Few people I’ve met take language more seriously than Lawrence Weiner. During a 60-minute call from his studio in Greenwich Village to Los Angeles, the 79-year-old New Yorker reminded me that you can’t “give” people art, that it’s by definition impossible to “teach yourself” something you don’t know, and that the word “conceptual,” which is sometimes used to mis-describe his work, actually means to be good at procreation. But it is this exact precision that has made Weiner a tenaciously relevant artist for 60 years. His words are precision-crafted to reconfigure the walls, structures, and institutions they are placed against. As aphorisms, his phrases are activated by the public they travel toward, be it via museums, manhole covers, or emblazoned on a recent collection of accessories for Louis Vuitton.
Of late, Weiner has been preoccupied with stars. The word made its appearance in a print from 2020 supporting Art for Black Lives, and then later that same year written in English, Hebrew, and Arabic on the facade of the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Stars, to apply the kind of metaphor Weiner himself resists using, seem to be a stand-in for the fierce belief in equality that lies at the heart of his endeavor. We are all similarly small beneath them, and, like Weiner himself, the stars change for no one. He is clear that he has zero patience for trust fund artists, suburbanites in “cat’s pajamas,” and a government that does not care about feeding its children. And while the optimism of the 1960s generation has aged like milk, he remains “Pollyanna” about what art can provide the world.
As a writer, I was curious to ask Weiner how he constructs his ingenious phrases, or what his notebook might look like. He informed me that it was “none your business how I do it!” but was ready to describe the falling of the first December snow as it descended onto the streets of New York.
I wanted to start by asking you about your work that’s currently up at the Jewish Museum. It is written in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. How did that choice come about?
It was an aphorism about the fact that everybody was talking, but they didn’t really mean it. I thought that it’s important at this point for the Jewish Museum to put up ale Yevanim habn eyn punim which is, “all the stars in the sky have the same face,” in New York City, in Hebrew, and in Arabic. The Jewish Museum is just as much Arabic as it is Hebrew, half the time.
And then obviously that becomes freighted with politics.
When people fought against that, I lost all respect for them. I’m a New Yorker and you know, you don’t get anywhere with racism.
I wanted to go from your most recent piece to your first work, CRATERING PIECE*. How do you look at that first piece now in retrospect?
I look at it as what it is. If I might brag about myself a little bit, the nicest thing about the work is that there’s no double meaning. There is a double meaning built into some of the work, but that means both meanings exist at the same time.
So there’s no narrative.
Other people read it as a narrative, but I make work that is not a metaphor. People can use my work to build a metaphor for themselves to understand their place in the world. I find that that’s a very positive way to look at things. It’s the same with science. There are theorems and there are theories, but a theorem is the one thing I’m a little bit afraid of, because it means that it can never change.
Are there any interpretations of your work over the years that you found unexpected?
As a matter of fact, I’m surprised sometimes that people can be so excited by it.
I’m serious. In the beginning, a majority of people hated it. “What is it?” “It’s nonsense.” “My child can do it.” But considering the amount of people who have made use of it over the last 60 years, it is not so bad.
I’m proud of myself that I did it right. My politics were completely straight. They were useful for any person despite what their class was or where they came from.
I was reading this interview you did with Benjamin Buchloh, and he was very focused on this idea of skill. People always think of skill in terms of technical craft. But how do you look at the skill of what you do?
You see, most people have to have a full-time job. An artists’ full-time job is to question things. That’s their job. I don’t see art as something that’s so complicated.
What art were you looking at before you created your first piece? And what were some of the ingredients of that?
Western. It was all based on art history. I didn’t study art history in school. I studied other things, and then I left. I was a lucky person. I grew up in a bad neighborhood, in a slum, but I was able to grow up without having to have too many jobs as a kid. In the end, I had access to lots and lots of different opinions in the city. And I put together my own opinion.
So you are self-taught.
I’m not self-taught. How can you teach yourself something you don’t know? Quote me on that, please. That’s nonsense, “self-taught.” Look, we are doing an interview in a magazine for people who care about how they look and care about what other people have accomplished. Let’s give them some dignity, okay?
I don’t know if it’s smart. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told that all the right decisions that I’ve made politically were smart. They weren’t smart, they were right.
Because being smart can make you wrong, too.
Being smart and being evil are different. We have a government like that. We have an educational system like that. Companies are like that. When you are a kid in New York, if you come from the wrong class, you very often might find yourself sitting in a room where you’ve passed all the tests and they look up at you and say, “We don’t need you,” based on the color of your skin or your religion. And I live with those people. They own my life, but I don’t let them change my work. If they want to buy it, they are more than welcome. I can’t stand my own government. Anybody who takes food out of a child’s mouth and gets pleasure from it sucks. They stink, and everybody else must know they stink. That’s my problem right now. I’m furious that I’m working for a culture that doesn’t feed its children, puts them in cages, and there’s no reason for it except that it didn’t like their parents. That’s my little speech. I think people that really make fashion are not this way. They are wide open. They worry about the world. Then there’s people living in small, insular communities that think they are the cat’s pajamas. Well, in fact, they are, but do you know how useless a pair of cat’s pajamas are?
