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).
Of course, many of Weiner’s works can’t be brought into existence just anywhere, since they require a certain kind of setting. For instance, these: ONE FLOURESCEIN SEA MARKER POURED INTO THE SEA (1968), A TURBULENCE INDUCED WITHIN A BODY OF WATER (1969), PEBBLES AND STRAW STREWN ON A LEVEL WITH THE SURFACE OF THE WATER (1983)–all of which demand water as a setting, in one instance explicitly the sea. In what sense can these works be contained within the Whitney Museum? You can imagine them while you’re in there as you can do anywhere, but to the extent that Weiner is committed to the idea that the piece can be built, it’s clear that these cannot be built in the museum–at least not until global warming raises the level of the sea to a height considerably above its present height, a possibility that Weiner wisely appears to have considered, since there is a life preserver on the wall in the stairwell of the Whitney’s fourth floor inscribed with the words PUT ASIDE OR PUT AWAY REACHING FOR THE STARS.
Admittedly, some might find my perplexity over the location of Weiner’s works to be the result of a misguided literalism. But to me it seems the inevitable result of the artist’s success in a project that depends on having it both ways–on producing works that are made, as he insists, out of both “language + the materials referred to.” At the Whitney the language is insistently, vividly, joyously there–thanks to Weiner’s considerable graphic gifts, which allow him to present words themselves as quasi-physical entities through the use of color, scale and typography, as well as a limited repertory of nonlinguistic graphic signs, simple lines and boxes and curlicues that give emphasis to certain words or serve to relate or separate them. But one can never forget that this is not really pure conceptual art, in which language is the medium; the words really do manage to invoke other materials, objects and actions as simultaneously concrete yet potential. And it is this uneasy marriage of specificity and possibility, of tangibility and elusiveness, that gives his work its fascination. Perhaps for this reason, in the few instances of early works that are presented in the museum as “built” rather than in a purely linguistic form–e.g., ONE PINT GLOSS WHITE LACQUER POURED DIRECTLY UPON THE FLOOR AND ALLOWED TO DRY or TWO MINUTES OF SPRAY PAINT DIRECTLY UPON THE FLOOR FROM A STANDARD AEROSOL SPRAY CAN, both from 1968–the literal relation between the work’s language, presented as a title on a wall label, and “the materials referred to” seems uncomfortably didactic or dutiful. And the fact that Weiner seems to have quickly lost interest in having his works materially realized in this way would seem to confirm that the receiver’s imagination is, after all, their best location. Where else, in the end, could one possibly find such later constructs as OUT OF THE BLUE (1999) or AS LONG AS IT LASTS (1992)?
The question of time and of the artwork’s vulnerability to time that this last work evokes is urgent throughout Weiner’s oeuvre. In fact, it’s at the origin of the manner of working, adumbrated in the statement of intent, that he has followed since 1968. It was in that year that he executed 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 for a group show at Windham College in Vermont. Situated in a field, the carefully organized grid was soon damaged by some students playing touch football. “When I got there and looked at it,” he later recalled, “it didn’t seem as if the philistines had done the work any particular harm. And that was it. From that moment it was an emotional decision…. There was this emotional transition right then and there when I realized it didn’t matter.” What didn’t matter? “The condition of the piece in question…. The work existed purely and simply by virtue of its having been made public. The eventual consequence of this was that the rendering of a work in language was sufficient.”
Weiner’s conceptualism, if that’s the right word for it, turns out to be a strange way of transcending the romance of ruins, his equivalent of his contemporary Robert Smithson’s embrace of entropy as a basic principle for his work. But such strategies have a deep background. Artists have always held that something remains of the life they give to a work even after its inevitable physical decrepitude. Alberto Giacometti, in his day, questioned whether Modernist abstract art might not be too vulnerable to the ravages of time; one could understand classical statuary from a broken torso, or medieval painting from an isolated and cut-down panel from an altarpiece–but, he wondered, “How would a Brancusi statue look if it were chipped and broken, or a Mondrian painting if it were torn or dark with age?” For centuries, Greek artists like Apelles and Praxiteles were held up as models of artistic achievement even though their works were entirely lost; they inspired generations through verbal report alone. As Walter Benjamin observed, “The medium through which works of art continue to influence later ages is always different from the one in which they affect their own age.” Turning his art into suggestive language no longer vulnerable to ruin, Weiner seems to be trying an end run around history–like the ghost at the funeral, seeing his own work in the form it might have some time in the future when some future civilization has displaced our own and he is at best a figure of legend like the masters of ancient Greek painting and sculpture.
While any single work of Weiner’s can seem dry and austere in isolation, removed from matters of the heart and soul by its cool materialism as well as its terse linguistic instantiation, when it’s seen in quantity–as is the case at the Whitney, where a very dense installation turns out to supply just the right amount of a good thing–a different quality emerges. One begins to suspect that there is after all a system of metaphor, amounting almost to a myth, that underlies Weiner’s art. It’s really not just about materials after all. I’ve already given some clues to it by citing a number of works having to do with water in general, the sea in particular. There are many of them, just as there are many others about the stars, and in particular about Polaris, the North Star, long used by mariners as a fixed point for celestial navigation. The protagonist of this oeuvre, one begins to gather, is an inveterate nomad who, for all the time he spends on dry land, is at home in no country but merely AN OBJECT TOSSED FROM ONE COUNTRY TO ANOTHER (1969), A TRANSLATION FROM ONE LANGUAGE TO ANOTHER (1969); he is enchanted by the ever-present possibility of displacement from one to another, of being (as one of the more recent works in the show would have it) |EN ROUTE| AT ANOTHER TIME |EN ROUTE| TO ANOTHER STAGE |EN ROUTE| IN ANOTHER COURT |EN ROUTE| ON ANOTHER PLANE |EN ROUTE| VIA ANOTHER ROUTE (where I have used vertical lines to substitute for the horizontal lines Weiner uses between these stacked phrases). Weiner’s mariner is likely to affirm, as some drawings of his do, that “we are ships at sea.” And all the more as “Stars don’t stand still in the sky for anybody.” The gradual movement of the earth’s axis means that Polaris itself will one day be displaced as the North Star. Even seemingly fixed points are eventually displaced.
The person who makes this work is much like this wandering sailor, although he is undoubtedly more likely to be found “on another plane” than aboard ship; in 2007 alone he mounted solo exhibitions in Hong Kong, London (appropriately enough, at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich), Lisbon and Munich, as well as New York. If it’s true that, as Dieter Schwarz writes in the Whitney catalog, “In his practice, Weiner makes a clear distinction between the work itself and the circumstances of its presentation, which remain external to it,” then it must be said that he’s called to spend more time on its presentation than on the work itself. Perhaps it’s better to follow Baudelaire and speak not so much of presentation than of “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art, of which the other half is the eternal and immutable.” It is to the former that the zest and color, the glorious visual clamor of “As Far As the Eye Can See” belong. And they don’t stand still for anybody, so enjoy them while you can.