lawrence weiner

and the flesh became word ...


Lawrence Weiner – a meanwhile somewhat ageing Beatnik – saw the light of day in 1942 in the Bronx. After his secondary school he submerges in the artistic scene and lets himself drift upon the countless trends that in those times came from all over the place. After having done his part to the happening rage, he is thoroughly impressed by Frank Stella and Jasper Johns, which results in his ‘propeller-paintings’. Embroidering on the theme of Stella’s ‘shaped canvas’ he develops so-called ‘removal paintings’, which soon develop into ‘cut-out sculptures’. The stride from painting to sculpture was readily made. ‘I realised that I was working with the materials that people called “sculptors” work with’ (p. 12)*. Especially since Germano Celant presented the so-called ‘Arte Povera’ to the font (1967), Weiner felt the breathing down his neck from Carl Andre who proceeded to laying bricks on a row and from Kounellis who soon is dragging around with tons of steel. But precisely in that same year, Sol Le Witt comes up with his ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’. Wherein he declares in no uncertain terms that the manual execution of the art work is merely the accidental end phase of creation, which, of course, is essentially a matter of brains. Weiner immediately got the message. When he is installing ‘Staples, Stakes, Twine, Turf’ in Windham College (1968) – students cut the hindering twines on their campus. Whereupon Weiner suddenly realises that he could as well restrict himself to a pure "textual definition" of his sculpture - think of Kosuth. Material execution did not matter any longer: ‘Art is not about skill’ (p. 12). That is how the painter that just came to descend into tangible sculptural matter, finally ends up as a ‘conceptual artist’. In 1968 he types his ‘Statements’ - a series of manuals for making sculptures - with a type-writer on democratic sheets of paper One example: ‘A 2 inch wide and 1 inch deep trench cut across a standard one-car driveway’.


A dusty mind, like mine, cannot help to ask what the carving of a trench in asphalt has to do with sculpture. No doubt, sculpture is about carving. But Michelangelo did not restrict himself to carving: it was only a means of transforming marble into a horned Moses with flashing eyes. Granted: also Weiner’s asphalt has been transformed through his carving – for instance in a sign with god knows what deeper meaning. But this is another metamorphosis than that of marble in Moses. Or shall we promote the ten statements to ‘cut-out-sculptures’, just because something has been removed from marble tablets with a chisel? (See ‘About the relation between art and reality’, ‘Danto’). Yet, enlightened minds, such as Weiner’s, do not stumble over such hair-splitting. With the same ease with which cutting in asphalt is promoted to sculpting, also language is promoted to ‘just another sculptural material’ (p. 12, p. 23). To Weiner, such is merely the line of the story. Referring to Carl Andre’s bricks and Dan Flavin’s neon lamps, Weiner pretends in all seriousness: ‘The whole problem is that we accepted a long time ago that bricks can constitute a sculpture, 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. The minute you suggest that language itself is a component in the making of sculpture, the shit hits the fan’ (p. 19). There is no stopping Weiner when it comes to shifting the grid of pigeon-holes. Also his ‘cratering piece’ – one out of the thousand happenings set up in the sixties, consisting of transforming a desert in a cratered landscape through dynamite – is transformed to a ‘printed statement’ in his ‘Statements’ and retroactively – against the ideology of the happening – promoted to sculpture, to be more precise: a cut-out-sculpture. Retrained as we should meanwhile have been through yet other enlightened minds such as Foucault and Wittgenstein, who would have us believe that the pigeon-holes wherein we try to classify the real world only exist in our minds, such re-constructing should no longer bother us…


