Lawrence Weiner (b: 1942) is an American artist and one of the founders of the conceptual art movement. His most notable works are short statements that describe things that could potentially be constructed but need not be actually built. The first time I saw Weiner’s work almost seven years ago I didn’t understand or appreciate it and was confused why it was on display in a museum. After learning more about conceptual art and researching Weiner’s life and work, I now understand his artistic intent and understand why he is an important artist.
Lawrence Weiner at the MoMA
My first exposure to Lawrence Weiner’s work was on November 5th, 2011. I was attending one of MoMA’s “Modern Member Nights” for contributing members shortly after I bought a membership to the museum. I was there on a date with someone I had met a few weeks prior. We walked through the museum’s galleries and came upon Weiner’s “language art.” We were perplexed by what we saw. He seemed to make up titles for works of art but not actually create anything, leaving the task of constructing a piece that matched the title to curators and other museum employees.
I clearly remember Weiner’s A WALL PITTED BY A SINGLE AIR RIFLE SHOT (1969) and found it to be the most confusing. In this piece MoMA’s curators simply painted the words “A WALL PITTED BY A SINGLE AIR RIFLE SHOT” onto a wall as they were not allowed to actually discharge a firearm inside the building.
Weiner’s other works on display that night were also confusing and prompted a conversation with my date about the artist and his art. I was intrigued enough to research Weiner and sent her an email the next day with some more information and questioned if he was a “genius” or a “madman.”
I never forgot about A WALL PITTED BY A SINGLE AIR RIFLE SHOT (1969) or the heavy black lettering used to paint the words onto the wall. I thought of it as one of the most ridiculous things I had ever seen at MoMA. This work, part of MoMA’s collection, is not currently exhibited but was shown for several years after my visit in 2011. Research on this work turns up essays and blog posts by other museum visitors who had similar reactions with most noting the lack of a bullet hole in the wall.
My reason for selecting Lawrence Weiner for this paper is I’d like to readdress my previous interpretation of the artist given what I’m currently learning about conceptual art and contemporary art history. I want to understand why his work is important and why it was on display at MoMA.
Lawrence Weiner’s Life
Lawrence Weiner was born in 1942 in the Bronx, New York. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1958 while working a variety of manual labor jobs on docks and railroad cars. He studied at Hunter College but left within a year to travel around North America.
Weiner’s earliest works in the 60’s consist of craters made from dynamite explosions in California to create sculptures. He also did some painting and began exhibiting art at an art gallery run by Seth Siegelaub in 1964.
The pivotal moment in Weiner’s career occurred in 1968 at an exhibition organized by Siegelaub at Windham College in Vermont. Weiner created a work in a field consisting of 34 wooden stakes connected by twine in the shape of a rectangle, titled 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). Later the students cut down the twine because it interfered with their use of the lawn, but Weiner realized “it didn’t seem as if the philistines had done the work any particular harm” by removing the twine. He realized that a description of the work was by itself sufficient because the essence of the work was the text and not the physical form. This realization was pivotal to Weiner’s role as an artist and founder of the conceptual art movement.
Lawrence Weiner’s Art
Shortly after the Windham College exhibition, Weiner wrote his artistic statement of intent (1968). This was first published in a show catalog for an exhibition organized by Siegelaub in January of 1969. The statement reads :
The artist may construct the piece;
the piece may be fabricated;
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
With this declaration of intent he is stating that the receiver of the piece can make their own decision about if the piece should be built and if so by whom. Each of the three options is equally valid and acceptable to the artist. Weiner explained that “It doesn’t matter to me whether my works are built or not built, or whether I build them or somebody else builds them. It is all exactly the same work, once it is presented or communicated.”
Shortly after Weiner created the work A WALL PITTED BY A SINGLE AIR RIFLE SHOT (1969). Another is THE RESIDUE OF A FLARE IGNITED UPON A BOUNDARY (1969), a work Weiner himself executed in Amsterdam during a 1969 conceptual art exhibition. Still another is A 36" X 36" REMOVAL TO THE LATHING OR SUPPORT WALL OF PLASTER OR WALLBOARD FROM A WALL (1968). All are specific statements about the work “as an accomplished fact,” but as specified in Weiner’s artistic statement, the works need not actually be implemented. The statements themselves are sufficient.
The “Medium used” for these works is “Language + the materials referred to,” with the materials referred to being the materials referred to in the work itself. All works refer to things that are possible to be built. If the work had referred to something that could not possibly be built, then the receiver would not have a choice, contradicting Weiner’s statement of intent.
