Regen Projects’ very first exhibition was a solo show with Lawrence Weiner. It opened in December 1989, and was followed by another ten before his death in 2021; the gallery exterior on Santa Monica Boulevard is laced with Weiner’s text and font murals. Weiner not only was a game-changing champion of conceptual art since the late ‘60s, and a practitioner of text-as-image work that fused precepts of concrete poetry with avant-garde ideas about materiality, objecthood, authorship, and the primacy of ideas — he was gallery family.
Weiner played his ideas out by using language as a kind of raw material for his work, similar to how other artists might use paint, ink or clay, except with the deliberate intention of divorcing the creative impulse from the physical process of translation into an object or image, and instead aiming straight at the idea of it. This existed partly in opposition to the art market’s acquisitive instinct for precious objects. Weiner’s vision was one in which the words and the specific but ambivalent vignettes they represent, activated by their installation affixed in architectural settings, stood in place of a physical object, while also vaguely yet evocatively describing what that object might have been or looked like, had it been made.
One particularly striking example included in the show is the large-scale mural reading “BLOCKS OF PINE LAID BUTT TO BUTT A STONE’S THROW FROM THE WATER,” a 1986 work whose medium is listed as “Language + the materials referred to.” Whether the work is therefore completed in whatever image comes to the viewer/reader’s mind, or whether it is ever completed at all, is of little interest to Weiner, whose labor mostly occurred during the having of the idea. Whether it was even him who applied the writing to the spaces was irrelevant; even during his lifetime he wasn’t all that concerned with the authorship of execution or transaction, but only of ideas. The irony is that Weiner’s search for a dematerialized expression yielded hundreds of very cool, visually satisfying, and eminently collectible works of art.
Weiner’s influence on the generation of conceptual artists of the late 1960s and early ‘70s cannot be overstated, but the lineage of his ideas expanded, as subsequent generations took equal notice. The gallery’s extraordinary tribute show, Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky, surveys those intergenerational communiqués, across modes of abstraction and compositions based on language, with some perennial favorites and more than a few surprises.
Weiner’s own BITS & PIECES PUT TOGETHER TO PRESENT A SEMBLANCE OF A WHOLE (1991, Language + the materials referred to, Dimensions variable, appearing in this temporary iteration Courtesy of Walker Art Center), covers the whole of the entrance wall, forming the perfect moment of landing and introductory description for the show inside. And indeed, the elements of the assembly are far more varied than its premise might suggest; for while there is a predominance of other “text-based art” mixed in with meditations on abstract positive and negative shapes for wall and floor, it’s actually the fullness of all the word-based content that demonstrates the most diversity of style, medium, point of view, relationship to message, graphic sensibility, and mood.
Works by other major artists singularly identified with the use of text also make their presence felt. Where Ruscha’s paintings do use text in a deracinated, sometimes pun-filled way, his work also retains its obvious status as a painting or drawing. This is true of many, even most, others in the exhibition, especially those like Joseph Kosuth, John Baldessari, Glenn Ligon, Jack Pierson, Mel Bochner, Sue Williams, Doug Aitken, Jenny Holzer, Raymond Pettibon, and even Virgil Abloh in his collaboration with Weiner for Louis Vuitton — all of whom manage to honor and demonstrate the influence of Weiner, but without relinquishing nearly as much of their agency and authorship when it comes to making a physical work of art.
Of particular note for its meta postmodern stance, the sheer perfection of its inspiration, and the refreshingly pure humor of its spirit, is the 2012 short video by Ed Ruscha, titled “Ed Ruscha Toasts Lawrence Weiner,” a proper love letter to Weiner, in the famous video idiom of Bob Dylan, in which the voiceover reads off cards that each contain a work of Weiner’s. Strung together set to music, and with a possible rabbinical argument happening in the background, the work highlights the broad potential for taking delight in language, and is a suitably intimate, late-career demonstration of love between friends and colleagues in a heartfelt touchstone for the entire undertaking.
Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: A Tribute to Lawrence Weiner is on view at Regen Projects, 6750 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, through Oct. 22; free; regenprojects.com.
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