It’s Nice That Issue #6 is released on Thursday. To celebrate, we’ll be sharing exclusive excerpts from a few of the magazine’s interviews and features throughout the week. The first snippet is taken from an exciting (and slightly intimidating, such is his articulacy) conversation with Lawrence Weiner. One of the foremost conceptual artists, Weiner has, since the 1960s, continued to explore and challenge the nature of art’s existence, its cultural status and its function…
It’s Nice That: You were on the road a lot when you were younger, and you worked a number of different jobs. How did you first come to be an artist?
Lawrence Weiner: That’s really quite simple. I was involved with civil rights at a very young age. And because of the economy at the time I had to find various jobs. Immediately I was interacting with a number of artists through whom I discovered an interest in art. As a kid, I would hit the bars at 4 o’clock in the morning because I worked at night, and I found these people who were involved in the same existential things that I was – the same things I had discovered from reading as a child in the South Bronx. Of course, the interesting thing for me was that I couldn’t pronounce anything. I pronounced Camus “Kǽməs”, not “Camoo”. But I learnt to understand. I found a group of older people – I mean quite old for a kid, a teenager – and I began to take part in these conversations.
I spent quite a bit of my youth deciding whether I was going to try to change the culture as a whole, or whether I was going to continue to try and change each individual horrendous thing that was going on in the world. Most artists are essentially outer-directed rather than inner-directed. There’s an old-fashioned, romantic idea that the artist has an urge inside, but if you have something you want to say, you simply look for a form to say it with. In my case, I could either say it with a baseball bat at a demonstration or I could say it by making something.
So how exactly did your first works come about? CRATERING PIECE, for example. This was in 1960, and involved you blowing things up in a national park, creating craters and calling them sculptures.
I’m still very pleased with that piece, but I was only 17 or 18 at the time and I misread what I was doing. I thought each individual explosion was an individual sculpture, and they weren’t. It was my means of creation at that moment, and it was a way of filling my means of anger, I guess, at the world. Art, I think, always comes from an anger with the specific configuration that’s presented to you. It’s not terribly intellectual. There is no deep down emotional attachment.
What’s interesting, in hindsight, is this quite drastic shift into painting. CRATERING PIECE was followed by the Propeller Series, a number of paintings which seem so different both in medium and intent.
I totally agree. It’s interesting because it’s a very, very long time ago, and I don’t remember if the intent was the same, although I believe I thought it was at the time. The Propeller paintings were taken from a television screen when it was closed off at night. There was a test pattern which, by chance, happened to look like a nuclear pattern. I guess the intent was the same – it was essentially an attempt to take an object and build that object into a form of meaning that had very little to do with the object itself. Now think of the times, think of my age. I was influenced by people like Jasper Johns – people basically trying to deal with putting content within the context of everyday life.
When did you start dismissing these more traditional notions of painting?
I don’t think I ever dismissed them. STATEMENTS, for example, the book I made when I first realised there was a problem with form, contains a lot of things that refer to the everyday life of a painter. I never really dismissed that life. My colleagues at the time included Robert Ryman, a painter, and I was friendly with many people who were making so-called paintings. I had nothing against painting, but it was no longer the means through which I could communicate to people. There’s no simpler way of putting it. We try to find our own syntax. It is the same in fashion. In fashion you are not rejecting something, but instead you’re trying to find a syntax that suits you better.
Read the full interview in It’s Nice That Issue #6, released on Thursday.
Portrait by Jeremy Liebman.