With THE JOINING OF FRANCE GERMANY AND SWITZERLAND BY ROPE (1969), Weiner created a work that could still be accomplished but not in the literal sense for museums nowhere near the countries referred to. The ‘receivers’ of any of Weiner’s work have the freedom and responsibility to decide how the piece should be created if they should decide to fabricate it. This freedom of interpretation is necessary for his later works EARTH TO EARTH ASHES TO ASHES DUST TO DUST (1970) and OVER AND OVER. OVER AND OVER. AND OVER AND OVER. AND OVER AND OVER (1971), both of which use language to evoke imagery but without any hints as to what could be built should the receiver decide to fabricate the work.
Weiner is clear that receivers that choose to build a work themselves have the freedom to fabricate it as they please, and that this is not something that can be done incorrectly. He states, “There can be no misreadings. If somebody chooses, when they receive a piece, to build it themselves, they can’t do it wrong. They can do it in a way that might displease me personally but not esthetically. They can’t do it wrong.” In Weiner’s view, as laid out in his 1968 statement of artistic intent, “Art that imposes conditions – human or otherwise – on the receiver for its appreciation in my eyes constitutes aesthetic fascism.”
This puts a big responsibility upon the receiver, and also, upon the viewers. These are responsibilities that many receivers and viewers are accustomed to being managed by artists themselves.
A New Understanding
A question that needs to be answered is why it isn’t important to Weiner that a piece actually be built. Why is a statement alone sufficient for art? Why is it that a built piece and an unbuilt piece are equally consistent with Weiner’s intent?
What Weiner realized is that art is not dependent on the materials used or the physicality of the work itself. In other words, art is more than the mere physicality of the piece. That extra bit is a conceptual layer that makes an object be considered “art.” Weiner’s work demonstrates this by eliminating the physicality of the work altogether. By doing so, by showing that unbuilt art can still be art, he is proving conclusively that art is more than sum of the materials used to create a work. This is what makes Lawrence Weiner’s work important, and why we should care about him as an artist.
In Weiner’s own words, in response to a question about his statement about not being a “materialist,” Weiner explained that “materialist implies a primary involvement in materials, but I am primarily concerned with art. One could say the subject matter is materials, but its reason to be goes way beyond materials to something else, that something else being art.”
The key message of Weiner’s work is that the ‘something else’ that goes way beyond materials is art. After thinking about this for a while I realized that this is something that is very important for me to understand.
Something I’ve been struggling with concerns the question of art and artistic works created by computers or other technical devices. Currently computers are being programmed to imitate the artistic style of a famous artists, and the output of such programs look very much like paintings or images that could have been created by the artists themselves. One can then ask, are such pictures ‘art’? Can computers be programmed to create art?
The answer to that question is No. Computers by themselves cannot create art in the true sense because the computers and their programs operate strictly in the material domain. They cannot produce something that is more than the sum of their materials. If those materials are removed, nothing remains. Of course a skilled artist can use a computer to create art, but in that case it is the artist that is adding something that makes the work become art, not the computer.
Weiner’s goal as an artist is to change people’s views about art, and it seems to me that he is successful in that regard, or at least, his work has had that impact on me. “With every work that I show, if people accept the logic structure it would radically change their attitude towards life. I try to make work that nobody can use if they are not willing to accept a change in whatever logic structure they are stuck in. Art is supposed to change the way you relate to the world at large.”
This has been Weiner’s stated goal since the exhibition at Windham College. In the beginning of his 1968 artistic statement, he wrote: “The object – by virtue of being a unique commodity – becomes something that might make it impossible for people to see the art for the forest.” Getting me to see art and to recognize it with all of the material layers removed is what I was not able to do when I first stood before A WALL PITTED BY A SINGLE AIR RIFLE SHOT (1969). I am beginning to do this now. The work is in fact art, and although it was hard for me to understand, I am grateful that I can now see that.
After studying Lawrence Weiner and his art, I now understand his importance as an artist. He isn’t a “madman” as I suggested he might be years ago. He is an astute and insightful artist who uses art to communicate a deeper understanding of what art actually is. In a world with increasingly sophisticated technologies and manufacturing capabilities, producing objects with various configurations of materials is becoming easier and easier. We can quickly become distracted by the objects themselves and lose sight of our ability to see art. It is because of this we need his example to remind us of what it is that makes art ‘art’ so we don’t get lost in a forest of materials.
 Lippard, Lucy. Six Years: “The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972.” Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997. Print.
 Wikipedia contributors. "Lawrence Weiner." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 17 Feb. 2018. Web. 4 Mar. 2018.
 Weiner, Lawrence. “Statements.” Show Catalogue. 5 Jan. 1969. Print.
 Kennedy, Randy. “Language as Sculpture, Words as Clay.” The New York Times. 21 Oct. 2007. Web. 2 Mar. 2018.
 Burley, Isabella. “Lawrence Weiner” Dazed Digital. 29 Nov. 2012. Web. 3 Mar. 2018.