On ViewKerlin Gallery
March 6 – April 3, 2021
Lawrence Weiner’s concept of language as sculpture—in his words “language + the materials referred to”—began to take shape in the late 1960s. Ultimately, his approach to sculpture would reveal an entirely new concept of art-making. To come to terms with it, his audience needed to acquaint themselves with the Minimalism of figures like Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Tony Smith. But where Minimalism focused on materiality as the essential, if not indispensable, quality of sculpture, the Conceptualism pioneered by Weiner, along with Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, and Joseph Kosuth, focused primarily on language. The use of language, often painted directly on the wall, became his primary visual medium.
On the occasion of the artist’s 79th birthday, Weiner was invited by the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin to mount a solo exhibition, his first in Ireland in over 28 years. The exhibition consisted of three “sculptures in text” and three works on paper. The titles for each of the larger wall-size “sculptures” are identical with the language that makes up the works themselves—HELD JUST ABOVE THE CURRENT (2016), IN LINE WITH SOMETHING ELSE (2020), and PUT WITH THE OTHER THINGS (2020)—but on the wall, each phrase is given in both English and Irish. The two works from 2020, both horizontal in format, fill the full length of facing walls that are normally used as an exhibition space for groups of individual works. It is curious that the language employed in these painted words in red and blue connects the English with the Irish in a manner that cannot easily be pried apart. The phrases are visually interlocked, more or less contiguous with one another. They will not be separated by any facile means.
The choice of language in these works suggests an appropriation of vernacular phrasing in contrast to the more philosophical, if not academic usage of texts found in much of Weiner’s work from the ’70s and early ’80s. It is my contention that Weiner’s more recent use of the vernacular strengthens his work by giving it the sense of an extract from everyday conversation, rather than a hardened or concrete discourse.
In an interview with Weiner from 1979, published in my book Conceptual Art: An American Perspective (London: McFarland, 1994), the artist made it clear that despite his ideological or political interests, he has continued to deal with questions of aesthetics. Based on the artist’s production in recent years, it seems Weiner has refused to alter his point of view. Regardless of what country or institution he operates within, the artist is (and has been) ineluctably consistent in terms of how he works and how he presents his work. In 1968, he made a declaration of intent, which, during a highly conflicted period in American history (similar to the present), read as an incisive and clear approach to his renovated concept of artistic production. Today, his statement continues to read with miraculous, and unchanged clarity:
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.
While for some artists—like Joseph Kosuth, who claimed that “aesthetics are … conceptually irrelevant to art” (“Art After Philosophy, Part I,” Studio International, October 1969)—Conceptualism must reject aesthetic value. Weiner, on the other hand, has persisted in using it and, in the process, has continued to move in his own direction. He was convinced there needed to be a new approach to art without physical form. And while this may sound radical, I can think of few artists who believe in art to the extent that Lawrence Weiner does. Indeed, the discovery of language as an artistic medium goes back to Cubism, if not the Middle Ages. Perhaps it has always been there, but has inadvertently remained unnoticed or mistakenly disregarded.
This brings us back to the works of Weiner currently on view in Dublin. One might argue that experience is an inert form of language, waiting to be communicated, in unsettled form, from the artist to the viewer. What I find charming about Weiner’s Irish exhibition is the gap between what is formatively there, and what is consciously not there. This is a pause that emerges between them. What do the words really mean? What is absent, beyond the words, that incites our process of thinking? What do we need to fill in? Or can we simply assume the visual blockages of Helvetica type and the doubled text in English and Irish are meant to consciously represent a political quota within the artist’s intention?
It would appear that Weiner knows what it is to struggle between aesthetics and politics, while at the same time, refusing to allow either to give way. But the larger, more central issue is how to maintain the presence of language as art, or language in art, without disassembling the linguistic tension between presence and absence. Securing this tension begets a paradox, wherein each remains within the other: absence is within presence and presence is within absence. This enables the force of language to endure within the exemplary similitude of art that Weiner has put forth.