Artists at Work: Lawrence Weiner

By
Photography Frank Sun

Published September 2, 2015

LAWRENCE WEINER IN NEW YORK, AUGUST 2015. PHOTOS: FRANK SUN.

This month we’re visiting New York-based artists in their studios, ahead of fall exhibition openings.

“Except for the helicopters, it’s very quiet,” Lawrence Weiner says, pointing towards the courtyard of his five storey home, nestled in the heart of the West Village. Reconstructed from the ground up in 2008, with his wife, Alice, acting as engineer and the firm Lot-Ek as designers, the 73-year-old’s studio consumes the basement, and his archive the second floor. His conceptual stenciled words decorate portions of the home, while sketches and memorable photographs adorn the walls of the basement. When we visit, he’s preparing for multiple shows and installations around the world, from Wisconsin to Massachusetts to Portugal, England, and more.

This fall, in Oxfordshire, England, the South Bronx-native will become the second artist ever to install a show within the Blenheim Palace, a non-royal home constructed in the 18th century, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and known as the birthplace of Winston Churchill. Last year, Ai Weiwei installed a sea of crabs and large ceramic vats filled with rice atop grandiose carpets, supplanted traditional busts with bronze animal figurines, and emblazoned vases with “Coca-cola” logos. This year, Weiner will use his signature style of words to create what he refers to as a “simultaneous reality.”

Through the exhibition, titled “Within a Realm of Distance” and put on by the Blenheim Art Foundation, Weiner will draw attention away from what already exists within the palace and towards his new realm; the realities will coexist, but each should be discussed separately. Some of his alterations will be obvious (replacing a medieval tapestry with the words “Far enough away as to come readily to hand” against a white background), while others might be slightly less overt (printing a short sentence and the words “primary,” “secondary,” and “tertiary” in black above each ventricle in the Great Hall).

After showing us his sketches, noting that certain colors would change and certain technical difficulties arose with Blenheim Palace’s limestone, we sat down with the artist at the white kitchen table on the main floor of his home. As Weiner hand-rolled cigarettes (“They’re quite special to me. My friends bring them from France… You can’t import them in the United States”), we spoke about his plans for Blenheim and his processes, among other things.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: How did the collaboration with Blenheim first come about?

LAWRENCE WEINER: I got a telephone call from Christian Gether, who’s the director of Arken [Museum of Modern Art and co-curator of “Within a Realm of Distance”]. I was on my way to an airplane in Switzerland, so when I got back to New York, I called him, and we discussed it. He said they were interested in doing this as the second project, would I be interested? We talked for a little bit and I said okay. Then I had to make a show in Zurich and a show at Basel Art Fair for a day—one day.

MCDERMOTT: It doesn’t sound like you were too interested in that.

WEINER: I’m not. I’m not against art fairs, in fact this last one I even made money, but the concept is really disgusting. If you’re that rich to be able to hang out for two or three days, you’re certainly rich enough to get on a plane and go to Munich or Düsseldorf or wherever and see somebody’s real show instead of this stuff just stacked around. As nice as some of the booths are, it’s not the same thing. It’s a pity for young artists, because one of the things that a younger artist can look forward to is an emerging dealer who has a space that they can take over and build whatever will suit whatever aesthetic they find themselves in. In an art fair, you turn yourself into an object. 

This whole show is about objects—it’s something that interests me—and the value of objects. So I flew to Amsterdam for two or three days, and then to Blenheim Palace, stayed there, looked through it, then got on a plane at Heathrow and came home.

MCDERMOTT: When you saw the palace for the first time, what struck you? What did you want to build off of and address?

WEINER: I was intrigued only because it’s a non-royal palace. I’m from the United States; I don’t get [royal palaces]. Dukes and Duchesses are essentially some sort of a meritocracy; I can deal with that. During the war, [John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough] said, “Look, I can manage with one house, one swimming pool, and one very good job.” That’s what a meritocracy is all about: you deserve a reward, but it’s not at somebody else’s expense. The public was so happy that finally they defeated the French, the Battle of Blenheim, that [they gave him a palace]. Then the rest of the story, I know it, but it doesn’t really interest me.

MCDERMOTT: How did you decide to depart from the story?

WEINER: I looked at the physical thing and tried to figure out that if you’re going to do something like this—and I do a lot of public things—it’s not just going to be the venue; you have to take into account that you’re trying to build another ambiance within that venue, a genitive presence. Genitive is a funny word because it means “from,” but it also is the gender in European languages for objects: the masculine, feminine, and neuter. So if you have a genitive present, there’s room for everybody to fit in. I just did a project in Vienna about rock, paper, scissor; you change the gender and it simply changes the whole thing. Rock is no longer a male. It doesn’t function the same way.

