Weiner's Contradictory Retrospective is Confusing in Good, Bad Ways

One of Lawrence Weiner's works of art currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art is A Square Removal From a Rug in Use. But if you go to the Whitney to look for this work, don't scan the floor for a square of blue shag or a richly colored oriental rug with a piece missing—look at the wall. It is there that you will find, in plain, black font, the phrase "A square removal from a rug in use." This is Weiner's artwork.

The 65-year-old, New York-based conceptual artist's first United States retrospective, entitled “Lawrence Weiner: As Far as the Eye Can See,” is co-organized by the Whitney and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and opens with his famous "Statement of Intent," which sheds some light on the rest of the show. Weiner's mission statement reads: "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 on the occasion of receivership."

In Weiner's world, the "square removal from a rug in use" could be, in another location, a literal rug with a physical cutout. It would still be the same work of art, despite the fact that it is an entirely different entity. But as soon as the rug itself is placed behind glass on a museum wall, it is no longer a rug in use, and therefore no longer the same work of art.

Weiner's show is full of mental and visual tongue twisters like this one—perhaps his work is more philosophical exercise than fine art. His ideas dance across walls, ceilings, and pillars. Most often they are realized in words, and occasionally in the flesh. Two Minutes of Spray Paint Directly Upon the Floor From a Standard Aerosol Spray Can is executed on the floor in hot pink. (The museum wanted to create Firecracker Residue of Explosions at Each Corner of the Exhibition Area, but then realized there were simply too many corners on the fourth floor of the Whitney for this to be feasible.) Most works, like the rug piece or A Cup of Sea Water Poured Upon the Floor, are simply rendered in a variety of colored fonts on the white walls of the exhibition.

A seminal figure in the conceptual art movement, the artist considers these works "sculptures of words." But the term “sculpture” implies some kind of visual payoff, and it is difficult for mere words to recall an image, event, or idea as fully as a more direct visual representation. Nonetheless, Weiner's statements are enjoyably disconcerting. One finds the experience of walking through the exhibition similar to reading the word “red” in yellow font, or watching the leader of Simon Says touch his nose while exclaiming "Simon says touch your head." But after the initial gleeful befuddlement, the effect wears off and one is left bored—or just befuddled. In Weiner’s work, what we expect to see fully realized is instead presented as quick instructions or as little thoughts.

It seems fitting that the whole concept of the exhibition would be riddled with contradictions. It is the contradiction in Weiner's work that makes it interesting to look at, but these same contradictions also make it fundamentally problematic. Weiner's own mission statement insists that it is the idea that is the work of art, not the realization of it. But he maintains that he is a sculptor, a title that lends importance to the manner in which he physically realizes his ideas. Weiner says that one of his main goals is accessibility—he wants to be everyone's artist. And yet his works are presented with such declaratory certainty that they are bound to scare off many viewers.

Lawrence Weiner worked closely with MOCA Senior Curator Ann Goldstein to design the exhibition space, and the pair certainly made an effort to keep the potentially-monotonous show visually stimulating. A few physically realized sculptures punctuate the word-covered walls, like the pink spray paint and a hole in the wall entitled A Wall Cratered by a Single Shotgun Blast. Series of drawings, like We Are Ships at Sea Not Ducks on a Pond, also appear in the exhibition. A far wall is covered with various posters accrued over the course of Weiner's career. The collage—perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not—lends credence to the works of art that many people walking through the show are probably looking at with raised eyebrows. The artist and curator seem to have anticipated viewers' objections. It’s as if they’re saying, "You might think this is crazy, but look at all the shows this guy has had!"

According to a Whitney employee, Weiner deplores explanatory wall text because he believes it distracts from the art. Because of this, it is, of course, ironic that the majority of his works are in fact text on a wall. And this quirk seems to get at the fundamental problem with "Lawrence Weiner: As Far as the Eye Can See": it's difficult to be the people's artist if you make it difficult for the people to understand what you’re doing.

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