Monday, January 30, 2023 Jan 30, 2023
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Visual Arts

Interview: Artist Lawrence Weiner on Communication, the Market, and the Artist’s Role in Society

"I think there should be a reworking of the value structure of art. The value is when the artist makes a first engagement with society. That work has the most value."
By Peter Simek |

In October, the Nasher Sculpture Center opened a fascinating exhibition called Sculpture in So Many Words, Text Pieces 1960–80, a survey of text-based art, artist books, and other conceptual objects that challenged the material nature of art, and by doing so, worked to expand our definition of “art.” One of the artists at the forefront of that effort was Lawrence Weiner. Weiner was in Dallas for the opening of the exhibition, and I sat down with him to discuss the exhibition, art and material, and the role of the artist in society.

Peter Simek: What’s interesting about this exhibition is from an art historical angle, we’ve become kind of comfortable with the idea of sculpture and the nature and role of material in sculpture, but I think to the person off the street, this is still something of a challenge in terms of figuring out what you mean by “sculpture” when the works is primarily text.

Lawrence Weiner: If you asked them, I don’t know! Maybe the term “sculpture” might put them off or something, but they still call it “art”. And, as long as they can call it “art”, it’s good enough for me.

PS: Much of your work here is from a few decades ago. During that time, have you changed the way you think about making or how you approach it?

LW: Yes, of course it changes. There’s a radical change in the relationship with the human being and society. Art now is an open conversation with the society. Previously there was a necessity for a little bit of screaming and shouting just to get it into the conversation. You know, schlepping off, literally, on one of those $99 tickets to Amsterdam to make a show or art project. You’d sleep on the floor, and you’d come back to New York. You’d go to the bar, go to Max’s or something. Everybody knew what you had done. And there was no fax, telephone calls were dreadfully expensive. There was no Internet.

What interested me the most was that when I [traveled to Europe] I knew what Joseph Beuys was doing, he knew what I was doing, and we both, we just started to talk. How did I know what Daniel Buren was doing, and to an extent, he knew exactly what I was doing? How did everybody know? It’s an interesting thing. I’m still fascinated by it because, why is it now, with the Internet and everything else, you get whole groups of artists who have chosen to be regional? They really are only with the people they went to school with. And they really don’t know terribly much outside of it. How did this happen?

PS: It’s ironic that with all of the way communications works now, you don’t see thing opening up.

LW: It’s not a conversation anymore. It has a lot to do with exclusion. I’m working on a project for Barcelona about AIDS, and it’s about placing an object in the same place as itself. You would think that would be incomprehensible to people in a market in Barcelona. No! They understood that people are beginning to disagree before it’s even built. If there’s no logic for exclusion, there still may be a reason for it.

Politically, it’s changed quite a bit, but the fact is the major problem is hierarchy of materials and hierarchy of other things. But in the digital world we live in, there is no pixel who thinks they’re better than any other pixel. And there is no pixel that will not work with another pixel to produce something. And when two pixels come together and have children, they’ll place any attention to what the color is and nobody says anything. That means that anybody who believes in a hierarchy, either in art history, religion – and all religions seem to believe in a hierarchy – the minute they use a cell phone, they can’t go to whatever heaven they believe in because they’ve used something that denies the existence of hierarchy. Now, art’s supposed to build those logic structures. We have more tools to our way of being able to do that now than ever before.

PS: Well it’s interesting because there, that is true that there’s sort of egalitarian nature of the Internet, but then you also have, for lack of a better word, clique-ish, or just that interests become sort of isolated…

LW: It is a competition when previously it was not about money because everybody was desperate for money at all times. The art schools seem to be trying to turn people out as “professional.” But I don’t know what the word “professional” means any longer. “Professional” would be somebody who was trying to push painting to a point that nobody else could do as well as he could. That would be my ideal professional. And now “professional” seems to be whoever you went to school with. It constitutes your nuclear world. And that’s the fault of the teachers; it’s not the fault of the young artist.

PS: So accreditation as…

LW: Accreditation. The “doctorate of fine art.” I’ve never heard something so stupid in my entire life. It makes no sense whatsoever. I don’t know what it’s all about and I don’t know what it’s going to lead to, but I do know that the Academy is slowly losing ground as far as producing artists. Art history is fine. I mean, that’s a discipline. Art history is art history, and you start from the beginning and you end up in artist in time. But art is a little bit different. Art is a conversation. And if there’s no conversation, what the hell is it about? There is a discrepancy of somebody going to an art dealer and promising what they’ll make for the next three years. And I’m old fashioned that way; I think that every exhibition you make is supposed to put you in the world, that the next exhibition is spinning off of that. It’s almost like a riff. And if you know what you’re going to do for the next three years, why don’t just do it the final point? You would think, in a progressive situation, that the final would be the best.

PS: Is that how you work now, riffing of what has come immediately before?

LW: I only work in relation to what the work is about. Yes, of course, if the world’s coming to an end I would basically try to get out of the way when the sky falls. But the work brings you to a certain point, and from that point, you move it on. You see what that meant in relation to the world, and that changes your idea of what a piece of stone is. It changes your idea. It’s like I find myself now, doing what I don’t know how to explain what it is. You’d call it gestural language, which would be signs and symbols. I stopped painting, not because I didn’t like painting; the sensuality of it was fun. But I wasn’t able to get to the point I wanted to. And the language itself, I was reaching a point where I would have to accept gestural language.

