Conceptualist Lawrence Weiner's Whitney Retrospective
Reveals the limitations of a vaunted conceptualist
by Christian Viveros-Fauné
January 8th, 2008 11:49 AM
By the time I understood what contemporary art was, the golden age of the avant-garde was over. The modernism of my schoolbooks lived on—in my schoolbooks. The painters championed by Clement Greenberg were dead or croaking. The far-out fireworks of '60s and '70s post- minimalism and conceptualism had sputtered out or—more terminally still— had become museum lore and academic requirement.
Because nature hates a vacuum, the gap left by these brash—at times, vapid—often elevating experiments was eventually filled by rafts of largely steroidal paintings and an avalanche of whiny political art. As the Reagan administration slouched into the Iran-contra years, American art—like American culture—faced self-evidently dwindling returns where revolutions in thought and politics were concerned. A noxious sea change hit the culture between Carl Andre's 1966 pile of bricks as sculpture and Karen Finley's 1986 Yams Up My Granny's Ass. But what happened exactly?
The answer, given a couple of decades of retrospection, certainly has something to do with Harold Rosenberg's observation about postwar culture increasingly becoming "a profession, one of whose aspects is the pretense of overthrowing it." Another part of the answer resides in the brooding anti-utopianism spawned by phenomena as varied as the Vietnam War, Altamont, Watergate, and the gray mien of Leonid Brezhnev. In those years, the blinkered optimism of the '60s gave way to an age of jaded surfeit, just as the beatitudes of Joan Baez made room for Madonna's sluttiness. In art, Jeff Koons's life-size, gold-plated statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles stood in for the radicalisms of artists like Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, Dan Flavin, and Richard Serra. Save for a few self-confessed conservatives, hardly a soul really objected.
Why bring all this up now? Partly as stock-taking at the dawn of our new year, partly as a historical critique of the increasingly retread quality of last year's art models (see the New Museum's "Unmonumental" exhibition), but also as a response to an important and illuminating retrospective of the work of Lawrence Weiner currently at the Whitney Museum. At the butt end of a decade-long spending spree, folks today are anxiously casting about for models—old and new—of creative austerity. To consider Weiner in this light is to see the work of this 65-year-old artist as what it is not: Hardly an aesthetic countermeasure, his books and sign paintings present instead the artistic equivalent of a hairshirt.
A pioneer of conceptual and text-based art, Weiner is the sort of artist whose vanguardist and progressive bona fides—he came a close second to Sol LeWitt in declaring art to be made up of ideas and is one of the few genuinely working-class artists of his or any other generation—inspire critical indulgence, if not outright charity on the part of reviewers. Take Weiner's current exhibition. Vastly overhung despite (or perhaps because of) his close collaboration with curators Ann Goldstein and Donna De Salvo, the show is less a salutary corrective to our current market-driven art world—as has repeatedly been claimed—than a demonstration of the limits of '60s-style aesthetic radicalism today.
Utopically titled "As Far As the Eye Can See," Weiner's exhibition—the first U.S. retrospective for the artist—disgorges the Bronx native's career onto the Whitney's walls and floors with what can only be called anti-chronological zeal. This is just as well, as Weiner's work revolves around a single conceptual hinge: a eureka moment that, however seminal, graphs his artistic development in the shape of a flat mesa, rather than as a steady climb or a series of peaks and valleys. [read on...]