In February this year, a stencilled sign appeared on the gable end of the South London gallery’s new Fire Station annexe. Spray-painted in turquoise on white, it read AT A DISTANCE TO THE FOREGROUND. Passengers on passing buses mused over the sign’s meaning. It was a surveyor’s mark, perhaps, or something to do with health and safety. In fact, it was a work of art by the American conceptualist Lawrence Weiner, who has died aged 79 of cancer.
The road to AT A DISTANCE TO THE FOREGROUND (1999) had begun half a century before, with another work by Weiner called A SERIES OF STAKES SET IN THE GROUND AT REGULAR INTERVALS TO FORM A RECTANGLE – TWINE STRUNG FROM STAKE TO STAKE TO DEMARK A GRID – A RECTANGLE REMOVED FROM THIS RECTANGLE (1968). The title of this was descriptive and literal. Weiner’s piece, installed on the sports field of a college in Vermont, was precisely as its name suggested. The college football team, oblivious to conceptual art, took objection to their pitch being co-opted for it.
Cutting its twine by night, they then pulled up Weiner’s titular stakes and dumped them on the touchline. Far from upsetting him, this intervention came as a damascene moment for the young artist. “I began the realisation that it seemed to mean something,” he recalled in an interview for the Archives of American Art in 2019. “People talked about it, even though it wasn’t there any more. So that was it.”
In common with others of his generation, Weiner had been looking for a way of making art that would be defiantly anti-commercial. His first piece, a form of happening, had involved him blowing holes in the earth of a California state park with sticks of dynamite when he was 18. The work, Cratering Pieces (1960), was both illegal and unrecorded. Although it could not be bought or sold, it had actually existed. Weiner’s experience in Vermont eight years later suggested an art that would be even more evanescent in having no physical substance at all.
From then on, his chief material would be words, often painted on walls, as at Camberwell’s South London gallery, in a font called Franklin Gothic Extra Condensed. (The sides of container vessels and Manhattan manhole covers were also to provide handy supports.) Ownership of the text was shared by anyone who chose to look at it. “My work starts off having no monetary value,” a satisfied Weiner observed, “and by the time it’s all finished it doesn’t have any monetary value because it has entered into the culture.”
His equating of property with theft had started early. Born to a working-class couple, Toba (nee Horowitz) and Harold Wiener, who owned and ran a sweet shop in the Bronx, New York, Lawrence began working as a stevedore on the Lower East Side wharves at the age of 12. Brushes with the law – hot-wiring cars was a skill picked up from neighbourhood friends – led to a broader dislike of authority. This, combined with union solidarity on the docks, turned to a taste for protest.
By his teens, Lawrence was skipping school at Stuyvesant high to join civil rights marches in Mississippi and Alabama, and anti-nuclear demonstrations in the naval dockyards at New London, Connecticut. Although he managed to win a place at the radical Hunter College in New York to study philosophy and literature in 1959, student life was too tame. After a couple of terms he dropped out to follow a career as a self-proclaimed TNT sculptor in California.
It was his experience in Vermont, though, that was to lead to the publication, a few months later, of his Statement of Intent. Now seen as a founding document of conceptualism, the statement’s three dictums – 1: the artist may construct the piece; 2: the piece may be fabricated; 3: the piece need not be built – opened the way for an art that might exist simply as a description of itself, free to be used by anyone who wanted to. If, like AT A DISTANCE TO THE FOREGROUND, the work ceased to exist materially for a couple of decades, it would not disappear conceptually.
What the gnomic statements of pieces such as SHELLS USED TO BUILD ROADS POURED UPON SHELLS USED TO PAY THE WAY, AT THE LEVEL OF THE SEA, inscribed on a Miami museum in 2008, actually meant was likewise in the eye of the beholder. “I grew up in a city where I had read the walls,” Weiner said. “I still read the walls. I love to put work of mine out on the walls and let people read it.”
His Statement caught the eye of the Swiss curator Harald Szeemann. In 1969, he invited Weiner to take part in a show called When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle in Bern, now held to have united the several strands of nascent conceptualism into a single movement. Weiner’s entry for the show called for the removal of a square yard of plaster from a gallery wall. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which now owns the work, lists its medium as “language + the materials referred to”.
Weiner’s early Swiss exposure meant that he would work mainly in Europe for the next two decades. In 1967, he had met Alice Zimmerman, then a waitress at the fabled New York nightspot Max’s Kansas City. By 1970, the couple were living in Amsterdam on a houseboat with no electricity, and were soon joined by a daughter, Kirsten. The trio would remain on the boat for 18 years, with intervening stays in Berlin – “the first time in my life and Kirsten’s life we had central heating” – and elsewhere in Europe.
Perhaps because of this, his first American retrospective, at the Whitney Museum in New York, came only in 2007. By contrast, he was widely shown in Europe, not least in Britain. His last major exhibition there, called Within a Realm of Distance in 2015, saw Weiner taking over the whole of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. A section of one of John Churchill’s so-called Victory Tapestries was temporarily removed to make way for a piece by Weiner called Far Enough Away As to Come Readily to Hand.
Although he always counted himself an American artist, Weiner remained internationalist, equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic and happily switching in conversation from English to Dutch or German. Borders and boundaries were a recurrent theme in his work, particularly in the films he had begun to make in the early 1970s. One, Plowman’s Lunch (1982), features a trio of travellers who cross not just borders but languages and – groundbreaking for its day – genders.
Weiner was himself an unexpected mixture of tough guy and tenderfoot, imposing and bearded like an Old Testament prophet but happy to own up to a soft side. Stricken with cancer, he particularly mourned having to give up the earrings he had worn for decades. “It’s very odd for me,” Weiner said, sadly. “I used to have Chinese gold in my ears, lots of it, but you have to keep taking it out when you’re taking all those tests. I miss it.”
He is survived by Alice, whom he married in 2003, and Kirsten.
• Lawrence Weiner, artist, born 10 February 1942; died 2 December 2021