Lawrence Weiner, a godfather of the Conceptual art movement of the 1960s and ’70s, has died. Lisson Gallery and i8 Gallery, both of which represent Weiner, said in their announcements that he died at 79 on Thursday. A cause of death was not stated, although he said in a 2020 interview that he was in treatment for an unspecified form of cancer.
With his sculptural installations composed from koan-like text, Weiner experimented with the slippery nature of language and the ways that words connote meaning. Despite the seemingly academic underpinning of his art, Weiner’s works are also imbued with a rebellious spirit that has made them accessible to—and loved by—many.
Before he became more widely known for his graphic text works, Weiner achieved fame within the art world for pieces that called upon the people presenting them to enact certain tasks. Often, the activities called for were odd and not particularly utilitarian.
For the 1968 piece A 36″ X 36″ REMOVAL TO THE LATHING OR SUPPORT WALL OF PLASTER OR WALLBOARD FROM A WALL, the exhibiting institution is asked to excise a square portion of a wall using the dimensions stated in the title. A classic of Conceptual art, the work constitutes the object that results, as well as the instructions and the activity involved in the removal. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, which owns the work, lists its medium as “LANGUAGE + THE MATERIALS REFERRED TO.”
Weiner has been written into art history as a godfather of Conceptualism, a label that he himself often quibbled with. His 1969 manifesto “Statements” is considered an ur text for that movement. It lists out three statements that seem to disagree with one another: “(1) The artist may construct the piece. (2) The piece may be fabricated. (3) The piece need not be built.” It goes on to suggest that the artist may dictate how a work is made, but the person mounting it is just as much an author of it.
Penned at a transitional moment in art history, “Statements” is in part a reaction to prevalent attitudes in the postwar art world. The Abstract Expressionists made a point of obsessing over the artist’s genius and painting as the paragon of art-making. On the other hand, Conceptualists like Weiner, John Baldessari, and Joseph Kosuth rendered the connection between an artist and an object unstable. No longer was this a one-to-one relationship—there were now other authors involved, and the pieces could in effect be made by anyone, even nonprofessionals. Additionally, an object was merely the end result of a process that itself was part of the work, too.
Since the ’70s, Weiner’s work has grown less austere. His text pieces, with words spelled out in a signature stencil font, are often placed directly onto the wall, and can be exhibited in a variety of ways. Certain works hint at an interest in visuality. TO SEE AND BE SEEN, reads one; AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE, reads another. Others enact semiotic plays, with work repeating the text “HERE THERE & EVERYWHERE,” along with phrasing referring obliquely to the text’s placement on a wall. Still others hint at a political undercurrent—one 1991 work emblazoned on a Nazi military tower in Vienna reads “SMASHED TO PIECES (IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT),” in both English and its German translation, perhaps alluding to Kristallnacht.
In another artist’s hands, these wall texts would have grown formulaic. Weiner made the medium his own and kept it malleable. “Because Mr. Weiner’s words are mutable, appearing in one state and then another, they are not only continually remade but also renewed,” New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote in 2007 on the occasion of his first-ever museum retrospective in the U.S., at New York’s Whitney Museum.
Lawrence Weiner was born in 1942 in New York’s South Bronx neighborhood. Although he lived a hardscrabble life as a child, he received an education downtown, at the storied Stuyvesant High School. He dropped out when he was a teenager, and went on to live a nomadic existence, hitchhiking around the nation and, at one point, even ending up briefly in the Arctic.
Weiner had never set out to become an artist, but he was lured into it when he saw Alberto Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932) at MoMA. “If he can do that and it ended up in the museum, then I can do anything,” he recalled thinking in a 2019 Archives of American Art oral history. Later on, once he ended up in California, he came into contact with a rich avant-garde that had taken root in the Bay Area. His first works, he said in the oral history, were “bad Abstract Expressionist paintings.” All the while, he grew involved in leftist causes, such as the fight for civil rights for Black Americans and protests against the Vietnam War.
A breakthrough came in 1968, when, at Windham College in Vermont, Weiner mounted the work 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. The work was effectively a grid composed of stakes and twine that were set in a grassy field. That field also happened to be a staging ground for touch football games, and so the piece was destroyed when players cut the twine. “I began the realization that it seemed to mean something,” Weiner recalled in the 2019 oral history. “People talked about it, even though it wasn’t there anymore, so that was it.”
Having effectively fallen into a niche of the art world, Weiner was invited to participate in Harald Szeemann’s legendary “When Attitudes Become Form” show, held at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland in 1969. That show is credited with coalescing Conceptualism into a bona fide movement, and Weiner’s contribution to it wassas A 36″ X 36″ REMOVAL.
Inspired by semiotics, Weiner began making his wall texts in sans-serif fonts after a realization that “things like Helvetica were evil,” as he told artist and musician Kim Gordon in a 2020 conversation for Interview magazine. He continued, “It was basically universal sans serif typeface, and I thought, ‘That’s fine. With that, I can say what I have to say, and it’s not related to the typeface.’ A lot of people were able to copy what I did, and that’s good. That’s what art is for. Art is for people to use.”
In the intervening decades, Weiner garnered a following, despite the fact that he was often slightly removed from the New York art world. For 18 years, he and his wife Alice, along with their daughter, lived in a houseboat in Amsterdam that had no electricity. All the while, Weiner espoused strong views against the exclusivity of the art world and the elitism of successful artists. Meanwhile, he continued to rack up accolades, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Ludwig Museum’s Wolfgang Hahn Prize, and the Roswitha Haftmann Foundation Prize. He showed three times each at Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and the Venice Biennale in Italy.
Critics saw in Weiner’s work all kinds of lofty ideas about language and its limitations, but Weiner was fairly plainspoken about his art. “The purpose of the academy is to have an answer and, at the least, a solution,” he said in the oral history. “But the purpose of art is to not have an answer, it’s to question.”