That does not prevent that the term ‘concept’ is rather ambiguously used by our enlightened minds. On the one hand it refers to the transition from ‘image’ to sign’, from ‘representation’ to ‘idea’: from a real trench in the asphalt to a mere reference to it. But at the same time it also allows of a reverse movement from ‘sign’ to ‘image’: the words as a manual for cutting a trench in an asphalt driveway. In this second sense, a ‘concept’ is the equivalent of the notes in music or the words in literature – guidelines for the execution or the recitation of the work. Let us first concentrate on the concept as a ‘score’. This idea is expressed in Weiner’s famous ‘Declaration of Intent’ (1968): “(1) The artist may construct the piece. (2) The piece may be fabricated. (3) The piece may 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.]” It is obvious that the focus is shifting from the finished work to the draft or design – the ‘concept’ as the ‘idea’ before its descent in matter. It seems as though the visual arts have recovered a developmental retardation. In literature, the introduction of writing has provoked a differentiation between spoken and written word. Hence, the latter may be recited through lips that no longer belong to the hand that wrote the text. The same goes for music since the invention of musical notation. But this comparison falls short. In literature and music we are dealing with art works that have to be executed again and again: when the recitation or the performance have come to an end, there no longer is any poetry or music to be heard. In order for repetition to become possible, a text or a score have to be introduced. In the plastic arts, there is no such problem. Once the image is completed, it continues to exist and it can be admired by ever new and ever other persons. We even can make copies of it or, better still, produce it on a large scale (prints, photography, film), so that it can be admired by several beholders at different times and different places. Thus, there is no developmental retardation at all in the plastic arts, they have rather developed a far more perfect technique for reproducing art. But perhaps the concept should not be compared with a score or a text. There is also something like a draft. Even when drafts are often masterpieces in their own right, there remains a considerable difference, if not an unbridgeable gap between the draft and the finished work. What makes a work of art a work of art is precisely what the hand of the master is adding or changing during the concrete ‘filling in’ of the draft: an inexperienced apprentice would make nothing of it. Weiner’s concept partakes of both. With the score it has in common that it is meant to warrant the reproducibility of the work of art – so that it can be democratically shared by everybody. And with the – albeit verbal – draft it has in common that the performer’s creativity has a chance. Even when the three strides contained in his ‘Declaration of Intent’ suggest that the artist might execute the draft himself, Weiner increasingly comes to stress that it is the beholder who should bring the work of art to life, be it in his mind or in the real world. Also this idea fits in the democratic conception that creativity ought not to be the privilege of a specialised artist, but – think of Beuys – the natural destiny of man. Be that as it may, such reduction of the executed/finished work of art to a mere score/draft that has to be executed through the beholder, preferably in the mind, not only testifies to the utter contempt for the senses that has been endemic in modern art from Duchamp onward, it above all testifies to an utter indifference to the quality of execution. The ‘democratic’ ideology overlooks that not everybody is able to create equally interesting works of art, suppose they wanted to. It is not more than natural that the focus is only on creations distinguishing themselves through their quality. To the effect that the less fortunate creators chuck it and concentrate themselves on domains more becoming to their talents. To the further effect that those who concentrate on art are able to enjoy their alternative outstanding achievements. In short: Adam Smith’s old story of the benefits of division of labour and barter. And as far as democracy is concerned: in Weiner’s case this is merely a hollow phrase. The ‘dictatorship’ of quality – of the ‘genius’over the modal mortal – only takes a new shape: that of the dictatorship of the redeemer. Swaying with the concept as with a magic wand, the redeemer will rise all the despised and rejected. But, we might ask: when risen, do they all sway their own a magic wand in their turn? And if so, to what purpose, since they all brim over with creativity now? It reminds me of the democracy of John Cage’s musicians: to release them from the fetters of the conductor’s baton, and to not further oblige them to play the notes written down by the composer, they all may freely blow their own note – within the limits prescribed by the master-democrat. Cage’s musicians promoted to composers or Weiner’s beholders promoted to artists: these are no more than the prostheses of the redeeming artist, who have to properly – creatively – execute the master-democrat's fantasies of omnipotence. Preferably in a universe where the redeemed subjects doze off as soon as they are awakened. Since otherwise their master would be out of job…


