Lawrence Weiner: A Personal Recollection

Much has been written about the US conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner since his death from cancer last December, at the age of seventy-nine. So, it is sufficient here to say that he was one of the most prominent and influential artists of the mid to late twentieth century. Known primarily for his text-based wall works, often accompanied by typographic accents, and installed everywhere from New York City manhole covers to the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

I first met Lawrence in 1980, when I was a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design. I had of course seen his work while I was living in Europe in the 1970s, at various sites, but it was the work at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands that piqued my curiosity. 

Perhaps what is less well known is Lawrence’s long association with Australia. An association that dates to the 1970s, when the then curator and director of the Wollongong City Gallery, Tony Bond, screened his video works that were subsequently shown at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) under the title Special One-Day Exhibition of Four Art Language Video Tapes in 1978. 

A decade later, I had just taken up a teaching position at East Sydney Technical College, also known at various times as the National Art School (NAS), when in 1987 the wonderfully eccentric art patron and collector, the late Michael Hobbs OAM asked if I could organise for Lawrence to speak at NAS. After some negotiations with the bureaucrats, who were perpetually afraid of the world outside the NAS bell jar, Lawrence spoke to a large cohort of students. This was an eye-popping experience for many of the students because it opened them to a world beyond the writings of the US art critic Clement Greenberg and formalism.

Lawrence returned to Australia in 1990 for René Block’s The Readymade Boomerang: Certain Relations in 20th Century Art, the 8th Biennale of Sydney. His work (THIS AND THAT) PUT (HERE AND THERE) OUT OF SIGHT OF POLARIS, 1990, was installed at the AGNSW for the Biennale, and later gifted by the Mervyn Horton Bequest Fund in 1993, in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (the work is jointly owned by both institutions). 

Lawrence was born in the Bronx in 1942, then a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, where his parents, Toba Horowitz and Harold Weiner ran a lolly shop. At sixteen, he graduated from high school but rather than attending college he worked in a variety of low paying jobs across the US. Perhaps it was this early experience of the rough and tumble world that developed in him a deep sense of a shared common world, a moral compass and his humanity. He also appeared to dislike the more pompous aspects of the art world. As I knew many of the artists who were here for the Biennale, I invited a small group to dinner. Lawrence arrived a little later than the others and explained that he was held up by a Sydney socialite who had called to invite him to her soirée that night. When he explained he had another engagement she said “Oh, but you must come,” to which Lawrence replied rather cheekily, “Oh, but I mustn’t,” and hung up.

In 1996, Nicholas Tsoutas, then Executive Director of Sydney’s Artspace approached me about co-curating a show of Lawrence’s work for the following year. When I discussed this idea with Lawrence in New York, he asked what the exhibition fee would be. Before I could answer he said, “judging by your expression they don’t have much in the way of finance.” He then proposed doing the exhibition on two conditions. One, that the work be installed by a signwriter, using hand painted letters and not computer cut vinyl text. Fortunately, one of my students at Sydney College of the Arts (in 1989 I had moved to SCA) whose father was a retired signwriter, graciously came out of retirement and brilliantly installed the work. The other condition was that we include four or five younger artists in the other galleries who had some connection to conceptual art. So, in 1997, Lawrence’s show opened at Artspace with Mark Brown, Adam Cullen, Susan Johnston and Katharina Struber. This is only one of the many, many examples of his generosity and how he created opportunities for other artists. Something that is sadly missing in our post-Fordist (art) world.

I was about to post my Christmas card, an annual exchange, when I received news of Lawrence’s death. The last postcard I received from him was “Like Ships in the Night.” A rather poignant end to the postcard exchange, and to our friendship. He will be sadly missed.

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