Lawrence Weiner, Conceptual Art Titan and Genius , Dies at 79

Lawrence Weiner, a godfather of the 1960s and 1970s Conceptual art movement, has died. Weiner died on Thursday at the age of 79, according to releases from Lisson Gallery and i8 Gallery, both of which represent him. The artist’s cause of death was not disclosed, however he claimed in a 2020 interview that he was undergoing treatment for an unnamed type of cancer.

Lawrence Weiner

Weiner dealt with the ephemeral nature of language and the manner in which words connote meaning through his sculptural installations consisting of koan-like writings. Despite his art’s apparent intellectual foundations, Weiner’s works are nonetheless filled with a rebellious attitude that has made them accessible to — and beloved by — a wide audience.

Prior to being well-known for his graphic text works, Weiner gained notice in the art world for works that required the persons who presented them to do certain responsibilities. Frequently, the actions required were bizarre and not especially useful.

For the 1968 composition A 36′′ X 36′′ REMOVAL OF PLASTER OR WALLBOARD FROM THE LATHING OR SUPPORT WALL FROM A WALL, the exhibiting institution is required to excise a square section of a wall using the dimensions specified in the title. A Conceptual art classic, the piece consists of the resulting item, as well as the instructions and action involved in its removal. The work’s medium is listed as “LANGUAGE + THE MATERIALS REFERRED TO” by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which owns it.

Weiner has been dubbed the “godfather of Conceptualism” by art historians, a title with which he frequently quarrelled. His 1969 manifesto “Statements” is widely regarded as a seminal document of the counterculture. It enumerates three assertions that appear to contradict one another: “(1) The work may be constructed by the artist; (2) the work may be produced. (3) The component does not have to be constructed.” It continues by implying that while the artist may influence how a piece is created, the person who mounts it is just as much of an author.

“Statements,” written during a pivotal point in art history, is partly a reaction to dominant views in the postwar art world. The Abstract Expressionists made a point of stressing over concepts of brilliance and painting as the ultimate form of art. On the other side, conceptualists like as Weiner, John Baldessari, and Joseph Kosuth disrupted the relationship between artists and the objects they create. This was no longer a one-to-one connection; more authors were now engaged, and the works could effectively be created by anybody. Additionally, an artwork was the final product of a process that was included into the work.

Weiner’s art has become less austere since the 1970s. His text works, which include phrases spelt out in his trademark stencil typeface, are frequently hung directly on the wall and may be shown in a variety of ways. Certain pieces indicate a fascination with visuality. TO SEE AND BE SEEN, one passage reads; AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE, another passage reads. Others perform semiotic plays, including art that repeats the words “HERE THERE & EVERYWHERE,” as well as wording that alludes obliquely to the inscription’s wall placement. Others allude to a political undercurrent—a 1991 piece sprayed on a Nazi military tower in Vienna says “SMASHED TO PIECES (IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT)” in both English and German, possibly referring to Kristallnacht.

These wall inscriptions may have become formulaic in another artist’s hands, but Weiner embraced the medium and kept it pliable. “Because Mr. Weiner’s words are malleable, appearing in one state and then another, they are not only constantly altered but also refreshed,” New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote in 2007 in conjunction with his first museum retrospective in the United States, at New York’s Whitney Museum.

Lawrence Weiner was born in 1942 in the South Bronx district of New York City. Although he grew up in poverty, he earned an education downtown at the illustrious Stuyvesant High School. He dropped out of school as a youngster and lived a nomadic existence, travelling around the country and even spending a brief period in the Arctic.

Weiner never intended to be an artist, but was drawn to it after seeing Alberto Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932) at the Museum of Modern Art. “If he can make that and it ends up in a museum, then I can do anything,” he reflected in a 2019 oral history with the Archives of American Art. Later in life, after relocating to California, he came into contact with a thriving avant-garde that had established itself in the Bay Area. According to his oral history, his earliest efforts were “poor Abstract Expressionist paintings.” Meanwhile, he became interested in socialist issues such as the battle for Black Americans’ civil rights and anti-Vietnam War marches.

A watershed moment occurred in 1968, when Weiner installed A SERIES OF STAKES SET IN THE GROUND AT REGULAR INTERVALS TO FORM A RECTANGLE—TWINE STRUNG FROM STAKE TO STAKE TO DEMARK A GRID—A RECTANGLE REMOVED FROM THIS RECTANGLE at Windham College in Vermont. The sculpture was essentially a grid of poles and twine embedded in a grassy field. Due to the fact that the field was also used as a staging area for touch football games, the piece was damaged when players cut the twine. “I began to see that it appeared to have significance,” Weiner recounted in the 2019 oral history. “People chatted about it, despite the fact that it was no longer there, and that was it.”

Weiner was asked to participate in Harald Szeemann’s iconic “When Attitudes Become Form” exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969. That exhibition is recognised with establishing Conceptualism as a legitimate movement, with Weiner contributing A 36′′ X 36′′ REMOVAL.

Weiner began creating wall writings in sans-serif typefaces that he admired for their universality, as he said in a 2020 interview with artist and musician Kim Gordon for Interview magazine. “I thought, ‘That’s OK. With it, I can communicate what I need to say, regardless of the typeface.’ Many individuals were able to replicate what I accomplished, which is commendable. That is the purpose of art. Art is intended for human use.”

Weiner developed a following throughout the subsequent decades despite his frequent exclusion from the New York art establishment. He and his wife Alice, as well as their daughter, spent 18 years living aboard a houseboat in Amsterdam that lacked power. Throughout, Weiner voiced strong opinions against the art world’s exclusivity and the elitism of successful artists. Meanwhile, he continued to amass awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Wolfgang Hahn Prize from the Ludwig Museum, and the Roswitha Haftmann Foundation Prize. He exhibited in the Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and the Venice Biennale in Italy three times each.

While critics recognised high concepts about language and its constraints in Weiner’s work, Weiner was pretty candid about his art. “The academy’s objective is to arrive at an answer and, at the very least, a solution,” he stated in the oral history. “However, the point of art is to raise questions, not to provide answers.”

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