If you hurry, you can still see “As Far As the Eye Can See,” Lawrence Weiner’s brilliant retrospective (or, as he calls it, “retrospectical”) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, through February 10. (The exhibition, curated by Donna De Salvo and Ann Goldstein, then travels to the Los Angeles MoCA, where it will run from April 13 to July 14.) Yet having said that, I admit I’m puzzled about what it means to say the work is at the Whitney. Certain works are certainly there in person, as it were–Weiner’s drawings, books, posters and multiples, as well as a few very early works that take the form of recognizable (albeit eccentric) paintings and sculptures. But while there is an abundance of such things on view at the Whitney, the heart of this Bronx-born artist’s work is elsewhere–not absent from the Whitney, not by a long shot. Yet the more of his art one has to look at, the more puzzled one can become by the question of whether the work is really there, and if so, in what manner, and if not, then what its location really is. Among the more enigmatic works I am thinking of are ones like these: A BIT OF MATTER AND A LITTLE BIT MORE (1976), MANY COLORED OBJECTS PLACED SIDE BY SIDE TO FORM A ROW OF MANY COLORED OBJECTS (1979), ENCASED BY + REDUCED TO RUST (1986). These are not, or rather not only, the titles of the works. These are the works themselves. For as Weiner put it in a famous “Statement of Intent” in 1968, which is one of the first things one sees in his exhibition at the Whitney, a declaration that looks quite like a typical work of Weiner’s but is not to be considered an artwork:
1. THE ARTIST MAY CONSTRUCT THE WORK
2. THE WORK MAY BE FABRICATED
3. THE WORK 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
At the Whitney, and this is typical of Weiner’s presentation of his work, none of the three pieces I have cited have been built. They are present solely and adequately in the form of legends inscribed in vinyl lettering on the museum’s walls. But there is no special reason they should be inscribed on the wall rather than on another surface, or in this font rather than another, or at this size or in this color. This reduction of the artwork to its linguistic support leads to some peculiar consequences. One is that the three works cited above are no less present here in The Nation than they are at the Whitney, or perhaps one should say that they are no less present wherever you happen to be reading. That’s one reason there’s something puzzling about saying that the works are at the Whitney. Of course, one could just as well say most appear in the museum twice–repeated on the standard museum label that accompanies every work–or dozens of times, if you count every copy of the exhibition catalog in the lobby bookstore.
But perhaps I’m mistaking the words for the work they convey. Look back at Weiner’s statement of intent and you might begin to wonder if Weiner is really the conceptual artist he has always been assumed to be. Certainly he never says that the work’s basis is linguistic. Quite the opposite: his insistence is that the work is always something that can in principle be built, that it is about physical materials and their manipulation or, as he often puts it, displacement. Indeed, A BIT OF MATTER AND A LITTLE BIT MORE is little more than a highly abstracted description of sculptural modeling. Considering the importance to sculptors of the age-old distinction between carving and modeling, one scholar has said that “it has plagued them, one might almost say it has persecuted them.” From Leon Battista Alberti down through Adrian Stokes, theorists and theorist-practitioners have always expressed reserve about the entitlement of works made by modeling to the name of sculpture. “By sculpture I mean that which is done by subtracting (per forza di levare),” wrote Michelangelo; “that which is done by adding (per via di porre–namely modeling)”–a bit of matter added to another–“resembles painting.” Modeling, in this view, was the first impure or hybrid or postmedium art; Weiner takes this indifference to medium about as far as it can go without quite cutting loose from the idea that an artwork must in principle, if not in fact, be a thing. In any case, A BIT OF MATTER AND A LITTLE BIT MORE might, by virtue of its thingly nature, be said to exist, not wherever those words are but just anywhere one can perceive a bit of matter and a little bit more–which is to say, just about everywhere, but perhaps most perspicuously wherever there is a work of art that has been made by modeling, such as sculpture by Rodin or de Kooning, though also, if you like, here on the screen (or, if you’ve printed this out, where ink has been added to the paper).