Whitney Museum of American Art
Lawrence Weiner, A TRANSLATION FROM ONE LANGUAGE TO ANOTHER, 1969; public installation at Het Spui, Amsterdam, 1996; language + the materials referred to; dimensions variable; Public Freehold; courtesy of the artist.
THROUGH THE EYE OF A NEEDLE JUST ONE TIME THROUGH A HOLE IN THE WALL JUST ONE TIME THROUGH A CRACK IN THE DOOR JUST ONE TIME JUST ONE TIME, 2002; installation at Regen Projects, Los Angeles, 2005; language + the materials referred to; dimensions variable; private collection; courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles
As Far As the Eye Can See, Lawrence Weiner’s long overdue retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, prompts one to reevaluate seemingly straightforward terms such as “sculpture” and “material,” or even “artist” and “work of art.” True to his reputation as a pioneer of conceptualism, Weiner’s works deem the creation of a physical object irrelevant, thus drawing a direct line from an idea to the viewer.
Spanning close to half a century, this comprehensive exhibition begins with early paintings from the 1960s but quickly shifts focus to the textual work for which Weiner is best known. These “sculptures” are short, simple phrases that describe a material or an activity but never a literal form. They appear directly on the wall in a unified font or upon odd objects, such as a brick, a knife, a watch—even dominoes. Although generally baffling, Weiner’s statements are humorous and provocative, triggering various associations in every viewer.
Works such as A TURBULENCE INDUCED WITHIN A BODY OF WATER (1969) and PEBBLES AND STRAW STREWN ON A LEVEL WITH THE SURFACE OF THE WATER (1983) exemplify Weiner’s groundbreaking perception of sculpture conceived in the sixties, to which the artist has since consistently adhered. The brief yet radical principles he set forth greet visitors upon entering the exhibition space, providing context for the numerous statements that crowd the walls:
1. The artist may construct the piece.
2. The piece may be fabricated.
3. 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.
In his assertion of these guiding principles, Weiner essentially reforms our perception of the sculptural object, describing its content yet not stipulating form or even authorship. Nonetheless, there are several realized works on exhibit, such as the subtle A WALL CREATED BY A SINGLE GUNSHOT BLAST (1968), as well as the seminal piece WHAT IS SET UPON THE TABLE SITS UPON THE TABLE (STONE ON TABLE) (1962–63). The latter ultimately led the artist to focus on the actual relocation of material from one context to another, a notion seemingly in line with Duchamp’s claim that one need only place material in a different environment in order for it to be deemed aesthetic. Phrase or actual object? Weiner considers them as one and the same.
The works in As Far As the Eye Can See do not adhere to a particular location or time period, making it difficult to distinguish early creations from recent ones. It is therefore the viewers who must endow them with a context specific to their own lives. As Weiner himself aptly stated to Robert Morgan in REALLIFE (Winter 1983), “You just have to make art that, even if it’s locked in the basement of a bank, can still function in its time.” He thus dissociates his works from the confines of institutional narratives or individual style, while imbuing them with a malleable and relatable concept that assists us in deciphering our own relationship to our surroundings.
Yaelle Amir is an independent curator and writer living in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to numerous publications, including artUS, Beautiful/Decay and Sculpture Magazine.