter Kirsten on a small boat called Joma, which is anchored in Amsterdam, with no electricity or running water and little heat. “It wasn’t easy and no fun,” he said in a 2007 interview with the New York Times. But it eventually became a household name in contemporary art, expanding the use of colors and graphic shapes in its lexicon and producing pieces in numerous languages in so many countries that his résumé read more like an atlas than a catalog raisonné.
He leaves behind his wife and daughter Kirsten Vibeke Thueson Weiner as well as a sister, Eileen Judith Weiner, and a grandson. He lived in the West Village and in Amsterdam.
In addition to his other work, Mr. Weiner devoted himself intensively to experimental films and videos for more than four decades, among others in collaboration with the director Kathryn Bigelow.
Long endowed with a Viking-like beard that seemed to go with the name of the distinctive font he had designed for himself, Margaret Seaworthy Gothic, Mr. Weiner was known for his humor and generosity towards younger artists and students. Personally, he was an unusual combination of working class and pan-European sophistication, smoking ragged hand-rolled cigarettes and speaking with a round basso profundo overlaid with an irreplaceable accent that had left the Bronx behind for good.
In one Conversation with musician and artist Kim Gordon last yearto capture the effect he had hoped his work would have, he said:
“The funny thing is, people make art for others. The vision is to give a concert and when everyone comes out of the concert everyone whistles. It’s not populist – it’s just giving someone something they can use. And that’s why my work is about giving the world something that it can use. “