PRINT November 1990


When you are dealing with language, there is no edge that the picture drops over or drops off. You are dealing with something completely infinite. Language, because it is the most nonobjective thing we have ever developed in this world, never stops.
—Lawrence Weiner, “Art Without Space”

Words are no more, and never can be more, than symbols, indicating a thought, a feeling, or an idea; symbols which need action, gesture, intonation, expression, and a whole context of circumstance, to give them their full significance.
—Denis Diderot, The Paradox of Acting

LAWRENCE WEINER HAS ALWAYS BEEN something of an anomaly within the pantheon of Conceptualism, a judgment confirmed by even the most cursory look at the “movement”’s bibliography. Compared to peers such as Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, and John Baldessari, Weiner has received very little serious critical evaluation over the years.1 This has less to do with Weiner’s intrinsic worth as an artist than with the nature of the works themselves: the well-known artist’s book Statements and the text pieces simply don’t lend themselves to complex exegesis. Incomplete fragments, they serve as snatches of dialogue or stage directions in search of a more complete mise-en-scène. Any narrative overview is intended to be provided by the viewer, rather than by the omniscient artist, Weiner himself. Consequently, the most appropriate form of commentary on Weiner would probably be to reprint a series of his statements accompanied by an invitation to the reader to free-associate.

Nevertheless, the temptation to interpret Weiner is irresistible, largely because his work is so clearly grounded in such old-fashioned Enlightenment philosophical warhorses as empiricism and materialism. Just as much 18th-century discourse entailed an unresolved contradiction between empirical singularity (the body) and generic abstraction (the institution), worked out within the dialogic relations of the familial tableau, so Weiner’s oeuvre is built upon the same dialectic, only this time expressed in purely linguistic terms. Weiner’s “body” is the “statement” of everyday speech (what Ferdinand de Saussure called parole), while his “institution” is the abstract structure of language itself (Saussure’s langue). Moreover, like the painterly and theatrical tableaux of the age of Diderot, Weiner’s statements, although composed entirely of words, are predicated on an inherent mistrust of written and spoken language. Words can imply an incompleteness, a parenthetical interruption of a more complete flow of meaning that can only be fulfilled through the interjection of something outside the restricted mise-en-scène: a gesture, a fantasy, the imagination of the viewer. Both Diderot’s and Weiner’s tableaux necessitate the active role of the viewer, as both a paradigm for the absence within the tableau itself (we stand, isolated, outside the “picture” looking in/on) and as the completer, through the act of productive sensibility, of that missing link. One could argue, therefore, that a viable exegesis of Weiner’s work lies less in a traditional poststructural analysis of it as the quintessential open text than in a paean to the teleological powers of the imagination. In its attempt to structure the indeterminacies of desire, fantasy transforms absence and contingency—the space between and around the text—into transcendental signs of a future completeness.

The painterly, theatrical, and literary tableau was lionized during the second half of the 18th century in response to the decorative excesses and semantic ambiguity of the Rococo. As the depiction of a frozen, pregnant moment, just prior to a momentous event, the tableau represented the ideal of a formally unified, concentrated composition, communicable at a glance. Critically and philosophically, it was strongly championed by Diderot and by the critic and dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing because it helped to reduce the flux of history to that one perfect instant that captured the casual unity of nature, and by extension, the human soul. The need for such unity was made manifest by Diderot himself: “If the state of things is in a perpetual flux, if nature is still at its work, in spite of the causal chain there is no philosophy. All our natural sciences became as transient as words themselves. What we take to be the history of nature is only the very imperfect history of an instant.”2

