PRINT March 1975

Lawrence Weiner: Given the Context

WALKING INTO LAWRENCE WEINER’S recent show at the Castelli Gallery, one was confronted by two groups of statements printed in black capital letters on the wall.

And, on the opposite wall:

How one reads, perceives, interprets these words becomes contingent on their own context. They are shown inside an art gallery. And they are written by Lawrence Weiner. Thus, one begins to mentally construct the piece in terms of what one knows about art and, more specifically, in terms of the information one has about Weiner’s art. To consider these words primarily as poetic evocations, linguistic analyses, or philosophical speculations is to alter their deliberate designation as art, to shift the category which they are intended to inform. Weiner’s specification of use is the given. His words reflect on art because they are placed within the context of art and not because they are art in and of themselves. The question then becomes—what do these words have to say about art? Which leads Lawrence Weiner, Installation view, 1974. one to Weiner’s pronounced opposition to art as a unique object. For Weiner, objecthood has to do with presentation rather than content. One recalls his statements as to the physical condition of his artwork.

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.1

What is important is the idea of the work rather than the manner in which this information is conveyed.

In the Castelli piece, the presentation is in terms of words printed on the wall. However, the piece itself exists in one’s mind rather than as a specific visual artifact. The emphasis here is on the linguistic conception of a piece. Yet Weiner’s use of language differs from that of Joseph Kosuth or the Art-Language group in its dependence on a direct reference to the physical properties of things. His statements are more factual than strictly analytic; their logic refers to an empirical construction of reality instead of purely abstract thought. His propositions are based on one’s understanding of the behavior of materials and how that understanding is governed by the limitations of language. Thus, although the Castelli piece is shown in the condition of not being built, the possibility of fabrication remains. It may seem paradoxical that, even though a specific instance of materialization becomes difficult to describe, one’s intellectual realization of the piece is grounded in its implications for a physical expression. In order to comprehend the words up, on, and in the air or ground, one speculates on a hypothetical relationship between materials—their location, direction, and interaction. The order of the words and their punctuation with brackets and parentheses serve as the blueprint for one’s construction of this information. It is here, though, that one must return to the stipulation of the context as art. The language itself functions as art through one’s interpretation of it as art in connection with one’s prior notions of art. This insistence on the self-reference of the work presented as art to be used to comment on art might seem analogous to Kosuth’s assertion in his essay Art After Philosophy that art propositions are analytic. However, if Weiner’s words in general refer to the linguistic character of art, they are at the same time specific. Their relationship to art, given their intention as art, derives from their delineation of a particular way of operating with material—whether one conceives of that material as language or as a physical entity.

Perhaps to clarify this material signification of Weiner’s tautological definition of his art as an idea about art, one has to examine Weiner’s earlier work. In his paintings of the mid-’60s Weiner set up a structure encompassing a set of prescribed actions done with certain specified materials which for him defined the idea of painting. “All I had to do to a canvas to make a painting was to take a rectangle, remove a rectangle from it, preferably from the corner, because that seemed the easiest way to do it, spray it for a certain period of time with paint, and then put a stripe on the top and a stripe on the bottom and that sort of covered painting for myself.”2 Decisions as to size and color were left to the customer as matters of personal preference having more to do with the look of the object than its idea. Yet, as Weiner has admitted, even though the work was concerned with the idea of painting, it still existed within the traditional framework of painting as object. What Weiner was insisting on was painting as an established procedure contingent on its reading as art for significance. Since the thinking was in verbal terms, Weiner turned to words, and in particular books, as the clearest way of presenting his ideas about art.

Statements, published in 1968, includes 24 compact phrases which define linguistically the material structure of possible art actions. The statements are divided into “general” and “specific.” The general ones give an outline of procedure—“A field cratered by structured simultaneous TNT explosions” while the specifics provide description of precise quantities and measurements—“A 2” wide 1” deep trench cut across a standard one-car driveway.” It seems significant that Weiner chose the past participle in these and subsequent statements. The imperative of the present would imply a direction to act, whereas the past participle allows for the finality of completed description as well as the possibility of a future realization. Yet, even though the possibility of a physical manifestation remains, the linguistic, as opposed to perceptual, nature of art is stressed. The actions described depend exclusively on one’s reading of them as art possibilities for their meaning instead of allowing for an expansion of awareness which one then interprets as art. It becomes important here to note the concreteness of the language; there is no ambiguity of expression.

This elimination of the personal is stressed in Traces (1970) where words like “Smudged,” “Poured,” “Sprayed,” “Stained,” and “Folded” focus on known art processes as physical work procedures, as opposed to individualistic signatures or conveyors of emotional significance.

As I see it it’s an imposition to impose my personal life on the art which attempts to present something to people that is not just about me. It is about materials, and about the world they live in, perhaps, but it is not about themselves, their own personal, everyday lives, which is what I try to take out of my art.3

The words in the book are neutral. They are merely ways in which one can act on materials, not to learn more about one’s self, but to learn more about the materials used. Given the context, they reflect on art. For if the words emphasize process, it is not process as a fait accompli which through its perception reflects on art, but process as an idea in itself about art. What one looks at are words on a page and, while the words refer to specific actions taken in the world, their artness lies in one’s mental, as opposed to sensory, comprehension of them as art. Their gestural interpretation as marks in the world remains only a possibility for perception. Their meaning stems not so much from a particular thereness as from a general delineation of possibilities for making whose significance is in their designation as art.

