Sophisticates convinced that no new art is too advanced ought to test their tolerance by visiting the Hirshhorn, where artist Lawrence Weiner is befuddling the public with a "site-specific installation" made entirely of ... words.
Weiner is a sculptor who doesn't bother sculpting. He is something of a painter too, though he doesn't bother painting. He's transcended the material. Instead he uses language -- clunkily and coyly -- to insert the "art" he's thought of deep into your mind.
"With the Passage of Time," his new piece at the Hirshhorn, is written high on the walls of the third-floor escalator lobby. His text is jerkily disrupted by the coffers of the ceiling. It reads:
ONE BY ONE
That's it. That's all you get.
This emperor has no clothes.
For reasons quite unfathomable Weiner, 48, is taken very seriously by large segments of the art world. He's been shown by Leo Castelli. He's been invited to the Venice Biennale. His words have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Kunsthalle in Basel, and previously at the Hirshhorn. In 1988, in Amsterdam -- where he lives part of the year on a houseboat in the harbor -- he was honored by the Stedelijk Museum with a full-fledged retrospective. He even sells his art.
Of all the overrated Text-as-Image artists, Weiner is the purest. And -- for those who like to feed their eyes -- he may well be the worst. At least the others give you images to graze on. Barbara Kruger adds snazzily cropped photos to her snappy slogans. Even maudlin Jenny Holzer has her fortune-cookie platitudes expensively engraved on gleaming blocks of stone. Weiner sees no need to go to all that trouble. His words can be memorized, or typed on sheets of paper, or published in a book. It's all the same to him.
"For me, the word 'stone' is stone," he's said.
Here's one of his early works. It's from 1968:
ONE QUART EXTERIOR GREEN INDUSTRIAL ENAMEL THROWN
ON A BRICK WALL.
A CONCISE EXPLOSION NEAR AACHEN GERMANY
UPON THE COMMON BOUNDARY
GERMANY BELGIUM AND THE NETHERLANDS
Though some patient readers, literalists no doubt, may have a bit of trouble visualizing the concision of explosions, such texts are pretty clear. But many other works by Weiner are not clear at all. They're ponderous, confusing, fey. Try this one for example:
A 6 X 6 CM REMOVAL TO THE LATHING OR SUPPORT WALL OF A PLASTER OR WALLBOARD FROM A WALL
The artist's earnest champions, Colin Gardner for example, insist that Weiner's texts conjure up immensities. Gardner, writing in last month's Artforum magazine, claimed that Weiner's MANY COLORED OBJECTS PLACED SIDE BY SIDE TO FORM A ROW OF MANY COLORED OBJECTS (1978) is "a Minimalist syntagm ... a surrogate containing within it all the possibilities of painting." Hey, but why stop there? Had Weiner really reached, had he written the word STUFF, he might have equally efficiently given us a "surrogate" for all the planet's tennis shoes, marble sculptures, tanks.
Weiner says his verbiage evokes imagined objects. He's said that each work he has "presented publicly in language has the possibility of being built. It might sound a little simplistic but it's really important that the artist can build a piece. A piece can be fabricated or it can just be presented in its language form."
But it would take a bit of work to build his new piece at the Hirshhorn. And where would one begin? The word CHAINS is written on the wall in a brightly glinting yellow. Aha! Perhaps that color is a clue. Perhaps the artist's hinting at a chain of gold. Nope. Gold chains do not rust. And just what is being broken? Is it ONE THING & ANOTHER or the (iron) chains enchaining them? And does anybody care?
One nice thing about paintings, old-fashioned though they are, is how efficiently they travel. A Turk can read a Rembrandt as well as you or I. But Weiner's works, when shown abroad, have to be translated to make any sense at all. That's not a major problem with language dull as Weiner's, but still one tends to wonder how ONE THING & ANOTHER -- that familiar English phrase with its idiomatic hinting at tired exasperation -- would be turned into Chinese.
Weiner may be difficult. He may be a real artist. But nobody would argue that he's much of a wordsmith. "My prose is disjointed," he acknowledges, "because I see in terms of nouns. And I see any activity as a noun... . So that makes me not a very good prose writer." He's a worse poet.
The chief trouble with Weiner's art, and with language art in general, is that it's crushed, crushed utterly, by comparison with poetry.
"Poetry," says Weiner, with his usual lack of clarity, "is about those untranslatable, unnameable reactions and emotions between human beings to human beings and recollections." But poetry, of course, is more, much more, than that.
The rare, forgiving viewer who reads WRAPPED AROUND in Weiner's new work at the Hirshhorn, and ponders what he's read, may find those words evocative of circularities and turnings. But spinning round and round is, of course, a concept that belongs to poets too. One of them, Wallace Stevens, even wrote a poem called "The Pleasures of Merely Circulating."
Here -- to clear your mind of Lawrence Weiner's intentionally intimidating, academic, wholly joyless art -- is how Stevens's verse begins:
The garden flew round with the angel.
The angel flew round with the clouds
And the clouds flew round and the clouds flew round
And the clouds flew round with the clouds.
"Lawrence Weiner WORKS," organized by the Hirshhorn's Phyllis Rosenzweig, will remain through March 3.