The tableau’s exemplary characteristic was the representation of loss or lack—a widow’s grief, the death of a father or mother, the ruination caused by a prodigal son. The chief practitioner of tableau painting in Diderot’s day, and one highly praised by him, was Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Greuze’s sentimental depictions of family crisis—La Piété filiale (Filial piety, 1763), for example, or Le Fils puni (The punished son, 1778)—appealed to the beholder3 in the form of a supplication for self-sacrifice: not only to shed tears for the bereaved family, but to act as bodily compensation for the absent or wayward family member. As Jay Caplan puts it, “By repeating a gesture represented in the tableau, the beholder testifies to a double partiality. He shows himself to be partial, first, by taking sides with the represented characters, by espousing their cause, as it were. Second, the beholder plays what is literally a part, a fragment; he aims to replace a part that the tableau has lost.”4 Thus, not only does the viewer complete the painting as interpreter of its internal narrative, he/she also completes it genealogically: by reuniting the broken family grouping, the beholder ensures its continuity in the future. In a sense, the unhappy present depicted in the tableau is sacrificed to a happy future, when everything will be made whole: “That fulfillment, which depends upon the future sacrifices of virtuous, paternal onlookers, takes shape in the future anterior: from the viewpoint of that future onlooker, the present loss in the family will have been redeemed.”5 The tableau thus reconciles synchrony (the pregnant moment of loss) and diachrony (the narrative continuity) via the imagination of the viewer. The insufficiency of mere words to mend the crisis is thus compensated by a metaphorical form of gesture—what the beholder can conjure up in the mind’s eye.

Clearly, the tableau has fetishistic implications, for as a frozen fragment representing loss it also attempts magically to conjure away that loss by creating an idealized future whole. The tableau is thus dependent on the mutual collectivity of fragments, in which the tripartite system of author-character/text-beholder both creates and completes the tableau, and is simultaneously its topic. In 20th-century esthetics, this has proved to be a valuable framework of contingency for such users of tableaux as Sergei Eisenstein, Bertolt Brecht, and as we shall see, Weiner. Unlike Diderot, for whom the fragment of the tableau functioned as a paradigmatic building block that was part of a greater historical and metaphysical whole, more recent practitioners have tended to work syntagmatically, forming chains of pregnant moments whose semantic secrets tend to lie between signifiers rather than behind them (the hidden signified). Many have seen this as a reflection of a historical transition from stratified (vertical) to differentiated (horizontal) societies. Thus, as Roland Barthes points out, “Brecht indicated clearly that in epic theater (which proceeds by successive tableaux) all the burden of meaning and pleasure bears on each scene, not on the whole. At the level of the play itself, there is no development, no maturation; there is indeed an ideal meaning (given straight in every tableau), but there is no final meaning, nothing but a series of segmentations each of which possesses a sufficient demonstrative power.”6

Weiner’s work, with its firm materialist and empiricist base, and its focus on what’s left out rather than what’s actually there (ellipsis), also attempts to make good such fragmentary loss through supplications to viewer interjection/completion. Thus the early “Propeller Series,” 1964, in which propellerlike TV test patterns were painted in different sizes and colors to create a simple abstract system that allowed unlimited realization, much as Jasper Johns used the American flag as an iconographic template. The parallel with Saussure’s linguistic differentiation between langue (the abstract system of the propeller image) and parole (the individual variations of color and size) is obvious. Also, like Saussure in his description of language, Weiner defined painting as sets of relations and differences in which the ellipse between works (to be filled in by the viewer) was more important than any understanding of the works themselves as discrete entities.

Such a notion of contingency was taken one step further in the “Removal Series,” 1967, rectangular paintings of various colors and sizes (the parameters of size and color were selected by the customer) that were each missing a rectilinear area from one corner, thus becoming six-sided. Two stripes of a different color were then painted at various angles at the upper and lower ends. Like the tableau, each painting is missing a vital part, the lack acting as a sign of the artist as subtracter rather than adder. It is up to the viewer to imagine the missing piece and to restore the integrity of the painting. Weiner clearly felt that the painting, like the tableau, could never be self-sufficient. Thus the real missing link in his tableaux is traditional painting itself. Instead of Clement Greenberg’s heroically engendered, autonomous totality—four sides, a surface, and a frame—painting itself was to be replaced by a discussion of its parameters and the relationship between producer and receiver. However, such discourse is only intelligible within the framework of art itself, that is, what tradition has told us a painting should be. In this sense, painting acts as a form of speech within the abstract langue of art as a whole. For Weiner, art is the totality that makes his tableaux—his paintings of lack—intelligible. Just as for Diderot the tableau returns lack to the Family of Man, for Weiner it returns lack to the Family of Art. Old iniquities are replaced by the universal mediation of the esthetic, underpinned by the rational and the empirical. However, since this sort of conceptualizing takes place in purely verbal terms, you don’t really need actual paintings to communicate it: “In Weiner’s work it is the function of language to contest the supremacy of the visual as constituting aesthetic experience, thus continuing the contestation of the hegemony of the retinal principle as Duchamp had called it.”7 Thus Weiner turned instead to words as his medium, and painting itself became yet one more paradigm of loss, recreated in the viewer’s imagination from now purely linguistic cues.8

