At the Hirshhorn Museum, yesteryear's cutting-edge art, from Lawrence Weiner


(Lee Stalsworth/hirshhorn Museum)
Sunday, October 3, 2010

Lawrence Weiner, born in New York in 1940, is almost the epitome of the radical conceptual artist. His most famous works are just words that describe art that might or might not get made. And that's when Weiner is at his most concrete. Sometimes his words describe thoughts that are largely unthinkable.

A Weiner that just went up near the elevators on the third floor of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum establishes that institution as Washington's main home for cutting-edge art -- even if in this case, that edge is more than four decades old.

The piece is titled "A RUBBER BALL THROWN ON THE SEA, Cat. No. 146," and consists of those first seven words, printed onto a wall. It was conceived in 1969, but needs to be remade each time it gets shown.

Right now at the Hirshhorn, its letters have been printed huge, in a sky-blue sans-serif font. (It was Weiner's idea, but he says they could have been any color, any size, any typeface.) The words evoke an absurd image of an absurd act, or at least a very humble one. Why commemorate in art an action that's hardly worth doing, or noting? Earlier in his career, Weiner might have suggested that his artwork was complete only once someone actually carried out the throw it describes. A famous work from 1968, titled "A WALL CRATERED BY A SINGLE SHOTGUN BLAST," blasts a mess into the drywall each time that it's displayed.

But "RUBBER BALL" can exist without anyone doing anything. It's about the gap between words and actions, between objects and the ideas behind them, rather than any effort to bridge the gap by acting or making.

You could say it's almost old-fashioned in its realism: It provides an eminently credible image of the gap it's getting at.

-- Blake Gopnik, art critic


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