MCDERMOTT: I want to touch on your idea of a simultaneous reality and dealing with the space. What is the simultaneous reality that you want to evoke?

WEINER: It’s about building another simultaneous reality—not having a conversation with the stuff inside, but also not demeaning it. It’s there and it’s living in another thing, which is sculptural. The sculptural reality that’s being put through [the space] is the idea within a realm. All of the different pieces that are put through there are about another way of standing in relationship to the world. This is specifically a realm, not the realm. It’s not universal. It’s right then and there.

In my work, it’s simultaneously realities, instead of parallel. Simultaneous avoids the problem of alternate reality. In parallel reality, there’s always a hierarchy, and there doesn’t necessarily have to be a hierarchy. When you’re in a palace like Blenheim, you’re supposed to be in awe—why not be in awe of something different than the stuff they’re showing you? It’s about finding your own existential place.

MCDERMOTT: Is the specific site generally important?

WEINER: No, the site’s not terribly important. The concept of who your audience is becomes more important than your site. Sometimes you can be commissioned to do a piece in Strasburg, and it works. Sometimes you’re commissioned to do a piece somewhere else and it doesn’t work, but then it moves to another city, the people embrace it, and becomes part of them. You just misjudged the needs of the people. Art is about giving people material and things to work with to fulfill whatever needs they have.

MCDERMOTT: So when you begin conceiving a piece in your studio—

WEINER: I usually find the materials that interest me, bring them in, and do it. It all pretty much starts with the materials. You put the materials in the configuration, then I translate it into language, because all objects, you can’t see them without giving them a name—water bottles, vase, etc. So get them into the components that are making this sculpture, clean it up a little bit, and then present it. It’s the same as we all do: we try to figure out who we are, what we want from things, and then we dress ourselves and try to go out and deal with it.

MCDERMOTT: You’re currently working on at least five projects that will be exhibited around the world. How do you balance each of them?

WEINER: I don’t. Each one gets their due [time]. Things inform each other. When I said that nothing is really site-specific, people intrigue you with a site, even a commercial gallery, something intrigues you—the money or the site or the city, whatever it is—then you turn it around and start to work on that, but with what you are working on at the moment.

So essentially you’re working with things that are of the time and adapting them into it, and in adapting, they change completely. So I can be working on Blenheim and Palma de Mallorca, [Spain] at the same time, because Mallorca is about another kind of existential reality: people in the 14th century doing maps had no idea what the fuck was going on out there. They weren’t quite right, but they were all about aspiration of existentially finding out where they were in relation to the world. So it wasn’t about giving information; it was how to find yourself, existentially, in this world that was changing with religious wars, and the Moors coming in and the Moors coming out. So that ties in with Blenheim, which was also a religious war between transubstantiation. That’s all it was about, transubstantiation or not. It’s all genuinely pretty straight forward.

MCDERMOTT: I wanted to ask about something I read, which is how you used to get free tickets to the MoMa and you would go, but it was all about the pretty girls instead of the art.

WEINER: Oh that was a joke, well, not really a joke joke, because the Metropolitan and all of those places didn’t relate enough to my aspirations when I was 12 or 13. I got into the Museum of Modern Art and I was awestruck. I wasn’t awestruck by Caravaggio, by these people; I understood them, I could appreciate them, I could explain it to people, but wasn’t particularly awestruck. It’s like clothing, you know your Givenchy, but it’s not really turning you on. What turns you on is somebody in a different skirt. I discovered it attracted people, it was a place where after you did what kids do—which is go to the park and screw—you had something to talk about that wasn’t about straight life. It was about something you absolutely didn’t understand or were inspired by. That was it. And I don’t believe in teaching children in museums how to make art—just show them things and let them develop their awe.

MCDERMOTT: Do you remember the first piece of art that was really awe striking for you?

WEINER: I was very impressed by Pollock because they looked like star maps, and it turns out that they were; they were an attempt to find one’s place in the world—Wow! As a kid, you got it right! I didn’t know at the time.

