How Lawrence Weiner sees the relationship between human and machine

Written by Rissa Lerner, CNN

“If you want to get to the heart of things, talk to what’s in your stomach,” said Lawrence Weiner. The words were engraved in his gold-colored, 19th-century tool chest.

Lawrence Weiner, who painstakingly and masterfully etched the text into the darkness of his freezer, death mask, candlestick, lens, pair of shoe soles and cigarette. (Credit: Lawrence Weiner)

Weiner was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1930. Before the age of 12, he was developing interests in art and sculpture. He went on to complete a BFA and a MFA at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Weiner lived in New York for nearly 40 years and taught at the New School for Social Research, State University of New York.

Lawrence Weiner’s intricate burner (Credit: Lawrence Weiner)

In 1978, he became infatuated with the figure of a fridge. Known to be a rare confluence of speed and mastery, the stunning container made its mark as an emblem for the art world and the design industry alike.

“They’re between the medieval landscape and the Renaissance idea of the sacred object. In the middle is a freezer, which is the same drawer and same top as a soda machine,” said Andrea Nevins, Chief Curator of the Museum at FIT (the Museum of the City of New York) in Manhattan.

Weiner used his freezer as a medium for this representation of the human-material axis. (Credit: Douglas Terry)

Later on, the Long Island-born artist produced many cold compositions and commissioned these objects for museums and high-end fashion houses to present their collections.

“You have to remember that designers and industrial designers were designing buildings, cars, goods, things that people were consumed with when the French Revolution started,” said Nevins. “In New York, when [Desirée] Beck, [Jean] Dessay, [Jérôme] Bonnard, [Charles Baudelaire] were all showing [as part of] Armory Week, that was at the height of the museum attendance.”

It’s important to note that these cold cultural symbols often passed on their names and branding codes to the public.

“In the period after the war, there were some really exquisite art objects created in reaction to the catastrophe,” Nevins said. “And all the things that were manufactured at the time had the ability to become shells for brand names.”

“I think almost the first words that designer Bernard Esquivel said on paper were ‘I want to be the agency’ — because the design industry could become something other than the blue machine or the hand-drawn.”

This placement of design on public or private brand names led to “world-changing conversations” between the “royal families” of Mexico and Spain, Nevins said. Also, “design wasn’t something just about the furniture, the mundane, the ‘Made in Germany’ slab. Design was more than that.”

Out of those “collision” with big-city modes of dress and construction, Weiner was exposed to something new and the evolution of building and city design.

For Weiner, the activity is universal. And not just about the “things that you see,” but what’s beneath all that it says.

“‘We can read it,’ but we can also make things,” Nevins said. “That’s the real power of his work. There are countless great things to read in his work, but for me, the most powerful is how he reads our bodies, our gut feelings.”

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