My day started with today with a chat with Lawrence Weiner, with whom I had the pleasure of meandering through his not-quite-completely-installed exhibition at the Power Plant (it opens tomorrow, with the usual Great Big Party in which the gallery specializes.)
Lawrence is in every sense a gentleman -- soft-spoken, thoughtful, and self-effacing -- a good quality for an artist whose pivotal role in art history is more or less entirely secure. After all, Weiner was in on the ground floor with what most of us take for granted in the art world these days, namely, the predominance of conceptualism (what we've taken to calling simply "contemporary," I suppose, to differentiate it from the fertile period in the 60s in which Weiner and his contemporaries were working.)
Call it what you want, the fact is, without the mischievous boundary-breaking of Weiner and Sol LeWitt, among others, we might still be stuck in the gallery looking at landscape and abstract painting, or figurative or oblique modernist sculpture. Really, it was Weiner and crew -- with a nod to Fluxus, of course, John Cage, and a deserved shout out to the Dadaists -- that busted art out of the gallery and broke it free from the notion of precious object making, and catapulted it into the realm of the ephemeral, the experiential, and most importantly, something that we, the viewer, were actually part of.
The self-effacingness is really part of the ethos, and therefore the project, subverting authorship in artmaking and deferring authority. This is especially true of Weiner, who decided early on that he would no longer make art objects -- not exclusively, anyway -- but rather invitiations to all of us to do the same. Some are loose directives, others considerably more specific, like the one below:
Weiner can be just that helpful, right down to the colour and type of paint, or charmingly oblique (one of his suggestions at the Power Plant comes across as a gentle caution: 'More Saltpeter Than Black Powder;' whatever it is you're up to, I'd listen to him).
Either way, there's a lot contained in Weiner's work that goes well beyond the resultant, to use the high-school scientific phrase, of the artist's instructions -- namely, in this era of Damien Hirst's $23 million medicine cabinet, Weiner's open invitations serve as a playful but sharp reminder that art -- at least, I hope -- loses something significant when it's reduced to high-priced, collectable baubles at the expense of what all art should be: Real human engagement.
Roberta Smith, writing in the New York Times a little over a year ago on the occasion of Weiner's 40 year retrospective, "As Far As The Eye Can See," wrote that Weiner's work "affirms that art ultimately triggers some kind of transcendence that can only be completed by the viewer." Or, to put it bluntly, Weiner's art belongs to everyone, no-one, and him, all at the same time. At the end of it all, isn't that the point?