Reading Resources — Lawrence Weiner

Lawrence Weiner is known as one of the founding figures of Conceptual art. His sculptures and installations pioneered the use of language as a sculptural material, redefining the relationship of “human beings to objects and objects to objects in relation to human beings.” By transforming how we see art, he transforms how we read the world.

For additional biographical information and definitions of key terms, please refer to additional materials.

Guiding Question

What Can Words Do?

“Art is still about the communication of one human being’s observations to another human being with the intent of bringing about a change of state.”

As an artist, Lawrence Weiner communicates his observations by using a wide variety of materials, including bricks, paint, water, string, ashes, etc. Weiner's work is distinctive in that he generally does this by using ‘statements’ in language that refer to the way that these materials are composed, organised, or arranged. His use of these materials emphasises how the ways in which we use language, and the various levels of meaning that given word has among a given audience, are deeply embedded in particular contexts. These contexts are always social and always cultural; we learn language and later adapt language in particular contexts with particular people.

“I grew up in a city where I read the walls... I love to put work of mine out on the walls and let people read it. Some will remember it and then somebody else comes along and puts something else over it.”

We encounter words, building blocks of language, everywhere around us. We not only use them to speak, but they scatter around us throughout our environments. Be it signage from the strip-mall, billboards, or graffiti on a wall, the shape, font, size, and color of words shape our experience of them. Words communicate ideas through their particular material forms and the contexts in which we encounter them.

[Quotes by Lawrence Weiner]

What Can We Do With Words?

“Art is not a metaphor upon the relationship of human beings to objects and objects to objects in relation to human beings but a representation of an empirical existing fact.”

An empirical existing fact is one that is provable by means of one’s own observation or experience. If knowledge is empirical, it is based on observation rather than theory or ideology. If you hold a rock in your hand, you observe its color and texture, but also feel its weight and mass. The knowledge you have about this rock is based on empirical evidence.

As he stated above, Weiner believes art is a representation of empirical reality, or, as he calls it, “an empirical existing fact.” Art is not a metaphor about relationships: art represents relationships which can be observed and experienced.

“Art is a possibility to present logic structures that can change people’s perception of their entire existence.”

By making works with "language and the materials referred to," Weiner shows us how objects and human beings stand in relation to each other. Weiner also shows us that words as materials help build both our environments and our perceptions of them. In reading Weiner’s statements, we orient ourselves to the words he uses and our own environment in new ways. This produces insight and understanding that we can apply to suit our particular context and needs.

In this Reading Resources guide, we invite you to engage with Weiner’s artworks and to experiment with words, with language, to create a dialogue with Weiner and with others.

[Quotes by Lawrence Weiner]


The following exercises are structured to sequentially build on each other. We encourage you to consider how their learning objectives develop as you adapt these exercises to your teaching activities.

Activity Group 1: Language as Material

This activity series investigates the theme of language as material, an important principle of Weiner’s practice. Its activities engage with Weiner’s artwork, “BITS & PIECES PUT TOGETHER TO PRESENT A SEMBLANCE OF A WHOLE”.

Activity Group 2: The Sea: Connection, Communication, Transformation

This series of activities provides an opportunity for us to think about the role of the sea in Weiner's work. We ask you to consider: How do words call attention and transform our relationship to a place? How does a place transform our interaction with words? Activities focus on two Weiner artworks, “PLACED ON THE TIP OF A WAVE” and “AN OBJECT TOSSED FROM ONE COUNTRY TO ANOTHER”.

Activity Group 3: Context and Translation

This series of activities invites you to think more about how Weiner works in relation to particular contexts. It focuses on Weiner's artist book, "Henry the Navigator" and his installation, "SMASHED TO PIECES (IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT)".

Additional Material

  1. Conceptual art (as defined by the Museum of Modern Art)
  2. Lawrence Weiner's biography (by the Museum of Modern Art)
  3. Lawrence Weiner's biography (by the Guggenheim Museum)
  4. Conceptual art (as defined by The Art Story)
  5. Conceptual art (as defined by the Tate Museum)
  6. Conceptual art in Context (Art21)
  1. As Far As The Eye Can See 1960-2007, De Salvo, Donna, and Ann Goldstein, eds., published by Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA, 2008
  2. Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, ed., published by MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1999.
  3. Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, Alexander Alberro, published by MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2003.
  4. Conceptual Art (Themes & Movements), Peter Osborne, ed., published by Phaidon, New York and London, 2002.
  5. Having Been Said: Writings and Interviews of Lawrence Weiner 1968–2003, Fietzek, Gerti, and Gregor Stemmrich, eds., published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern-Ruit Germany, 2004.
  6. Lawrence Weiner, Alexander Alberro, David Batchelor, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, and Alice Zimmerman, published by Phaidon, New York City and London, 2004.
  7. Recording Conceptual Art: Early Interviews with Barry, Huebler, Kaltenbach, LeWitt, Morris, Oppenheim, Siegelaub, Smithson, and Weiner by Patricia Norvell, Patricia Norvell and Alexander Alberro, eds., published by University of California Press, Oakland CA, 2001.
  8. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, Lucy Lippard, published by University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1997.
  9. "Sentences on Conceptual Art," Sol LeWitt, first published in 0-9, New York, and Art-Language, England, May 1969.
  10. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, "Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions," published in October, vol. 55, winter, 1990, p. 105–143.

Reading Resources: Lawrence Weiner was produced by Art Resources Transfer (A.R.T.) in collaboration with Wendy Tronrud (A.R.T. Education Consultant) in summer/fall 2017.

A.R.T. acknowledges the invaluable generosity, assistance, and enthusiasm of all who contributed to Reading Resources production:

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.

We also thank:
María Sprowls Cervantes and MaryJo Marks at Lawrence Weiner Studio
A.R.T. Board of Directors
National Endowment for the Arts
H.W. Wilson Foundation
and most specially, Lawrence Weiner.

Web programming by Jeff Khonsary.
Copyright © Art Resources Transfer, Inc 2017.

All images are protected under copyright by the original rights holders.

A.R.T. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

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