In 1969, Weiner made a famous declaration of intent that stated:


This was a clear indication of the contingent nature of Weiner’s art, for not only did the work not have to be built, that is, it could remain a mere statement in a notebook, its actual material condition could vary according to context, medium, and esthetic decisions made by the receiver as well as by the ostensible “author.” Thus the simple statement “BROKEN OFF” would connote different meanings depending on whether it were understood as an instruction actually executed (a chunk removed from a museum wall, for example), presented as a text on a gallery wall, reproduced in a book, magazine, or catalogue, printed inside a matchbook cover or on a poster, interjected as a caption in a film, or spoken on a record or tape. As Weiner himself put it, “People, buying my stuff, can take it wherever they go and can rebuild it if they choose. If they keep it in their heads, that’s fine too. They don’t have to buy it to have it—they can have it just by knowing it. Anyone making a reproduction of my art is making art just as valid as art as if I had made it.”10

However, the intrinsically materialist nature of Weiner’s practice is perhaps as important as the open nature of the art-making procedure: his use of language makes direct reference to the observable physical properties of things, or to processes, conditions, and actions connected with them. As Weiner explains, “Art is and must be an empirical reality concerned with the relationships of human beings to objects and objects to objects in relation to human beings.”11 The work always begins with an interest in a particular material, which Weiner then deals with in relation to other materials. Like all good empiricists, Weiner tests his initial premise through objective study and experiment, and then translates what is learned into language. This is then reduced to a sentence fragment that becomes a manifestation of difference and lack, yet is made whole again through the mise-en-scène of its presentation—the context of art. Thus the old “Removal Series” is transformed in work of the late ’60s into a series of propositions: A SQUARE REMOVAL FROM A RUG IN USE, or A REMOVAL TO THE LATHING OR SUPPORT WALL OF PLASTER OR WALL BOARD FROM A WALL, while painting, reduced to the Minimalist syntagm of MANY COLORED OBJECTS PLACED SIDE BY SIDE TO FORM A ROW OF MANY COLORED OBJECTS, 1978,12 is turned into a surrogate containing within it all possibilities of painting. Weiner’s work thus became pictographic: ideas are represented by language but transcend illustration.

It’s nonetheless important to realize that Weiner’s logocentrism doesn’t begin with any stable entity such as the direct correlation between signifier and signified. For all his insistence on the privileging of content over context, the actual content isn’t simply the referent of the sentence or fragment, but includes its functioning within the structure defined by his statement of intent—that is, art as langue. The content of every work, therefore, consists of an objectified general formulation that interrelates a number of signifiers. Like the Brechtian tableau exemplified by the chain of fragmented dramatic moments in Furcht and Elend des III. Reiches (Fear and misery of the Third Reich, 1935–38), Weiner’s work is composed on a metonymic, syntagmatic axis (signifier to signifier to signifier) rather than on a paradigmatic one (signifier to signified). It is more concerned with flux, flow, and dislocation than with pure, static representation.

Much of this is derived from Weiner’s use of language as a manipulable object in its own right, rather than as a transparent window on empirical reality. A statement such as


made in 1970, is a good example of his highly generalized use of syntax and overlapping ambiguities. The phrases simply demarcate a set of parameters in order to encourage a set of potential reactions, indicating both an empirical response to the natural world and an esthetic continuum of indeterminancy, as well as a Minimalist notion of process and series.

