May 19, 2022

Charlie Doodle

Unique Art & Entertainment

Lawrence Weiner, Artist Whose Medium Was Language, Dies at 79

6 min read

Lawrence Weiner, who used language as the material for a vast body of visual art that operated outside the boundaries of poetry and aphorism in a vernacular all its own, sometimes Delphic and generally hopeful about the human condition, died on Thursday at his home and studio in Manhattan. He was 79.

The Marian Goodman Gallery, which had represented him for more than three decades, announced the death. The gallery did not cite a cause, but Mr. Weiner had been living with cancer for several years.

A pioneer of the Conceptual art movement — a description he spurned, preferring to call himself simply a sculptor — Mr. Weiner came of age in the 1960s, during art’s radical pivot away from objects and toward ideas and actions as the basis for a kind of work that shared substantial ground with philosophy, linguistics and anticapitalist politics. More than any other artist of that generation, Mr. Weiner settled on words — stenciled on walls and floors, inscribed on manhole covers, printed on posters, billboards, book pages, matchbook covers, life preservers and T-shirts — as his métier.

Early on, the works often functioned as bare-bones descriptions of actions that could be, but didn’t necessarily have to be, performed to create physical manifestations of art — “A 36” X 36” REMOVAL TO THE LATHING OR SUPPORT WALL OF PLASTER OR WALLBOARD FROM A WALL”; “TWO MINUTES OF SPRAY PAINT DIRECTLY UPON THE FLOOR FROM A STANDARD AEROSOL SPRAY CAN.”

But as time went on, the pieces, which he described as “language + the materials referred to,” became linked less to conceivable scenarios and more to states of being, language structure and abstract thought: “AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE”; “A BIT OF MATTER AND A LITTLE BIT MORE”; “(OFTEN FOUND) WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF EFFECTIVENESS / FROM MAJOR TO MINOR/FROM SMALL TO LARGE/.”

Of paramount importance to him, he said, was the interaction between the work and the viewers, who assumed considerable responsibility in taking it in, pondering it and assimilating it into their own experience, or trying to. Such an exchange happens with every work of art, of course. But Mr. Weiner (pronounced WEEN-er) considered his work highly collaborative, a continuing rejoinder against what he called the “aesthetic fascism” of the concepts of the masterpiece and the genius that prevailed for centuries.

If his work was sometimes hard to get a handle on, even willfully abstruse, he said it was because he himself was grappling messily with meaning, which he considered an artist’s fundamental reason for existing.

“I was one of those people who decided that the concept of being an artist was to be perplexed in public,” he told the curator Donna De Salvo in 2007 on the occasion of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York. “That was simply the role of being an artist, because the artist was to be invested in things that did not have a pat answer.”

In another conversation, included in the collection “Having Been Said,” he put the idea more bluntly: “The only art I’m interested in is the art I don’t understand right away. If you understand it right away, it really has no use except as nostalgia.”

Lawrence Charles Weiner was born on Feb. 10, 1942, in Manhattan and raised in the South Bronx, where his parents, Harold and Toba (Horowitz) Weiner, ran a candy store. He described his working-class upbringing as basically happy, though he was working part time on the docks by the age of 12 to make extra money and would later recall being threatened with reform school because of various bouts of delinquency.

He was accepted into the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and graduated at age 16. He then picked up odd jobs and wandered the country, imbibing the Beat mentality and trying to figure out what he wanted to do, studying philosophy and experimenting occasionally with Expressionist painting.

In 1960, while hitchhiking to California, he marked his progress by leaving small sculptures on the roadside. In Mill Valley, near San Francisco, he made with the help of friends what he considered to be his first work, “Cratering Piece,” a kind of anti-sculpture formed by setting off a series of dynamite charges that notched unauthorized cavities in the field of a state park. In its particulars, that work prefigured much that was to come: public, politically labile, made with sparse means and leaving no object behind.

The real epiphany came in 1968, during an exhibition at Windham College in Putney, Vt., with his fellow young artists Carl Andre and Robert Barry. Mr. Weiner, who was still dabbling in minimalistic painting at the time, decided to make a spare outdoor sculpture by forming a grid with 34 wooden stakes on a field and connecting the stakes with twine. But it turned out that the field was used for touch-football games, and the players quickly did away with what seemed to them to be some kind of surveying arrangement — certainly not art.

When Mr. Weiner saw the dismantled piece, he later said, “It didn’t seem as if the philistines had done the work any particular harm.” The work’s description, as a set of possible instructions, suddenly became sufficient. “And that was it,” he said. “It certainly didn’t constitute a reason to go out and beat somebody up.”

Shortly afterward, he wrote a set of principles that served him and some of his fellow artists as a kind of Nicene Creed of Conceptualism: “The artist may construct the piece. The piece may be fabricated. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.”

Over the next few years, his work was included in a series of exhibitions that became watersheds in the history of Conceptual art, including “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland, in 1969; “Information” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1970; and “Documenta 5” in Kassel, West Germany, in 1972.

Using an innovative contract formulated by the curator Seth Siegelaub and the lawyer Robert Projansky, Mr. Weiner sold his pieces in the form of documents that gave owners legal possession of the concept and the freedom to realize it in various ways as they saw fit. He also designated a number of works “public freeholds,” which could never be bought or sold and could be realized in consultation with him.

For many years, his work, despite widespread critical admiration and a procession of awards, did little to support him financially. “The whole problem is that we accepted a long time ago that bricks can constitute a sculpture,” he told the curator Benjamin Buchloh in 2017. “We accepted a long time ago that fluorescent light could constitute a painting. We have accepted all of this; we accept a gesture as constituting a sculpture.”

But things go rapidly south, he said, “the minute you suggest that language itself is a component in the making of a sculpture.”

Mr. Weiner and his longtime partner, Alice Zimmerman Weiner (they met in 1967 and married in 2003), raised their daughter, Kirsten, partly on a small boat, named the Joma, docked in Amsterdam, with no electricity or running water and little heat. “That was not easy and not fun,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2007. But he eventually became a household name in contemporary art, expanding the use of color and graphic-design forms in his lexicon and engendering pieces in numerous languages in so many countries that his résumé read more like an atlas than a list of works.

He is survived by his wife and their daughter, Kirsten Vibeke Thueson Weiner, as well as a sister, Eileen Judith Weiner, and a grandson. He lived in Manhattan’s West Village and Amsterdam.

In addition to his other works, Mr. Weiner devoted considerable time over more than four decades to experimental films and videos, including collaborations with the director Kathryn Bigelow.

Long equipped with a Viking-like beard that seemed to go hand in hand with the name of the distinctive font he designed for himself, Margaret Seaworthy Gothic, Mr. Weiner was known for his humor and for his generosity toward younger artists and students. In person, he was an unusual combination of working-class grit and Pan-European sophistication, smoking ragged hand-rolled cigarettes and speaking in a rounded basso profundo overlaid with an unplaceable accent, one that had decidedly left the Bronx behind.

In a conversation last year with the musician and artist Kim Gordon, trying to pin down the effect he hoped his work achieved, he said:

“The funny thing is, people make art for other people. The vision is to have a concert, and when everybody comes out of the concert, they’re all whistling something. That’s not populist — that’s just giving somebody something they can use. And that’s why the work that I make is about giving the world something it can use.”

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