But the thing was Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 A.M.—it’s only this big [25 x 28.3 in.], yet it was as massive as Rockefeller Center. It was not in a form that I’d found attractive, I don’t find anthropomorphic forms attractive, yet I could still stand there and go, “Wow.” It’s like you’re standing there and you’re not a great fan of cosmetics, yet there’s somebody that’s made up and they’re absolutely perfect. You might not want to touch it, but you certainly are pleased to look at it, and that’s what happened with The Palace at 4 A.M.I’m sorry if I’m keeping everything on a human level, but essentially everything in our lives has to be on a human level. Any specification of something by art history doesn’t make any sense. The point is, if you have a loving, adorable, supportive mother anywhere in the world and you tell her all of your dreams, all of your aspirations, and the reward you would like, and she understands you, then it’s not worth doing. Think about it: you’ve already related it down to something that somebody else can understand. If art relates to something—it’s like Picasso, it’s like Mondrian—it’s not. Art’s supposed to be what it is. Using a reference of art history might help for some kind of sales, but it doesn’t really help anybody. Art is what it is; it cannot be footnoted, until it enters the world. Then it has a history. Then the footnotes are the history, not the explanation.

MCDERMOTT: What’s the most recent development that has impacted your work?

WEINER: This idea of understanding of simultaneous realities, which was Documenta and that last film I made, where things are going on without a hierarchy at the same time. They only notice them when they bump into each other because they’re not compatible. There are things in this life that are not compatible. Certain belief patterns are not compatible. Any major religion is not compatible with any other major religion. 

If you look at Blenheim Palace, the idea that they all had to sign papers that they did not believe in transubstantiation in order to be part of the whole thing, that’s incompatible. As far as material realities go, when there’s a hierarchy between materials in 2015, that’s idiotic—you can get power from a stone and gold. All of these things we have finally found a use for, so therefore one use cannot be more important than another. Anything that has hierarchy of material values—painting is higher than sculpture, sculpture is higher than whatever—that’s idiotic. 

It’s the same thing that they’re finally understanding about gender politics: if it walks and talks like it is, then what the fuck difference does it make to you? That’s the same with art. A Mondrian walks and talks like a Mondrian; it doesn’t walk and talk like a Caravaggio.

MCDERMOTT: I know the specific typeface you use is extremely important. You use one you made yourself, and I also read that you can’t stand Helvetica.

WEINER: Helvetica has a nice enough typeface I guess, sort of dumpy, but it was taken on as showing intellectual power, and I don’t like things that get away with just having power. I had to find a Franklin Gothic, extra condensed. After a while, the work entered the culture so much that if anybody saw something in Franklin Gothic, they thought it was me and it wasn’t. So I worked at it for a long time and designed another typeface—Margaret Seaworthy Gothic—and I’ve been using that. It’s not against another typeface.

MCDERMOTT: You’re simply picking what visually works for you. 

WEINER: Right. I don’t think art should have an authority in this way. I mean, coming from South Bronx, I have no background and I live with somebody who has no background, so basically you’re on your own, with friends and all of that, but you don’t have any family money. [pauses]

God, I’ve known Interview since the beginning. I knew Ingrid [Sischy]. I also did a calendar once for them. But New York was a very open city in the ’60s and the ’70s, genuinely far more open than you can imagine. Brooklyn used to be a place—people didn’t live there, you went there, you bought dope, you went here, you went there, and now it’s a gated community. Nobody asks people what they do; they ask what school they went to and where they come from. It’s a very odd situation.

MCDERMOTT: How do you feel about that?

WEINER: Well, it doesn’t affect me. It affects the people I’m around and I think it closes off the chance of strange people turning up—that’s what the academy has done. They show Jean-Michel Basquiat as an outsider; he wasn’t. He was an artist, a well-educated guy. He said this all the time, he said he was not an outsider. Keith Haring comes from a standard working class family. This is not outsider, they went to school; they did everything. 

What happens to people that are outsiders, that didn’t go to the right school? You never see them. You’d never have Brancusi if there was all of this stuff. Somebody just turns up, you have no idea how or where—Picasso came with a pedigree because of his father—but I like that in New York, people just turn up and you’re attracted first to what they do, and then the personality. But the first question is not, “Where did you go to school?”

Now it’s too rigorous—to get into the graduate school, to waste eight years of your life, to get a certificate that says they can have on the back “Made by a Certified Artist.” Big deal. The dance world requires a place to practice, and that requires entering into the structure, but music doesn’t and art doesn’t and fashion doesn’t. You don’t need a certificate. Just do it or not do it.

FOR MORE ON “WITHIN A REALM OF DISTANCE,” VISIT BLENHEIM ART FOUNDATION’S WEBSITE