In the development of Weiner’s work, the material thrust shifts to an emphasis on language itself as material. For example, as one reads Flowed, 1971, the phrases given first in English and then in six other languages flow “through” the book, “under” and “over” each other as their positions. shift in sequence on the page, “within,” “out” and “in” as one tries to voice the various translations. The clearest instances of language functioning as material, though, can be found in Weiner’s records, film, and videos.

To return to the Castelli Gallery. The second room of Weiner’s show contained three different presentations of the same words. Framed on the wall were five sets of statements typed on Castelli stationery. Each plaque consisted of two lines, “affected” and “effected” “as to” one of the noun groups—“pressure and/or pull,” “heat and/or cold,” “explosion and/or implosion,” “corrosion and/or vacuum,” “noise and/or silence.” Below this on a table were copies of Weiner’s 1971 book Causality: Affected and/or Effected. Here the first statement—“affected as to pressure and/or pull”—is followed by substitutions of the verbs “curtailed,” “disengaged,” “restrained,” weakened,” and “tinged,” each given with the original noun pair and its inversion—“as to pull and/or pressure.” The second statement is simply “effected as to pressure and/or pull.” The same ordering of word combinations is repeated for the remaining four noun categories. As Eric Cameron has pointed out, although one could imagine the construction of these statements in materials other than language, “the designation is on so general and fundamental a level that the reader is left not so much with the evocation of physical art structures as with an awareness of the subtlety of semantic distinctions.”4 What one focuses on is the linguistic difference between affected and effected as modes of causality. Since affected implies the process, it can be detailed as to how. Effected, on the other hand, stresses the result, and thus is a statement of completion without any necessary qualification.

The third presentation of this work is in video. One watches a woman (Catherine Bigelow) mouthing statements on the screen as one listens to a male voice (Weiner) matter-of-factly reading the verb and first noun qualifier, with a female voice (Bigelow) supplying the second condition. The image and sound track are not in synch, so one’s attention is drawn not so much to the process of reading as to the disjunction between language and the world of one’s senses. Repetitions of the verb segments and overlays of the “as to” clauses increase one’s fixation on the words as entities in themselves. Background whistling, which at times overpowers the recitation of the statements, further abstracts the words from a context by separating them as sound. At certain intervals the image on the screen shifts from a close-up to a more distant view and from a frontal to a side angle. The woman rubs her nose, pushes back her hair, looks up, and appears to be carrying on an animated conversation with an unseen person. All while one continues to hear the words from the book repeated in a regular rhythmic order. Language separates from visual reality to function on its own. It is almost like listening to a TV commercial in which the words somehow disconnect from the image and reverberate inside one’s head—conveying the message independently of the visual illustration. Spoken fragments of Weiner’s three statements about the condition of an artwork are interjected at points over and under the droning repetition of the reading. Like the changes in the camera image, these variations force a re-evaluation of one’s perception. One concentrates again on the use of language as material and on the way in which its syntax, as well as its learned semantics, condition one’s ideas independently of one’s immediate reality.

This emphasis on linguistic structuring as the primary mode of awareness appears throughout Weiner’s more recent work. Although the material reference remains, it is definitely subordinate to language. In Green as well as blue as well as red, 1972, it is the inversions of word combinations and their punctuation with parentheses, blanks, and underlinings which fascinates one rather than any corresponding physical realization. One focuses more on how one’s ideas depend on the actual construction of the language than on how the language relates to possible actions in the world. Similarly in Weiner’s record Having been done at/Having been done to, 1973, it is the words as separate carriers of meaning that prevail, even though one can readily visualize the actions described. This effect is heightened by the overlays of English and Italian translation which tend to highlight the words as the material of structure. The inclusion of musical notes given first in language and then in sound reinforces language as the signifier, even in one’s experience of sound.

In the beginning of this discussion, I underlined Weiner’s insistence on the context of his work as art. Within that context Weiner’s pieces function as practical ideas, contingent on language, about the use of materials, which question what one knows about art. I have deliberately avoided the political (Marxist) implications of Weiner’s statements which are “owned” by the receiver once they are read. This seems to me a corollary of Weiner’s involvement with art in terms of ideas about art and, as such, is secondary. It is Weiner’s implicit definition of art (tautologically) as about art which provides a meaning to his statements in terms of use. The viability (both materially and linguistically) of his words seems to derive from the question, what is their function as art? Rather than extending the definition of art, this would seem to go in circles within it. For if significance is confined within one’s understanding of art, it becomes limited to the boundaries of what is an a priori category. When, however, Weiner’s works reflect on a more generalized awareness of language in relation to perception, as in the Castelli video, the need to classify the information within the context seems less arbitrarily imposed. One becomes less concerned with what art has to say about art and more interested in its reflection on one’s perception of the world.

Susan Heinemann



1. Lawrence Weiner in January 5–31, 1969, New York, Seth Siegelaub. Weiner has subsequently repeated these conditions at various times.

2. Interview in Avalanche, Spring, 1972, p. 67.

3. Lawrence Weiner on “Art Without Space,” WBAI-FM, New York, November 2, 1969, a symposium with Weiner, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, and Joseph Kosuth moderated by Seth Siegelaub.

4. Eric Cameron, “Lawrence Weiner: The Books,” Studio International, January, 1974, p. 5.