By the time I understood what contemporary art was, the golden age of the avant-garde was over. The modernism of my schoolbooks lived on—in my schoolbooks. The painters championed by Clement Greenberg were dead or croaking. The far-out fireworks of ’60s and ’70s post- minimalism and conceptualism had sputtered out or—more terminally still— had become museum lore and academic requirement.
Because nature hates a vacuum, the gap left by these brash—at times, vapid—often elevating experiments was eventually filled by rafts of largely steroidal paintings and an avalanche of whiny political art. As the Reagan administration slouched into the Iran-contra years, American art—like American culture—faced self-evidently dwindling returns where revolutions in thought and politics were concerned. A noxious sea change hit the culture between Carl Andre’s 1966 pile of bricks as sculpture and Karen Finley’s 1986 Yams Up My Granny’s Ass. But what happened exactly?
The answer, given a couple of decades of retrospection, certainly has something to do with Harold Rosenberg’s observation about postwar culture increasingly becoming “a profession, one of whose aspects is the pretense of overthrowing it.” Another part of the answer resides in the brooding anti-utopianism spawned by phenomena as varied as the Vietnam War, Altamont, Watergate, and the gray mien of Leonid Brezhnev. In those years, the blinkered optimism of the ’60s gave way to an age of jaded surfeit, just as the beatitudes of Joan Baez made room for Madonna’s sluttiness. In art, Jeff Koons’s life-size, gold-plated statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles stood in for the radicalisms of artists like Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, Dan Flavin, and Richard Serra. Save for a few self-confessed conservatives, hardly a soul really objected.
Why bring all this up now? Partly as stock-taking at the dawn of our new year, partly as a historical critique of the increasingly retread quality of last year’s art models (see the New Museum’s “Unmonumental” exhibition), but also as a response to an important and illuminating retrospective of the work of Lawrence Weiner currently at the Whitney Museum. At the butt end of a decade-long spending spree, folks today are anxiously casting about for models—old and new—of creative austerity. To consider Weiner in this light is to see the work of this 65-year-old artist as what it is not: Hardly an aesthetic countermeasure, his books and sign paintings present instead the artistic equivalent of a hairshirt.
A pioneer of conceptual and text-based art, Weiner is the sort of artist whose vanguardist and progressive bona fides—he came a close second to Sol LeWitt in declaring art to be made up of ideas and is one of the few genuinely working-class artists of his or any other generation—inspire critical indulgence, if not outright charity on the part of reviewers. Take Weiner’s current exhibition. Vastly overhung despite (or perhaps because of) his close collaboration with curators Ann Goldstein and Donna De Salvo, the show is less a salutary corrective to our current market-driven art world—as has repeatedly been claimed—than a demonstration of the limits of ’60s-style aesthetic radicalism today.
Utopically titled “As Far As the Eye Can See,” Weiner’s exhibition—the first U.S. retrospective for the artist—disgorges the Bronx native’s career onto the Whitney’s walls and floors with what can only be called anti-chronological zeal. This is just as well, as Weiner’s work revolves around a single conceptual hinge: a eureka moment that, however seminal, graphs his artistic development in the shape of a flat mesa, rather than as a steady climb or a series of peaks and valleys.
A survey of a lifetime’s production, “As Far As the Eye Can See” deflates its title by cramming the museum’s largely open gallery with a glut of signage that is, of course, intended to look very much the same. There is the work prior to 1969: a window shutter slathered with commercial house paint, some crude paintings of “propellers” on muddy backgrounds, a few shaped canvases, a block of stone Weiner gave up carving and dopily called What Is Set Upon the Table Sits Upon the Table. And then there’s the work Weiner made after his fundamental epiphany. His pocket illumination involved an outdoor installation that was violated by a touch-football game, resulting in Weiner’s realization that—in the final analysis—he didn’t much care what his work looked like.
In the formulation Weiner worked out subsequently, the following idea took hold: “The artist may construct the work. The work may be fabricated. The work 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 condition of receivership.” Translated from Weiner’s starchy rhetoric, this statement effectively promulgated the art object out of existence. Art’s physical expression, Weiner posited, depended entirely on “the receiver”—a term he borrowed from communications theory—and he or she was free to do what he or she liked with “the information conveyed.” But art—unlike science or politics with a Hegelian spine—doesn’t advance according to rational postulates. Nearly four decades later, Weiner’s innovation looks as antique as a Fugs LP or a Wilhelm Reich orgone box.
Weiner’s declaration, printed on a central wall in large sans serif type, occupies pride of place in the Whitney exhibition, and is itself the first of a series of concrete rejoinders to the artist’s repeated acts of “dematerialization.” Begat in the spirit of an anti-aesthetic, Weiner’s aphoristic pronouncements—printed on matchbooks, leaflets, book pages, or more commonly on the sheetrock walls of various arts institutions—today constitute a full-blown style, painted in black and white or in colorful block letters, that carries the unmistakable whiff of the narrowly casuist, the hermetically progressive, but above all the arty.
Weiner’s painted signs also have something of the cheap astrological chart about them. Wall texts such as “Encased by and reduced to rust” and “Distorted by the assumption of a direction” are essentially ambiguous enough to refer, at once, to everything and nothing at all. Art and life are interchangeable; words are sculpture and vice versa; instructions for artworks are for sale but not commodifiable; art-world epigrams painted on a wall are, in the words of the museum brochure, “accessible, subjective, and above all useful for a diverse audience,” though they clearly stumped the great majority of lay folks trudging through the exhibit during my particular visit.
Weiner’s work is deeply lodged in contemporary art’s blind spot. Having insinuated itself into the fabric of everything we know—from Jenny Holzer’s truisms to Richard Prince’s joke paintings—his aesthetically abstemious work demands examination on its own merits before anyone can possibly recommend it as a remedy for the art world’s end-of-the-year hangover.