Mountain Highs

Art | Aug 2017 | BY Maxwell Williams

Lawrence Weiner has been showing work for nearly 60 years. His is a particularly peculiar strain of thinking: he creates statements that act as sculptures, and displays them on walls or on the sides of buildings or on manhole covers. Weiner is an icon—his scraggly beard and soft demeanor have been an important part of the New York art world for decades. He is the recipient of this year’s Aspen Award for Art, presented by the Aspen Art Museum’s CEO Heidi Zuckerman at their annual gala, ArtCrush. We had the privilege of asking him a few questions at the museum.

Have you gotten used to the altitude of Aspen?
LW: No.

In your talk yesterday at the museum, you spoke about the interesting times we live in, and you were calling out our reaction to our current government as doing itself a disservice by self-identifying as ‘the resistance.’
LW: ‘The resistance’ is trying to get the government’s approval. Why do we have to get their approval? All we have to do is follow the law. That’s legitimacy. But their approval? Who cares? What is this nonsense? They are not your parents. It has nothing to do with art or anything else. It has to do with realizing that you’re a member of this community.

The government is trying to change the laws though.
LW: Well, changing the laws so that mediocrity is its own reward. That’s what this whole Trump thing is about. Anybody that’s not mediocre, he has to get rid of quickly. His children, obviously, are mediocre.

Ha.
LW: No, I’m not being catty. Look at their school records.

Yeah, he had to pay for them to get into school.
LW: And keep them in. They were not bad kids; they were just not too smart.

I saw another talk you did, where you said, ‘We give credit to people for doing what they’re supposed to do,’ as in, people are surprised that artists are doing the regular things that artists do.
LW: That people do. Pay their taxes and take their kids to the dentist, same as everybody else.

With that in mind, what does an award mean to you?
LW: It means a lot. Depends upon which one. The award in Israel [Weiner and Laurie Anderson won the Wolf Prize, known as the “Israeli Nobel Prize” for art in June], they explained it was for people who had done things that they said could not be done—and it turned out it could be done. That’s a nice way to get an award. The ArtCrush Aspen Award for Art: I’m really pleased. I like to get awards. I like the ones with money even better.

Ha ha.
LW: I’m very serious. Why not? It lets you do a project you want to do.

And it’s somebody recognizing you—even though it’s the things you’re supposed to be doing, you’re doing them well.
LW: Sometimes you do it well! And you’re not allowed, as a person in the art world, to go, ‘Wow, I did that well.’ That’s considered hubris. But, in fact, if people were allowed to take credit, it would reduce an enormous amount of violence and resentment in the world. It wouldn’t change anything, but it’ll reduce the violence and resentment if people were allowed to take credit for things, and not have to apologize, and not be embarrassed that you drove up and down the road without an accident.

I like to think I’m a good driver.
LW: I don’t know how to drive. I never learned. I grew up in New York.

And you lived there basically your whole life, right?
LW: New York, and then part of it in Amsterdam, as well, but simultaneously.

I went on a hike with Louise Lawler this morning, and she said that she thinks people don’t talk about the content of your work enough. I said to her that maybe it was because language is really hard to discuss.
LW: A stone is a stone.

Exactly. When you make a sculpture with language, do you find it unnecessary to elaborate?
LW: I am elaborating when I make an installation for the public. I’m elaborating on something. I know what it looks like. I have to draw it. I’m not particularly that excited about the design aspects of it. Sometimes I get into it. Like, I’m proud of the typeface I designed. I’m proud of doing a watch or a hat that works. But everybody’s proud of something. But the language has nothing to do with it. The presentation, it has to do with the content, the meaning.

You mention the font.
LW: Margaret Seaworthy.

Why is it called Margaret Seaworthy?
LW: Oh, that’s none of your business. What difference does it make?

Okay. You designed it so that you would have a neutral font without any cultural baggage. Does it still hold up to the cultural neutrality that it did when you designed it?
LW: No. And that’s a problem I have to deal with. And if you look at recent installations, I use Offline [font], which Reolof Mulder designed, and it’s beautiful, and/or Franklin Gothic. Margaret Seaworthy did [have cultural neutrality]. It helped. But now it’s used by a lot of people. It’s a pretty typeface. I made it public. I never stopped its use, by the way. I left it open. I just won’t facilitate it. I don’t know if it still does [have cultural neutrality]. I need a little more time to think about it. I don’t have the resources to make another typeface fast enough.

How long did it take?
LW: A long time. It’s a big deal. And it has its advantages: it retains its reality. When they had to put it up at the Museum of Modern Art for something, in the entranceway, the letters turned out to be big. ‘Fine, that’s easy enough.’ Uh-uh. I drew the typeface with felt-tip pens. And the man that had to draw just the letters they needed spent the whole weekend cleaning up the breaklines, because you can see all that when it blows up. Making the font was quite an endeavor. I didn’t know I could manage it. It’s the same as making movies: you know what you’re doing when you start to do it, but you have no idea that it’s going to work.