Weiner favors past and present participles, so that it is unclear whether the action has already been completed or is in a present state of performance. This may be better understood if we consider a 1971 piece for the book Concept Art, in which Weiner presented one each of the following phrases on successive pages:


As one turns the pages and reads the texts, the past tense gives the paradoxical notion of an already realized piece in the actual process of being realized: that is, the page has been textually “turned over” even as we are in the process of actually turning it over. The essential elliptical nature of the work forces the viewer actively to suture these temporal inconsistencies. The work becomes both suspended in time and perpetually deferred: actual semantic completion is always put off until that future date when a beholder arrives on the scene and makes what had once been lacking coherent through performance. This is, of course, much like the self-sacrificing act of identification in Greuze’s familial tableaux that ensures an unseen future wholeness. This dialectic serves to transcend the contingency of any given individual viewer and moment and to raise the experience to a generalized level of gestalt, where all distinctions and individual characteristics are effaced and transcended.

Although it is clear that Weiner’s texts owe a considerable debt to the Brechtian syntagmatic tableau, the totalizing tendencies of his work refer back to 18th-century empirical practice—not only to the tableau as understood by Diderot, but also to the Enlightenment fascination with travel literature and the novel as a means to the symbolic appropriation of foreign experience: “To discover is to appropriate, to assimilate, and thus finally to cover the world and possess it entirely.”13 Such an attitude is epitomized by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s famous chronicle, Voyage autour du monde (Voyage around the world, 1771), for which Diderot wrote the equally famous Supplément. Often accompanied by great displays of sensibilité and tears, such accounts betray a desire for knowledge, gained through self-sacrifice, the urge to see a new world in order better to understand our own. And Bougainville was quick to distinguish his voyage from those of “other navigators, whose only goal was to enrich themselves by pirating the Spanish, [and who] followed known routes without extending our knowledge of the globe.”14

This dream of global order, in which “movement and being moved are linked,”15 is once again re-presented by Weiner under the allegorical aegis of Art as a whole. Weiner’s texts are by their very nature peripatetic, varying in meaning and significance according to context and medium of presentation. It seems appropriate, therefore, that he should have produced a book, Towards a Theatrical Engagement: Ducks on a Pond,16 that acts as an allegory of the tableau-as-movement, referencing the typical Bougainville-like adventure, Brechtian materialist esthetics, and his own empirical art practice.

The book is composed of six different but allegorically connected structures. One consists of the repeated picture of a sailing ship, as if to stage the book’s mise-en-scène as a voyage of discovery. A second comprises four texts, roughly boxed in magic marker—“THE BOULDERS ON TOP RENT & SPLIT,” “HIGH OUT OF THE WATER,” “THE BOULDERS ABOVE RENT & SPLIT,” “WATER OVER THE SIDE”—that appear separately or together throughout the book, like a ship’s log of observable phenomena. A third takes the form of a series of collages that combine cropped maps of island regions with simple sums, rendered in horizontal or vertical slashes, thus establishing different geographies as suitable sites for empirical research and as contexts for Weiner’s own texts. A fourth is a country-and-western song, whose references to tears and remorse—“I FIND I HAVE WATER IN MY EYES”—act perhaps as sentimental narrative paradigms for loss as well as indicators of objective material phenomena connected to the sea and the voyage—“DAM THE RIVER START THROWING IN THE ROCKS. . . .” The fifth structure is a series of photographs of Weiner shooting a film, taken from the point of view of someone hanging out behind the scenes, as if to disclose the book and voyage as a constructed allegory reminiscent of Eisenstein’s use of montage and tableau. This Brechtian alienation, in which the mechanisms of the narrative are deconstructed, is further amplified in the sixth structure, which takes the form of a discourse on theater and film and the function of the actor. Thus, we are told,


