Theses Doctoral

Words Matter: The Work of Lawrence Weiner

Chiong, Kathryn Josette

This dissertation explores the practice of contemporary artist Lawrence Weiner. From 1968 onwards, Weiner has presented his work using language and, as such, the artist is historically regarded as one of the pioneering practitioners of Conceptual art. The artist himself categorically refuses that designation, preferring to focus on the material aspects of his work. Nevertheless, his oeuvre has been largely received in terms of a predominantly linguistic intervention. Craig Dworkin encapsulates this position, when in discussing the Conceptual wager of Weiner's statements he writes: "Having tested the propositions that the art object might be nominal, linguistic, invisible, and on a par with its abstract initial description, the next step was to venture that it could be dispensed with altogether." By focusing equally on the linguistic and material aspects of Weiner's practice, this dissertation argues, conversely, that Weiner's work is primarily an object strategy, and not a dematerialized linguistic presentation. The first part of this discussion deals with Weiner's ground-breaking work from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, analyzing the full implications of Weiner's extraordinary decision to present materials through language. Close comparisons are drawn with the profoundly materialist practices of contemporary artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Carl Andre, Richard Serra and Robert Smithson. Weiner's use of language is also distinguished from the text-based works of Conceptual artists Joseph Kosuth and Douglas Huebler, problematizing the degree to which Weiner's statements can stand as an exemplar of postmodern textuality, inasmuch as their referential content remains of primary consequence. Several chapters of the dissertation focus on drawings, and in particular the artist's notebooks, an aspect of Weiner's practice that has remained largely unstudied. Crucially, the notebooks present a model of thinking which is wholly corporeal as opposed to purely analytical. Furthermore, they raise the problem of the visual in relation to a body of work that has been credited with the suppression of a traditional (optical) aesthetic. In being conceived by the artist as "maps," Weiner's drawings also invite an analysis of spatial considerations, and are thus linked to the artist's own designation of his work, not as art in general, but specifically as sculpture. Finally, the notebooks, like Weiner's films, practically dissolve the categories of reality and fiction. Indeed, Weiner himself would insist that every presentation of his essentially "realist" work is nonetheless inherently "theatrical." One of the long-standing criticisms of Conceptual art was that while it made aspects of circulation and distribution part of the work - thereby testing the limits of institutional constraint and expanding art's potential to engage in collective reception - it failed to achieve truly democratic access, in large part by neglecting issues of desire. Thus, Conceptual art's promise of collective accessibility was purportedly foreclosed by an art whose theoretical propositions lacked a democratic content. In closely considering the generic content of Weiner's work, this dissertation develops a picture not only of the concrete relationship between word and thing, but of the ways in which Weiner uses signs (drawings, text, films) to "objectify" desire, demonstrating that his "sculptures" must be seen as both conceptual and sensual, fully immersed in politicized questions of imaginary and bodily experience.



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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Krauss, Rosalind E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 21, 2013