How did you even start to conceive of the font?
LW: You know a lot about typefaces when you start. It’s the same as when we do videos—it’s a program that’s not available. Not to make it special, but because otherwise everything looks alike. I remember an artist from California was walking with me, a dear friend. We got a little loaded, because we hadn’t seen each other for a while, and we took a walk through Chelsea, and it was not very exciting. And he looked at me, and said, ‘Lawrence, you know how lucky we are? We know all the people working at these places. That means you know where you are, because all the galleries look alike and all the work looks alike.’ And he was perfectly correct. But I have a non-aggressive attitude towards the art world. My aggression is towards the academy.

When you were coming up in the art world—
LW: You didn’t ‘come up.’ There were these people with their feet pushing you down. You built up a structure, and when they went to bang it down, it wasn’t enough. And they sat there, and after a while, they moved back, and you could get an article written about you. There were times when I was on the list for major magazines not to write anything: ArtForum. [Critic] Barbara Rose broke the moratorium when she wrote about a group show where she listed my work. Because I didn’t have anybody paying for ads! It had nothing to do with the aesthetics. Everybody thinks that they were radical—there was nobody buying ads! I didn’t have gallerists who could afford it.

With a young artist today, would you recommend [to them] that they don’t go to school?
LW: No, I wouldn’t recommend anything. I’m 75 years old, and I had my first show when I was 18. Who the fuck am I to recommend anything? The world has changed—it’s turned many times. I think if you’re a young person that has something they want to show, they can probably manage it. If they want a certain kind of career that has instant payment, that’s something else, and they have to go back into their class and destroy other people’s lives. Or they have to invent something like appropriation.

Did you feel it necessary to live in the city your whole life to be an artist?
LW: I’ve never lived outside the city. I’ve lived in exotic places like the Arctic. But that’s not living outside the city. But I don’t even know how to drive. So there’s no real way in what they call the schlub, in the lower echelon culture, to live any place, because they took away all the public transportation. It doesn’t leave any option, so you have to live in the city.

Do you feel nostalgic for certain aspects of the art world that you lived through?
LW: No. I feel that I was lucky to have been able to walk beside or have been able to deal with a lot of people. But I don’t feel nostalgic. I’d like to see it open up for another generation. I’d like to be astounded. But it’s not happening.

When you walk into a museum or a gallery, what continues to make you say, ‘Wow’?
LW: That I don’t understand the work. I’m a quick read. I can maybe figure it out in three minutes. But if my initial, honest reaction is, ‘What the fuck is this about?,’ then you look at it, and you try to figure out what it is. Sometimes you’re very pleasantly surprised. Sometimes, you’re just disappointed.

Have you always found it necessary to continue to go see art?
LW: Yes, I pay attention in my manner. Why not? It interests me. I’ve played sports, but I’m not really a great sports fan. I’m not against it, but it wouldn’t interest me enough to go to a game. But the art world does interest me. Our world is quite open, more than most others. It’s a better world. The art world’s worst entrepreneurs, copiers, and cheats are a lot better than the world’s standard businesspeople.

You create works for specific places. Do you think about things differently when you’re creating a work for the Aspen Art Museum, or London, or Regen Projects in Los Angeles?
LW: Yeah, I think about the materials.

But not the people?
LW: No, very little. The language, maybe, because of the way you can communicate. And I don’t speak that many languages. If it’s French, German, Italian, it’s fine. But when you get to Icelandic, you’re lost.

I wanted to ask you about the fashion line, Icosae, who put some of your work on their line during Paris Fashion Week this year.
LW: Oh, that’s very nice. They did a good job. I’ve done a lot of fashion stuff over the years. Why not? Fashion’s part of our life.

How do you decide to do a project?
LW: If it makes sense to me, and the reward is sufficient, then I don’t see any reason why not. I did the thing with Uniqlo with the T-shirts. I didn’t see that destroying the value of art, did you? You have to make your own call on that.

You once made a website.
LW: No, I did not. I made a homeport. A chat Palace. One of the original ones with outerweb. And I gave a seminar at MIT for three weeks.

That was a while ago.
LW: It was ‘91. It’s a long time ago.

The Internet has changed.
LW: Totally.

And it changes your audience too. So many more people have access to images of your work where it was once limited to exhibitions or books. And you have spoken about the egalitarian nature of pixels. Have computers or the Internet had an effect on how you approach sculpture?
LW: No. They’ve had an effect on how I show it. There’s a difference.

How so?
LW: Getting ready to show something on the street or a computer is just totally different.

Tonight is the WineCrush party. Do you drink wine?
LW: I know a lot about wine. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve drunk a lot of nice wine.

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