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Lawrence Weiner, 1985. Photo:  Chris Felver/Getty Images.
Lawrence Weiner, 1985. Photo: Chris Felver/Getty Images.

Lawrence Weiner (1942–2021)

Lawrence Weiner, a towering figure in the Conceptual art movement arising in the 1960s and who profoundly altered the landscape of American art, died December 2 at the age of seventy-nine. Known for his text-based installations incorporating evocative or descriptive phrases and sentence fragments, typically presented in bold capital letters accompanied by graphic accents and occupying unusual sites and surfaces, Weiner rose to prominence among a cohort that included Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Sol LeWitt. A firm believer that an idea alone could constitute an artwork, he established a practice that stood out for its consistent embodiment of his famous 1968 “Declaration of Intent”:

The artist may construct the piece.
The piece may be fabricated.
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.

Weiner was born in 1942 in the Bronx, where his parents ran a candy store. Graduating from New York’s prestigious public Stuyvesant High School at the age of sixteen, he held a variety of odd jobs in the shipping and transportation industries, working aboard an oil tanker and on docks, and unloading railcars. Following a brief stint at New York’s Hunter College, he traveled around the United States. In 1960, at the age of eighteen, he mounted what might be considered his first solo show in Marin County, California. There he presented Cratering Piece, simultaneously detonating explosives placed at each of four corners of the plot of land and announcing the resulting gouges as sculptures. He worked along these lines for half a dozen years, additionally creating works made on shaped canvas, or featuring excisions made in pieces of carpet or drywall.

By 1968, the year he published his “Declaration of Intent” in his debut volume, Statements, he had shifted his attention to works that consisted of brief instructions or descriptions, such as “Two minutes of spray paint directly on the floor.” Works of this nature called into question the rules of objecthood in relation to both artist and viewer. “Art is people who saw the configuration and were not satisfied with it and went to change the configuration of the way we look at objects,” he told Kim Gordon in a 2020 conversation for Interview. Weiner felt strongly that words were more accessible to many general audiences than traditional works of visual art. Supporting his point, many of his works were ultimately translated into different languages. “The vision is to have a concert, and when everybody comes out of the concert, they’re all whistling something,” he explained to Gordon. “That’s not populist—that’s just giving somebody something they can use. And that’s why the work that I make is about giving the world something they can use.” Some of his works, such as Held Just Above the Current, 2016, comprised simply lettering on a nondescript wall; others, such as Many Colored Objects Placed Side by Side to Form a Row of Many Colored Objects, 1982, comprised exactly what the title described, while still others, such as The Joining of France Germany and Switzerland by Rope, 1970, limned encounters with boundaries. In 2000, Weiner was commissioned by New York’s Public Art Fund to collaborate with Con Edison on a series of manhole covers that would be put into use in Lower Manhattan. He ordered the manufacture of nineteen covers bearing the phrase “In Direct Line with Another & the Next,” in reference to the gridded layout of the city’s streets.

Weiner exhibited widely during his nearly sixty-year career. In 2007–09, he was the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf. Solo institutional shows of the past few years include those at the Jewish Museum, New York (2012), Villa Panza, Italy, and Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Spain (both 2013); South London Gallery (2014); Blenheim Art Foundation, Woodstock, UK (2015); Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (2016); Milwaukee Art Museum (2017); and Museo Nivola, Orani, Italy (2019). Earlier this year, he exhibited at Dublin’s Kerlin Gallery. Weiner was much decorated, receiving prizes including two National Endowments for the Arts Fellowships (1976 and 1983), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1994), the Wolfgang Hahn Prize (1995), a Skowhegan Medal for Painting/Conceptual Art (1999), the Roswitha Haftmann Prize, Zurich (2015) and the Aspen Award for Art and Israel’s Wolf Prize, for his radical contribution to the arts (both 2017). In 2013, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the Graduate Center, University of New York (2013). His work is held in the collections of numerous institutions worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and Tate Gallery in London, among others.

“You don’t have to have a previous knowledge,” he told Vice in 2017. “It was my idea in making art to make art that doesn’t require doing or looking like something that came before. It is not a requirement. I just think it was a right thing in a right time. It was not ironic, it was not against anything except the entire culture. That’s what art is.”

Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Weiner died December 1.