Lawrence Weiner’s reductio ad absurdum at the Whitney Museum
IMAGINARY NUMBERS ARE VITAL TO MODERN MATHEMATICS. The discovery of imaginary art — a.k.a. conceptual art — in the 1960s was greeted as a breakthrough of comparable significance. It demonstrated, so the thinking went, that art was capable of the same heavy lifting required by more rigorous disciplines.
In an era of vandalisms great and small, conceptual art combined the malice of deconstruction with the antics of Alan Kaprow’s “happenings.” Lawrence Weiner, now on show at New York’s Whitney Museum Museum of American Art, is a key figure of the movement. He helped put the torch to the traditional practice of painting and sculpture.
Conceptualism scorns material works of art and and exalts the artist’s mental labors instead. Execution of the concept is optional. Skills and aesthetic achievement, then, do not apply. What counts is the artist’s shining brainwork and subsequent commentary by Those Who Know.
The aim is to demolish common understanding of the nature of art. A wrecking ball is better than a brush for effecting a Nietzchean upending of prevailing values. The Whitney retrospective of Mr. Weiner’s pranksmanship solemnizes the ethos of rebellion and disguised nihilism that rode Jefferson Airplane from the Sixties into the “Me Decade” that followed. Those were the heydays of conceptual art.
In 1960, the 18-year old Bronx-born artist jump-started his career by dynamiting holes — without permission — in a Mill Valley state park. He dubbed them “Cratering Pieces.” On the qui vive to capture the zeitgeist, critics took the cue. They blessed the demolition and announced it a “work.” The game was on.
In the axis year 1968, Mr. Weiner turned to detonating language, too. Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, seedbed for deconstruction, was already on the stands. Words and Things, Michel Foucault’s assault on semantic habits, had appeared the year before that. Relations between words and meanings, given an earlier shake by Dada texts, went into free fall. It was the cognoscenti’s last joyride after the death of God.
Mr. Weiner seized the moment. He separated language from its communicative function with “word-works,” nonconnotative phraselets broadcast on walls and building façades. Gigantic Post-It notes signifying nothing suited the times. To a generation whose critical capacities were capped by Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the Hite Report, AND THEN UTILISED AS TO ANOTHER GENDER sounded recondite and worldly.
At the Whitney, strings of Weinerisms are stenciled on walls and floors like riddles of the sphinx. The procession is punctuated here and there with a dollop of paint, sea water, firecracker residue, or some other clue to the existential status of the artist
Guerilla theater begins in the elevator with a blotch on the carpet. A wall plaque declares the stain a creative act: AN AMOUNT OF BLEACH POURED UPON A RUG AND ALLOWED TO BLEACH. Elsewhere, in caps: TWO MINUTES OF SPRAY PAINT DIRECTLY UPON THE FLOOR FROM A STANDARD AEROSOL SPRAY CAN. Most lines have the ring of contrived enigma: EN ROUTE ON ANOTHER PLANE/ EN ROUTE VIA ANOTHER ROUTE.
Do you need more?
Photographs commemorate civic adventures such as the 2000 Public Art Fund project that cast Weiner’s nonplusses onto nineteen Manhattan manhole covers. Running the old cannabis trade route from the West Village to Washington Square, Union Square and Tompkins Square Park, each cast-iron plate carries the phrase: IN DIRECT LINE WITH ANOTHER AND THE NEXT. It is an apt motto for the persistent legacy of Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary.
Visually, the show is in the sententious tradition of embroidered samplers. But with a crucial difference. Needlepoint aphorisms are tethered to communal trust in the correspondence between recognizable reality and language. Mr. Weiner’s “theoretical messages” follow the Dadaist trajectory of what Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) hailed as “word salad.” Left open “for translation, transference and transformation,” they are applauded for their violence to intelligibility.
Customers are invited to fabricate significance for themselves. As the catalog states: “Each person has a different relation to its content. … It is left to the viewer to construct meaning.” STRETCHED TIGHTLY AS IS POSSIBLE [SATIN & PETROLEUM JELLY] is the sort of mannered incoherence that stokes curatorial cant. Dieter Schwartz, director of the Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, trills: “By being linguistic, Weiner’s works have the property … of having no properties.”
SINK OR SWIM YOUR ASS GETS WET is not an insight that gets you up in the morning. But in the rhetorical milieu of the graduate art seminar, from which curators emerge, it is an epiphany. It affirms the artist as a handmaiden to analytic philosophy, French phenomenology and linguistic theory. But of course. A knitted brow is part of the pose, the only thing left once artwork has been scuttled for the analysis of it.
The catalog locates Mr. Weiner in the company of Noam Chomsky, Jean Piaget, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Alfred North Whitehead and Sartre. Comparison with sociologist Baudrillard and psychoanalyst Lacan is unwittingly double-edged. Philosopher Roger Scruton, in a critical essay, once charged both with charlatanism. He called them impostors who abuse the terms of their disciplines “to deceive the reader into thinking that they are thinking when in fact they are doing no such thing.” Mr. Weiner’s role, like theirs, is to subvert the thinking of others.
Man is made for meaning, a communal achievement realized in concert with what used to be called natural law. Only when language is judged a product of arbitrary will rather than of cognition, can it be “left to the viewer to construct meaning.” Assent to intellectual anarchy, popularized in the arts, reached its apogee in Casey v. Planned Parenthood’s famous defence of individualized deduction: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.”
Only the mad, quarantined by unshared, idiosyncratic conceptions of reality, suffer that kind of freedom. The privatization of meaning signals something larger than an art world posture. Antirational, it thwarts the basis for making the distinctions on which decisions — aesthetic and moral — rest. Resentment of rationality and of societally embraced patterns of meaning is the inadmissable subject of the Weiner retrospective.
“Lawrence Weiner: AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE” at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, 212-570-4169).
This review appeared first in The Weekly Standard, December 31, 2007.
Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey