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Although he loathes the designation, pioneering conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner has given much to art. His text-based works, often displayed in a sans-serif font in a variety of colors, are at once whimsical and pragmatic. The striking, yet simple, color choices and sinuous lines of text give the work its playful quality. At the same time, the strong graphic sensibility of Weiner’s compositions highlights the importance of the written word as object. Weiner’s work takes the form of enigmatic, although familiar, statements, as well as bits and fragments of language. The primary thrust of his practice is the notion of language as object. Weiner sees words as sculptural components to be interacted with just as one would a three-dimensional work in another medium.
To provide a foundation for understanding Weiner’s work, I offer the artist’s seminal manifesto, Declaration of Intent, from 1968. In it, Weiner succinctly lays out the raison d’être—and specific parameters—of his work. He tells us, the viewer, just how his work functions and gives us freedom in how we experience it.
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.
So whether the artist builds the piece, has it fabricated, or decides not to build it at all, it exists as an object. This idea—the sheer independence of a piece—was groundbreaking and has continued to influence countless artists.
Taking the stance that language is an object, Weiner foregrounds the relationship of humans to objects in a manner that is at once generous, lucid, and plain. Yet, as with much conceptually based work, this clarity can run the risk of appearing intentionally coded; the viewer can feel marginalized and utterly dumbfounded. What happens when the perplexed viewer, rather than investigating and being open to a Weiner piece, walks by what this generous artist has made for her or him?
Perhaps a good place to take this query is to the Modern’s galleries. There, on the first floor of the Museum is Weiner’s One Lump, Two Lumps, Three Lumps, Four () (1990). Stretched across a large wall in black and red acrylic paint, this piece is emphatically language, but a piece of language: language as object. Until recently it was displayed on a prominent wall in Café Modern. There, ever-hovering above the din of Café patrons, Weiner’s piece sat strikingly with its black stenciled letters enclosed by rich-red boxes and sheer size, spanning an entire wall. Yet its placement in the Café, as opposed to the galleries, raised questions of the work’s meaning, given the context.
Now that the work has been moved, currently on view in the first-floor galleries, I can’t help but wonder if the piece’s meaning has been altered by its relocation? I would argue, yes, it has. The horizontality of the large, stenciled letters echoes that of the Carl Andre sculpture stretched out before it. Weiner’s One Lump, Two Lumps… provides relief from the stark verticality of the Donald Judd and Clyde Connell sculptures installed adjacently to it. And the sculptures removal from the dining environment seems (for me, at least) to erase references to lumps of butter, sugar, or mashed potatoes and gives the piece a fresh start. In this new location, One Lump, Two Lumps… now evokes mental associations with lumps of steel, wax, and paint, all materials associated with artmaking and found in abundance in neighboring works.