Major survey at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary, "AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE," the first of its kind in the U.S., offers a timely reassessment of what this artist has often termed the opportunity of being "perplexed in public." Including the early Propeller (1964-65) and Removal (1966-68) paintings, his language pieces, as well as works on paper, films, videos, books, posters, multiples, and audio works, the conceptual practice of Weiner bridges both "specific 44 and general" aspects of words and things. The operational niche of this almost half century of inquiry is the impossibly small interstices that exist between those states of suspension in which things and their representations inevitably collide and change places. In brief, Weiner creates "formal situations" revealing "the relationship of human beings to objects and objects to objects in relation to human beings." Although the radical insights of conceptual art have long since been sidelined in the canon of art history, Weiner's profoundly simple gestures demonstrate the true shortsightedness of this strategy.
In the Geffen show, co-curated by MOCA's Ann Goldstein and the Whitney's Donna De Salvo, Weiner's artistic development is traced chronologically and in terms of the progression of ideas, beginning with his Cratering Piece (1960), often considered to be the first earthwork or land art. It involved blasting a series of holes with TNT in Mill Valley, California. This led logically to What Is Set Upon the Table Sits Upon The Table (Stone on Table) (ca. 1962-63), showing a trimmed sandstone block sitting on a crude wood table. Finally, after 1968 there evolved such text pieces as AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE (1988), which literally attests to Weiner's oft-quoted remark that "Language, because it is the most nonobjective thing we have ever developed in this world, never stops." Moreover these linguistic art forms, mostly declarative statements, typically retain a high degree of contextual and connotative ambiguity. Stuff like ENCASED BY + REDUCED TO RUST (1986), evoking an invisibly crumbling object rusting to dust, or a fractured AS LONG AS IT LASTS (1992), offers rich visual metaphors for the imagination of the viewer.
Somewhat like fellow conceptual minimalist Douglas Huebler, after 1968 Weiner turned increasingly to language to make his point about art as (stated) absence. This new art trend is often correlated with Wittgenstein's early Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), in which he attempted to delimit the relationship between language and reality by establishing "the conditions for a logically perfect language," a form of logical atomism or positivism which the philosopher later renounced. Critics of this art school--whose position is ironically summed up by Proposition 7 of the Tractatus itself, namely that "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent"--have tended to take shelter under glib Kantian dualities, whereas its apologists, on the other hand, revel in Weiner's denaturalization of the ordinary. However, the very nuanced shadings of Weiner's use of textualized objects and objectival texts belie any kind of simplistic neo-Kantianism, indeed going so far as to offer inklings of a subtler, more random form of post-conceptual practice, well outside the lineage of Duchamp.
As Donna De Salvo points out in her catalogue essay, Weiner's emphasis on an object's use value as well as its physical characteristics and given contexts to create meaningful perplexity differs dramatically from the Duchampian aesthetic of transubstantiation through recontextualization. Closely akin to the Beatnik experiments with language and the lettrism of concrete poetry, Weiner's aesthetic sensibility is actually more in line with Kerouac, Burroughs, Geyson, and Ginsburg. It is this foregrounding of pure process and relational objectality that gives Weiner's work such a unique conceptual punch.