Los Angeles

Hallway of Lawrence Weiner's Bleecker Street studio, New York, 1988. Photo: Tom Warren.

Hallway of Lawrence Weiner's Bleecker Street studio, New York, 1988. Photo: Tom Warren.

Los Angeles

Lawrence Weiner

MOCA Geffen Contemporary
152 North Central Avenue
April 13–June 14, 2008

Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
November 15, 2007–February 10, 2008

Curated by Donna De Salvo and Ann Goldstein

In the fall of 1968 my wife, Eleanor, and I were living in a small tract house in Solana Beach, a little beach town about twenty miles north of the Mexican border. We were newcomers to Southern California, so we were pleasantly surprised by the unexpected visit of three members of the New York art world—Seth Siegelaub, Joseph Kosuth, and Larry Weiner, who hung around for lunch and some gossip before they took off for Tijuana, where Larry was going to toss a carton of cigarettes across the border, a Fluxus-type performance that was a realization of his scenario text:

AN OBJECT TOSSED FROM ONE COUNTRY TO ANOTHER.

It somehow seems appropriate that just as visitors to the Museum of Modern Art are enjoying the vaulting ambition and the visceral disturbance provoked by traversing the massive torqued-steel environments of Richard Serra, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles are preparing a comprehensive retrospective of the work of the Conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, whose signature works consist mainly of casually displayed brief pieces of text. If the Serra works deploy copious technical and material resources to produce a purely physical effect, the Weiner works deploy spare and elegant linguistic resources to produce an intellectual and poetic effect.

But what form do the Weiner pieces take, and how do they work? In a gallery they usually appear as a few printed words stenciled on or affixed to the wall; simple, sometimes enigmatic, phrases, offering something to think about but providing few clues as to how to go about that thinking. Take a typical 1995 piece: two juxtaposed phrases—

BALLS OF WOOD BALLS OF IRON

—positioned at angles to each other fairly high on the gallery wall. The two materials named emerge from different levels of technology, both slightly archaic. So is the phrasing. Are balls of wood the same as wooden balls or wood balls? Does the of call attention to the production process? The material? Someone might say, “She was carrying three balls of wool.” But what native English speaker would say, “She was carrying three balls of wood,” outside of a fairy tale or a nursery rhyme? “She had three balls of wood / that told her where she stood.” What are wood balls good for? Not billiard balls or bowling balls. Croquet, maybe. Door handles. Newels. Finials. Buttons. balls of iron is easier. Ancient Chinese Baoding health balls. They’re hollow. You hold three in your hand and try to make them spin. If you get them spinning the right way, they produce different musical tones—melody leading to circulatory health.

Or maybe the words suggest a pawnshop or a chain gang.

But these readings are as slippery as rain and evaporate fairly quickly. Take an object tossed from one country to another. In 1962 it could have read as an ironic invitation to think of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now it could suggest a case of extreme rendition—a Canadian citizen kidnapped by the CIA and flown to Syria for torturing. But “tossed” is a casual term, unlike “hurled,” and less energetic or violent even than “thrown.” So perhaps the most meaningful reading would invoke this casualness more directly, even while taking into account the relation between countries, for which the passage of anything from one to another almost immediately suggests borders and contraband and anything-but-casual concerns with immigration. In Weiner’s Conceptualism, the individual readings are meaningful, but it’s the notion and value of the casual, the invitation to find meaning through the casual operation of the mind, that counts.