Although this may suggest that Weiner is advocating a form of mimetic realism, his empiricism is actually closer to that of Brecht’s materialist esthetic. Thus, Weiner tells us: “A THEATRICAL ENGAGEMENT IS NEITHER THE EXPIATION OF GUILT OR A NEWSPAPER OF OUR TIMES BUT A REPRESENTATION OF EXISTING FACTUAL RELATIONSHIPS OF HUMAN BEINGS TO HUMAN BEINGS IN RELATION TO AN OBJECTIFIED CULTURAL SITUATION.” Or: “THE UTILIZATION OF GENERALIZED CHARACTERIZATIONS NEGATES THE NEED FOR EMPATHY IN ORDER TO MAKE THE MEANING KNOWN.” Clearly, in Weiner’s voyage of discovery, the empirical exploration of, and empathy for, disparate cultures and esthetics metamorphoses from Diderot’s homogenizing Family of Man to a Family of Art that is rooted in the infinite possibilities of generalized language. The interrelationship between the book’s internal structures may seem arbitrary and encourage a sense of loss and estrangement, but as Dieter Schwarz points out, “A flash of recognition and identification is followed by a sense of having been excluded and a desire for symbolic reconstruction.”17 It is the book as a whole—Weiner’s art—that transforms these particular, minimal fragments into a universal whole. For Weiner, that totalizing power of Art lies in its allegorical nature, in Walter Benjamin’s sense of joining fragments; in its ability to transform empathy into reason, loss into completeness. By looking back to the Enlightenment, Weiner discovers the necessary philosophy of loss to fuel his tableaux of a timeless linguistic gestalt.

Colin Gardner, a writer who lives in Los Angeles, is a visiting lecturer at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, and the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, Los Angeles. He contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. For the most insightful, see in particular Dieter Schwarz, “Learn to Read Art: Lawrence Weiner’s Books,” in Lawrence Weiner and Dieter Schwarz, Lawrence Weiner: Books 1968–1989/Catalogue Raisonné, Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 1989; Susan Heinemann, “Lawrence Weiner: Given the Context,” Artforum XIII no. 7, March 1975, pp. 36–37; and Benjamin Buchloh, “The Posters of Lawrence Weiner,” in Posters November 1965–April 1986, ed. Benjamin Buchloh, Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, and Toronto: Art Metropole, 1986.
2. Denis Diderot, Interprétation de la Nature, 1754, quoted in Norman Hampson The Enlightenment, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1968, p. 95.
3. The present use of the word “beholder” was developed at length in Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1980.
4. Jay Caplan, Framed Narratives: Diderot’s Genealogy of the Beholder, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985, p. 17.
5. Ibid., p. 26.
6. Roland Barthes, “Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein,” Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, p. 72.
7. Buchloh, p. 169.
8. Schwarz has commented that Weiner’s graphic work, with its truncated rectangular frames and sliced-off corners, is an allegorical reference to his lost paintings: the curved blades and axes of the “Propeller Series” become free-floating graphic signs that reappear in the emblems and posters of the ’80s. See Schwarz, p. 132.
9. Weiner, quoted in January 5–31, 1969, exhibition catalogue, New York: Seth Siegelaub Contemporary Art, 1969; also in “Documentation Conceptual Art,” Arts Magazine 44, April 1970, p. 42.
10. Weiner, “October 12,1969,” in Ursula Meyer, Conceptual Art, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972, p. 217.
11. Weiner, “Portraits: Section 2,” Artforum XX no. 9, May 1982, p. 65.
12. Dating Weiner’s work is difficult because any given proposition may appear in different forms at different times. MANY COLORED OBJECTS PLACED SIDE BY SIDE TO FORM A ROW OF MANY COLORED OBJECTS, for example, also ran in German as a frieze on the entablature of the Fridericianum at Documenta 7 in 1982: VIELE FARBIGE DINGE NEBENEINANDER ANGEORDNET BILDEN EINE REIHE VIELER FARBIGER DINGE.
13. Caplan, p. 79.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid., p. 77.
16. Weiner, Towards a Theatrical Engagement: Ducks on a Pond, Gent: Imschoot, Uitgevers, 1988. The title page indicates the nature of the journey as “THE TRAVEL OF MARGARET-MARY (IN SEARCH OF A SUITABLE MISE-EN-SCÈNE).”
17. Schwarz, p. 160.