Lawrence Weiner is one of the fathers of conceptual art. The American artist writes in various languages, describing how certain paintings would look, or stirring evocative images with his language. His text is fuel to our imagination, but also a challenge to howwe have come to define art and painting itself.
As posed in the meta imagery of René Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images’, questions pertaining to exactly what is art and how self-referential it can be has long been the germ of conceptual art. It is, without being pigeonholed into one particular style, the manifestation of an idea.
Traditionally, art has been about aesthetic appeal. At least, art was created in order to appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities. When conceptual art is created, the way it looks is secondary to how it makes us think about ‘it’. What the ‘it’ actually is will vary depending on the artist and the piece - but with Weiner, as with Magritte decades before - the ‘it’ is about the very value of the images contained within art.
Maybe Weiner wasn’t a good painter. That’s why he preferred to make us create the art in our heads, with imagination unbound to physical limitations. Maybe he himself much preferred the vastness of ideas that could be explored rather than their technical execution. Either way, his images constituted remnants of a life well lived.
Long days unloading railway cars came within years of working on oil tankers. He met plenty of people and saw plenty of things. It is with this poetry that his art truly comes alive, giving life to his text-based paintings that are themselves acts of poetic creation. Often simple, each word comes packed with enough specifics and, contradictorily, an open-endedness that the picture it evokes will vary greatly from person to person.
His style evolved from performative artistic practices that came with very specific descriptions - leading critics to wonder whether it was what the artist physically created that was the art, or whether the impact actually came from his description, where the audience were given more meaningful insight into what it is they’re seeing.
Reaching its logical conclusion in his text-based pieces, the artist removes himself from his creations almost entirely. Painting can convey the same scene in many ways, an artist often imbuing it with their own feelings and emotions - an autobiographically influenced depiction. Weiner omitted any personal details by not actually executing the work he detailed - at least not in the way we would usually associate with artistic practice.
Language is how he painted, with each word acting as multiple brushstrokes in our own limitless imagination. In recent years, many artists have been involved in controversial disputes about what it is that ownership and authorship actually constitute. Weiner preceded these debates. Not because he had helpers create his work, but he had his audience do it.
So, was Weiner the artist of all of the images that he has made his audience conjure? Yes and no. Without so much as creating anything pictorially, he drew on the power of language to provoke the images. He was, through his text-based works, one of the earliest proponents of conceptual art. He never fit the traditional definition of an artist, something he strove never to. For Weiner, the goal was always to reinvent.
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