Jan Estep, “Lawrence Weiner: As Far As The Eye Can See,” Rain Taxi, Vol. 13, No.3, Fall 2008, 24-25.
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.
–Lawrence Weiner, 1968
Lawrence Weiner defined his relationship to artistic materials, expressing his belief that art resides as much in language as it does in clay, paint, or wood. Since the 1960s Weiner has worked with language as his primary medium, adhered to walls, spray-painted onto brick, embossed in manhole covers, and printed in books and posters. Lawrence Weiner: As Far As The Eye Can See 1960 – 2007, published in conjunction with the recent retrospective, catalogues Weiner’s wide-ranging production over the years. Many of the essays in the book focus on the historical development of the artist’s work, the way his attitude toward art and language evolved. The oft-cited “Statement of Intent” is a seminal moment in that history.
While it placed language center-stage, Weiner’s statement also tipped the aesthetic experience toward an interactive one in which the “receiver” is responsible for the art’s eventual condition. In part the artist felt this to be a political position both in its use of an accessible material like language and also for the refusal of the artist’s ultimate authority. An example helps clarify this point: take one of Weiner’s “Statements,” first published in 1968 in an artist book:
A removal of an amount of earth from the ground.
The intrusion into this hole of a standard processed material.(1)
A viewer may decide to build this piece by scooping out a dirt hole and filling it with tumbled rock. But Weiner points out that someone who decides to rest with the sculpture just as the artist presents it in words has a full experience of the art as well. Weiner first concluded that the physical materiality of the work was not the defining element during the confrontation of an early public piece, 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 (1968), which he installed at Windham College in Putney, Vermont. Students broke through the string during a pick-up football game, and when visiting the piece to assess the damage, the artist realized emotionally as well as intellectually that the work was not particularly harmed. “And it certainly didn’t constitute a reason to go out and beat somebody up.”(2)
Dismissing the label of conceptual artist and the supposed dematerialization of the art object, in the same interview Weiner clarifies, “I make art. If you want to call it anything else, it’s very realist art, since it deals with real materials and real relationships of human beings to those materials.” Weiner here insists that language is empirical, a sculptural material, referencing real relationships and our human experience with objects. But for many people, language is distinctly not real; it lacks the reality of touch and smell, we cannot back up into it or see its tactile qualities. For those who think this way, language is post-phenomenal, coming after the fact, and certainly not what they want from art. Rather than labeling language as something fundamentally different than other sculptural materials, Weiner draws our attention to the issue as a subjective matter of taste. In another interview he asserts, “Why I choose language, why you choose to paint on canvas: that’s a real personal choice. This is what I’ve been saying for fifteen years: such a personal choice doesn’t mean anything in the context of art.”(3)
However, by choosing to work with language as his primary medium while maintaining a practice as a visual artist, Weiner challenges conventional assumptions about how art should function and what art should look like. It also de facto challenges a viewer’s relationship to language itself, and its supposed demateriality. Certainly language can be used in a way that misses the material mark, when we lie or name something that does not exist. We easily reference things without knowing what they mean, giving a distinct lack of substance to our words. We misspeak and misconstrue. We can feel things that we cannot put into words. And within the art world contemplating a text-based artwork is not identical to experiencing a richly sensorial installation.
Yet Weiner’s work highlights the way that language influences our everyday relationships and undergirds our perception of the world around us. In contrast to a seeming absence of reality, language is one of the most ubiquitous phenomenon there is: we are immersed in it, think and feel through it, and connect to others through it. We are so familiar with language that we often take it for granted, like the longtime friend whose specialness we cannot see anymore because he is always hanging around.
One way to translate the phrase, “As far as the eye can see,” is to stress the limits of visual perception, what the eye overlooks versus what it can take in. Here the eye inscribes a horizon beyond which it cannot apprehend. At the start of his career (1965) Weiner produced shaped paintings that pictorially played with the edge of the canvas. Describing his evolution to text-based works, Weiner remarked, “The picture-frame convention was a very real thing. The painting stopped at that edge. When you are dealing with language, there is no edge that the picture drops over or drops off. You are dealing with something completely infinite.”(4) This ability for language to be everywhere and nowhere lies at the core of Weiner’s work, words that are utterly readable and without limit, concrete yet boundless. That language is everywhere and nowhere allows it to take on a paradoxical energy that defies its ordinariness. When “receiving” Weiner’s texts the familiar and the everyday are experienced as mysterious and strange. That longtime friend becomes remarkable again.
1. Lawrence Weiner, Statements (New York: The Louis Kellner Foundation/Seth Siegelaub, 1968), np.
2. Weiner, in an interview with Lynn Gumpert, in Early Work, exhibition catalogue (New York: The New Museum, 1982), 48; cited in Lawrence Weiner: As Far as the Eye Can See, ed. Ann Goldstein and Donna De Salvo (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, and New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2007), 110.
3. Weiner, in “Portraits: From a Conversation” (1982), excerpts reprinted in Having Been Said: Writings & Interviews of Lawrence Weiner, 1968 – 2003, ed. Gerti Fietzek and Gregor Stemmrich (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2004), 133; cited in As Far as the Eye Can See, 213.
4. Weiner (1968), quoted in Anne Rorimer, New Art in the 60s and 70s: Redefining Reality (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001), 77; cited in As Far as the Eye Can See, 65.
Copyright 2008 Jan Estep