In a second sense a ‘concept’ is something like the ‘spiritualised’ ‘content’ of the work of art, freed from the ‘pure sensory’ concrete ‘form’ wherein it has to be expressed. Art as a ‘direct and non-objective transmission of intellectual content’, hence. No superfluous detour around the form. As if he were endowed with telepathic gifts, the artist transmits his ideas directly. And old-fashioned devotee of art might remark that such a train of thoughts testifies to an utter incomprehension of matters artistic. Does not every artist know how much a work of art only originates through its very creation? That precisely therefore every draft – apart of its occasional merit – has to fade in the face of the finished work? And that applies especially to the so-called ‘content’ of the work, which did not exist in the mind beforehand, but appears only when the work is finished. That is why the process cannot be reversed either. What would remain of the splendour of ‘Yeats’ Leda and the Swan when someone would ‘transmit’ its ‘content’ through a Weinerian ‘statement’ such as: ‘A brutal swan rapes Leda who consequently hatches some problematic eggs’. The more concrete, the more ‘sensual’ a work of art, the more it becomes ‘form’, the more it has content. But is it not precisely therefore that Weiner refrains from executing his work of art? Since, just as he does not want to impose himself as a specialised artist, even less is he prepared to ram a pre-chewed ‘content’ through his beholder's throat. To replace the concrete work of art with a concept seems the proper way to achieve this goal. But let us not pull wool over our own eyes. Even when Weiner no longer reveals a concrete sensuous shape with all the richness of its content, he nevertheless is transmitting some ‘intellectual’ content. And again it is the artist who dictatorially impregnates his innocent beholders with a content, even when it is bleached to a shadowy concept.


But let us leave the theory at that - after all, artists are not thinkers, but doers. How precisely do Weiner’s concepts look like? In a first series of cases Weiner’s concepts are not more than precisely pure verbal ‘statements’. An outstanding is example is his so-called ‘Declaration of Intent’, that time and again is written down - packed up - in ever changing shapes. Other examples are the numerous texts that seem to give a comment on the places where they are written down: ‘Far too many things to fit into so small a box' on a castle at Warschau; or: ‘As long as it lasts’ on the ‘Euromast’ at Rotterdam (1992). And it also applies to statements such as ‘We are ships at sea and no ducks on a pond’ painted on a crate launched in the port of Hamburg (1989) – the umpteenth variant on Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. But till further instructions statements about the real world are not works of art. That they refer to a privileged domain of reality - art - cannot save them. That is why Kosuth’s ‘One and three chairs’ and Weiner’s ‘ships at sea’ are as little works of art as Magritte's ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Or shall we seriously consider the possibility that a book about art might be a work of art itself, as Danto will have it? But not all Weiner’s texts are packed up statements. In some cases they really are guidelines for producing something. Apart form the already mentioned ‘A 2 inch wide and 1 inch deep trench cut across a standard one-car driveway’, there are ‘statements’ such as: ‘Many coloured objects placed side by side to form a row of many coloured objects’ (1982), ‘One quart exterior green industrial enamel thrown on a brick wall’ (1995), ‘Von Punkt zu Punkt ohne die Eigenschaften verbunden met Stahl, Eisen & Stein (1995), and so on… The problem with ‘conceptual art’ of this second kind is that the beholder seems no more intent to execute them than the artist himself. No wonder that Weiner spares himself the detour around execution altogether: his ‘conceptual art’ increasingly summons up a ready-made world before our mind’s eye. Consider concepts such as ‘Dry earth & scattered ashes or dry earth & buried gold’ (1994/7), ‘The light of day (such as it is) & Iceland spar (as close as pure)’ (1996), ‘The salt of the sea mingled with the salt of the earth’, ‘The rock smoothed to stone by the continual caress of the sea’. In these concepts Weiner’s texts – not otherwise than Kounellis' tons of steel – function as signs that conjure up representations in the mind – like a poem. Even when there is no denying that some of these texts are rather charming, Weiner’s verbal poems cannot possibly be called sculptures, no less than Kounellis’ ‘iconic poetry’. Assuming for instance that the ‘smoothed rock’ would be a sculpture, the poem would not become a sculpture therefore: a poem evoking a landscape is not transformed into a landscape itself. Weiner a poet then. A poet that keeps his competitors out of the game by writing on walls rather than on paper, if not by pretending that he is a sculptor. A poet also that makes it hard for himself. What induces us to ask what his verses gain by all this fuss – apart from the fact that it fuels the rituals of those that so dearly want to pose as the revolutionaries of art.