Do you feel like the politics of the world have changed drastically in your lifetime?
I wish they had. I am from the generation that believed that their world was, “You are free of your chains. You can go ahead.” It didn’t turn out that way. It turned out that the class that owned everything gave everything they had to their children. And they don’t buy art, they want to buy a placement for their child to be an artist.
How often do you think about the “public”? Or the people your work speaks to?
I am only interested in the public. Art is made by people for other people. As far as adapting to what the demands of the public are, I don’t think that’s our job. When you go to a doctor, you don’t tell him or her, “I want you to find this.” I want to have the work out in the public with no explanation on it. People are not stupid. They work it out. They find a use for things or they reject it. And you’d be very surprised at how happy they are once they figure it out themselves.
And how does that process start?
I think about what the society needs. My job is to deal with the culture, not to deal with the client.
You’re not appeasing anyone.
Not at all. But it is concerned with making certain members of the public feel better about life. If they can see where they are in relation to the world, they can have their place in the sun. I know it sounds a little Pollyanna, but making art is a very positive gesture for society. But society has a tendency to turn on artists, that’s what they do. Society has a tendency to turn on everything.
How do you think about your art when it gets turned into a product? For example, the Jewish Museum has tote bags of that piece we were talking about.
It depends. I used to not like T-shirts, and then I did T-shirts for UNIQLO, and now they turn up all over the world. And, why not? You know, I don’t know anything about plumbing. But if somebody sees an aphorism that relates to pressure and pull, and they know about plumbing, they add something into it.
In your declaration of intent from 1968, you talk about the relationship between construction, fabricating, and building—
“Each being equal and consistent with the desire of the artist.” You know, the artist is being left out of all these conversations. Sotheby’s, Christie’s, there’s nothing wrong with them, but they don’t have any place to put an artist in. They have an artistic director, which is a little bit different than the artist.
What is an artistic director missing?
An artistic director is trying to take something that somebody did and place it within a context that it had nothing to do with, so that it can be turned into a commercial product. It’s not evil what they want. They want to make it so people can buy it.
Do you find the process of bringing art into the world more difficult than coming up with the idea itself?
I don’t come up with ideas. I’m a real honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned artist. It’s all based on empirical material in front of me. I’m not coming up with it. I wish I was that creative, but I ain’t.
What do you think of this moniker “conceptualism” that gets applied to artworks?
May I tell you what I think and you can write whatever you want?
There was a group of people that I was involved with that were putting things out in the world, and it turned out that the world found a use for them. They in turn realized that they didn’t have any means of supporting themselves. The only way to do that was to enter into the academic world. In the academic world, you have to have a department in order to be a head of a department. So, they took this idea of “conceptual,” and made it a movement. Its name makes no sense whatsoever. Nobody took it seriously in those days, except two or three artists. And they did well by taking it seriously, but it wasn’t a serious matter. “Conceptual” means that you have more children than another. That’s all it really means. If you’re a conceptual person, you are a person who keeps producing heirs.
What about minimalism?
My god. They took these artists who had nothing but the best intentions and tried to corrupt them completely.
I often find that a shared aesthetic gets confused for an ethos or an idea.
I’d agree with that totally, but the shared aesthetic very often is the academic aesthetic that they share. It’s none of my business.
Do you feel like your career has moved toward a particular goal?
I go with the flow. If you want to save people’s lives, go in when they are drowning. Don’t go into your swimming pool. I follow the meaning of what I put in the world. I take responsibility for putting it out there. If I claim that lead has just as much value as gold, I mean it. That’s it. But there is no hierarchy of materials. Hierarchy is all about use within individual cultures. We have to take into account that we live in an international world, and what for one culture is astounding, for another culture it is just everyday stuff. An art object is just an everyday object. It’s just that you said you’re going to use it for art. Like a spatula. You can use the spatula to spank your child. Or you can use the spatula to make a pancake. But it doesn’t change the spatula.
What are you currently working on right now?
A show for a place called Holstebro, where I already have a work on the outside wall of the children’s library that is juxtaposed to a piece in Sydney, Australia. Holstebro is in the north of Jutland, in Denmark, and I must say, Sydney, Australia, is not. The two works are based on their different physical locations: out of sight of Polaris and within sight of Polaris. Sailors use Polaris to navigate where they are. I once saw somebody staggering around the streets in Sydney, drunk out of their mind, looking for Polaris.
They were on the wrong side of the planet.
People don’t know there is a whole planet. They know their area, that’s it. If you talk to a South Pacific canoeist, they have a good sense of where they are, and it has nothing to do with the Northern Hemisphere.
I want to end by asking you a Pollyanna question. Do you think art helps people become more in touch with humanity?
Yes. It allows them to have the tools to take the physical things around them and put them together in a configuration that pleases them. All art is made because you are confronted with a configuration that you’re not pleased with. And once you’ve changed the configuration, that’s called art.
* 'CRATERING PIECE' (1960) is one of the first-known artworks by Lawrence Weiner. Documented only anecdotally, it involved the artist detonating dynamite simultaneously in the four corners of an open field in Marin County, California.
Experience the full story and others in HIGHStyle, a print magazine by Highsnobiety available on newsstands and the Highsnobiety shop now.