17 Jun, 2009

Poetry of abstraction

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Etching fragments of conversation and poetry across the wall, this conceptual artist has a unique ability to make his work speak

In 1968 a young conceptual artist from the South Bronx called Lawrence Weiner sat down to write a declaration of intent:

1. The artist may construct the piece.

2. The piece may be fabricated.

3. The piece 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 receivership.

With this, he delegated the responsibility of artistic interpretation to the viewer, shifting the onus on to the audience. It was his eureka moment, as blatant a description of conceptual art as it is possible to make. He was already one of a group of artists, along with Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and Robert Barry, who had come to the conclusion that the idea could stand as a work of art instead of the material. Weiner’s manifesto went one step further, suggesting ways in which art could interact with the world, and his bold statement continues to have ramifications today.

It is unusual to meet an artist who can speak compellingly about art, but Weiner, with his long, straggly beard, gravel-toned eloquence and humorous asides, is that rare creature. Perhaps it is because his art talks, albeit obliquely. Working with fragments of conversations, poems, sayings and slogans, he isolates sentences from their original context and paints them on walls, or prints them in limited-edition books.

A consummate New Yorker – the city of his birth is the first piece of information he ever offers about himself – Weiner was born in 1942 into a large Jewish family and became immersed in the city’s beatnik counter-culture. As a child, he played rugby – possibly the only US artist to make such a claim – and has subsequently made art about the gentleman’s game. In the late 1960s he was picked up by the uber-dealer Leo Castelli, whose gallery was responsible for promoting many of the abstract expressionists and early pop artists of the time, including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

Many of Weiner’s statements conjure up physical situations, like the sexually provocative Stretched As Tightly As Possible (Satin & Petroleum Jelly), from 1994. Made out of black vinyl cut-outs, it is easy to see that Weiner revels in innuendo. The sharp, minimal aesthetic of his style leads to comparisons with Russian constructivism, yet there is also the joy of dadaist absurdity and the shamanic ring of beat poetry that reveals a love of language and communication.

Why we like him: For the evocatively chilling public artwork Smashed to Pieces (in the Still of the Night), from 1991, written in large letters on the side of a second-world-war anti-aircraft defence tower in Esterhazy Park, Vienna.

Jail bait: When he had an exhibition at the New York Public Library, he said: “Having been involved a lot in political activity, I spent reasonable amounts of time in New York City lock-ups and holding tanks, so it was really rather nice that every son of a bitch who ever thought I was crazy had to go by for four months and see my name on the front of the New York Public Library. I liked it.”

Poison pen: He hates the typeface Helvetica, which he describes as authoritarian, antagonistic and clumsy. He did have a long-standing love affair with Franklin Gothic until it became too popular. He now invents his own fonts.

Not to be mistaken for: A member of ZZ Top.

• Lawrence Weiner can be seen at ProjectBase, Newlyn Art Gallery, Cornwall until 11 July.

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