Even when, with the necessary flair, you might sell even statements, instructions for making sculptures, if not poetry, things might go better when you have something tangible to offer. No wonder that, of the three possibilities mentioned in his ‘Declaration of Intent’, Weiner increasingly comes to prefer the less radical first two. Already in 1969 he suits the action to the word by executing - on a rather expensive parquet floor - the following ‘concept’: ‘Five Gallons water base tempera poured directly upon the floor and allowed to remain for the duration of the exhibition’ (Nova Scotia College of Arts and Design, Halifax Canada). To the effect that the concept threatens to become superfluous. To save it from its ending up in the wastebasket, it is far more clever to replace the execution with a less suicidal act: writing down the text with weightier letters on weightier supports. The ‘democratically’ photocopied ‘statements’ develop into genuine letter-design on expensive consecrated walls – such as those of the Kunstmuseum Sankt Gallen in Switzerland (1995). Thus the mental sculptor - rather: his assistants - can go on without digging their own grave, albeit no longer with the hammer and the chisel, but with the instruments of the letter-designer. A further benefit of this approach is that the rather shadowy letters become more tangible: they come to look more ‘plastic’ and can far more easily pass for ‘sculpture’. Weiner, as if to convince himself that he is really making sculptures, not only paints his letters with much devotion and in big formats on weighty walls, he even moulds them in three dimensions in precisely the previously so scorned heavy materials: 'Some limestone () some sandstone enclosed for some reason' (1993) is die-cast in the support of a weighbridge. Quite a long way from the democratically photocopied stencils of the ‘Statements’… A last benefit of the return of the spirit in matter is that all these tangible creations can now be caught in an image and hence can fraternally appear side by side with their lettered counterparts in a book. A photo as the illustration of a shadowy concept, granted, that looks nice! And it looks more substantial in the library at that. The same fate fell on land-art (See also: 'Goldsworthy; the beauty of creation').


Weiner is not the only conceptual artist with a pronounced predilection for photography, film and video. Publications on conceptual art brim over not only with black letters on white paper but also with black and white photos. And that should rather surprise us. Has not precisely the advent of photography been responsible for the fierceness with which the mimetic taboo has wreaked havoc in the plastic arts? Of all trends conceptual art, the very movement that brought the mimetic taboo to its apogee – if not its verbal ex-stasis, as with Moses – cannot help to heavily rely on the most primitive forms of mimesis. And that holds not only for photography, film and video as a medium, but foremost for what they are so fond of revealing: naked flesh. As a reaction against the ever swelling flood of erotic imagery caused by the introduction of photography, film and video, modern art retires in ever more abstract regions to finally entrench itself in the shadowy world of signs. It - literally – speaks volumes that on the very place where Botticelli’s Venus arises out of her shell – conceptual artists like Kosuth come to stage … ‘one and three chairs’. For Weiner, such ascetic tribute to the tri-une God was apparently too hard. In his video ‘Do you believe in water?’ (1976) two lesbians perform in the presence of a homosexual and on an octagonal table and in ‘A bit of matter and a little bit more’ two actors recite ‘statements’ of Weiner while performing variegated sexual acts - more or less like the poor raped women in olden times who said their prayers while doing their daily stint. Asked about the peculiarity of such combination of ‘linguistic’ and ‘erotic’ performance, Weiner himself unknowingly pronounces the verdict history will pass on him: ‘I will be damned if I ever wanted to exclude any sensual function from art’. And confirming the negation of the negation he assures us that this is not ‘antilinguistic!’ (p. 26).


It is apparent then, that Weiners concepts not only pretend to be something else than what they are, but also that they say something else than what they intend to say. More to the point are meaningful writing on the wall, such as the biblical saying above, wherein Daniel descried the impending destruction of Babylon – the city of the confusion of tongues. Although these lighting letters did not pose for weighing sculptures, they are not less weighty than Weiner’s ‘mental sculptures’. Should Weiner not rather have weighed his words?

© Stefan Beyst, November 2002

* the pages refer to ALBERRO, Alexander, ZIMMERMAN, Alice, BUCHLOH Benjamin H.D. en BATCHELOR, David: ‘Lawrence Weiner’ Phaidon, London 1998.

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