I’m reminded of an anecdote I’ve said before, but it was in the recent past. I was being interviewed in France, and the man who was doing the interview was a little bit not so happy with me because of some public project I had done against Aristotle. And his son was with him (in France it’s quite normal). We’re talking and talking, and my French is at a level that a 9 or 11 year-old can follow it without any difficultly. And finally, [the interviewer] looked at me and said, “Okay, I cannot accept that.” And I said, “Well I’m sorry, what can I do? Do you want me to go and have it taken down from the building?” And I made a bad joke. And the kid went, “Papa” – because kids are very polite in France – “we use that in school.” And instead of asking “what does it mean,” the father asked his son, “what is it called,” and the child looked up and said, “It doesn’t have a name yet.”

And I just moved the conversation very quickly, because if he had asked what it meant, then it would be a real problem. But he was questioning its existence, not its use. “What was it called?” If it didn’t fit into a classification, it was not to be accepted. And that was one of the things in the late 50s that one wanted to break in art. That if it didn’t fit into a classification, let’s see if it’s useful and then we’ll figure out what to do with it. That’s where we ended up with people calling things “process art.” I mean, what art is not processed? “Conceptual art.” Somebody making a painting has to conceive of the size. I don’t understand where these words came from. I can’t accept the fact that the concept of art as our concept of humanity is expanding. We don’t know what constitutes a good person any longer, do we? We don’t know what constitutes an aesthetic thing. But we do know what an aesthetic fact is because it’s there. And if it doesn’t make the wheels turn, it doesn’t work.

PS: What do you mean that our concept of humanity is expanding?

LW: We were brought up in a world which was based on Aristotle. Science-wise and everything, that’s really quite exciting and you learn a lot. There was one problem: there were parallel realities. And in a parallel reality, there’s always one reality that’s the prime and the second is always a secondary. And everything’s a reflection of something else. It’s a problem with the Freudian thoughts that were going on about art. You dream, yes, but in a dream, a boy can be a girl, or a dog can be a cat, but you can only dream what you know. In my eyes, making art is very often about something that you don’t know. And if you look quantum, and you look at the idea of realities, and you look at all of the new theory necessary…

PS: Do you mean quantum physics?

LW: Yes, quantum physics – the idea that there is more than one reality going on at the same time in the same place. We live in a concentric society, and we’ll have to make our decisions, cake as pie, as pending resolve. It’s really and truly – I don’t know if “as” will count any longer. There is a primacy of each individual object. And we’ll see! That’s the whole point of making sculpture, to present a question in a physical form to people.

PS: Do you think of the artist as having a specific role in society?

LW: Yes.

PS: How would you describe it?

LW: Questioning the relationships of human beings to objects, and objects to objects in relation to human beings. That’s their role. That’s their job, and artists do this openly. I think there should be a reworking of the value structure of art. The value is when the artist makes a first engagement with society. That work has the most value. That is the function of the artist. That result. The object that results. And there’s always an object

We’re in a room where some of the people made a mistake. They thought that 50 pieces of paper tacked on the wall with push pins saying “this is not an object” was kind of magic. It was not, it was an object. It was 50 pieces of paper on a wall with information which might have been interesting or not interesting. It was a false question. Artists try to ask questions, and within our society, unless there are artists, those questions don’t get asked. And everybody blames the market. What’s the market got to do with it? Art is something that, in order for the market to use it, it has to be made public. And when it’s made public, it’s part of the society. You can’t have a $2 million painting unless it’s on the wall somewhere and somebody saw it. The minute they saw it, art functions.

So is owning it and supporting it; that’s a very complicated thing. There are, I would imagine, a very large percentage of people who get something for art and they do something else, and they have some excess resources. And they trade those resources with artists whose work makes them feel good, or feel better, or question. And the artist, if they’re smart, they use it to buy the most expensive thing in the world: time to make more. The more that come, the better it is for these people, their children, the people they care about, fills the society with a real constant thing. And then there are people who speculate at objects. I don’t think that makes them evil or not evil. It doesn’t matter; in order to speculate, it has to be made public. Once it’s made public, it’s functioned is art.

PS: Once it is public it has already functioned?

LW: It’s functioning! It will have no use for anybody unless somebody else can see it. It’s not a private thing, so what’s the difference what it costs?

PS: You don’t think that, especially for the last 10 or 15 years, the whole “speculation side” of the art market has changed the way art functions in public?

LW: They try. They’re trying. Remember when the auction house was trying to commission art? They do what they do. But to see that as a metaphor for the evils of society is nonsense, especially in our day and age when somebody wants to show something, they can – very much like the 50s or 60s — rent a little storefront and put it up for a month and, surprisingly, enough people will see it. You have options. Printing is cheap. I think it’s a waste of time to worry about the motives of why people are supportive of things. I think we should look at the thing itself. And if they’re supportive of something that’s sexist or racist, then it’s a bad thing, but it’s not because they’re supportive of it that it’s a bad thing. It’s not because it’s worth “x” amount of dollars that it’s a bad thing. It’s the thing itself. It gets back to what a person does and puts out.

PS: Once it’s made public, it has its function. But that function can’t be precluded?

LW: The function can’t be precluded the way they’re trying now.  Trying to make certain things on the Internet totally private unless you subscribe. It’s not going to work. If you can figure out how to close something down, somebody can figure out how to open it up. That’s art. It is like the people that in the 60s or 70s claimed the “end of painting” – all they did was open up a whole new branch for painting. Happily, it doesn’t work. It’s not a reason for art. Closing something out is not a reason for something to exist.

Photo at top by Julius Pickenpack, all other images courtesy of the Nasher Sculpture Center.