The Graphic Artist

Lawrence Weiner has inspired generations of designers but a collaboration with Browns reveals he remains firmly an artist at heart

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Lawrence Weiner

Paper brands are usually associated with the distribution of culture, rather than the promotion of it, yet by curating the Howard Smith Paper Lecture Series, design studio Browns is quietly overturning this view. Held twice a year at BAFTA, another of Browns’ clients, the lectures are slowly gaining a reputation for thought-provoking and interesting speakers from the fields of graphic design, art and photography, and have in the past featured Paul Davis, Alexander Gelman and Paul Graham. For the fourth lecture in the series, Browns invited artist Lawrence Weiner to take part and the designers found themselves in the enviable position of embarking on a collaborative adventure with the artist.

Lawrence Weiner
Lawrence Weiner

Every lecture in the Howard Smith series is accompanied by a journal, which offers the paper brand a chance to show off its prowess, with each one printed using a different style of its product. A natural fit for his work, Weiner embraced this project wholeheartedly, producing entirely new works for the journal, and engaging in lengthy and fulfilling discussions with Browns on the relationship between art and design.

Lawrence Weiner and Jonathan Ellery
Lawrence Weiner and Jonathan Ellery

“I’d met Lawrence in Berlin a few years earlier and I’d really enjoyed his company,” says Browns founder Jonathan Ellery. “Since then we’ve spent time together and have become friends. For a long time, I’ve loved, yet at the same time been bewildered by, Weiner’s work. The ambiguity of his delivery is something that I find fascinating and has influenced my own work over the years. With this project Weiner focused his attention on the differences between art and design, not in a competitive way by any means, but rather on an emotional and intellectual level. Therefore Weiner’s thinking was very valid for Browns’ ongoing and developing cultural philosophy.”

The confusion Ellery feels when faced by Weiner’s art is not unwarranted. He is usually described as one of the central figures of the Conceptual Art movement, with his conceptual credentials set when he announced his “Statement of Intent” in 1968, setting the conditions of his practice by announcing: “1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece may not be built.”

Yet Weiner in fact defines himself as a sculptor, a position that is perhaps more metaphorical than literal as his art has appeared in a multitude of media, including books, posters, films and installations. Language and poetry are a core element within his work, with words regularly taking on a visual importance (both in typographical and more abstract terms) while retaining their power and weight as signifiers. Despite the fact that the ideas in his art may be complex and at times appear always just out of reach, Weiner’s visual aesthetic is striking and familiar, often using typographic and graphic elements, and it is primarily this that has led to him being as well-loved in the design industry as the art world.

“For graphic designers, Weiner’s work has a special fascination,” explains design writer Adrian Shaughnessy in his introduction to the journal. “His text-based ‘sculptures’, using enigmatic utterances rendered in immaculate typography, usually in capital letters and often utilising finely judged details such as brackets and rules, appeal directly to the aesthetic sensibilities of many designers. There’s a purity and primacy in Weiner’s work that many designers find utterly seductive and yearn to incorporate into their own labours, a feat which is rarely possible in commercial situations. For a certain sort of designer, Weiner gives credence to the notion that design can be art. Through his seemingly unrestricted use of type, line, colour and space, he confirms that, when used without commercial constraint or the need to convey a client’s message, these building blocks of graphic communication can be transmuted into art.”

Weiner acknowledges the impact that graphic design has in turn had on his work, citing as a particular inspiration the work of the Russian Constructivist El Lizzitsky, while he states that his art is influenced by “probably everything I’ve ever seen”. This mutual appreciation made the collaborative experience with Browns on the journal as rewarding for him as it was for the designers, and he describes it as “a perfect mesh of sensual and visceral. We asked each other quite often and ‘when it doubt, leave it out’. But as the conversation developed it began to appear on the pages of the journal.”

What is writ large in the journal, and also in Ellery’s comments on the experience of working with him, is that Weiner is exciting and enjoyable company, as at ease discussing his own work and life as he is typography, graphics and the broader philosophies of art and design. He may officially be classified as an artist, but, as Shaughnessy acknowledges, he “ticks most of the boxes to qualify for membership of the graphic design club”.

“His use of type is technically and aesthetically accomplished, and his ability to create spatial tension through the placement of graphic elements evokes thoughts of the great Constructivists. He has created his own typeface (Margaret Seaworthy Gothic1) and modified others. He is a graphic designer in nearly every respect, except one: he’s not a graphic designer.”

AN EXCHANGE OF EMAILS WITH LAWRENCE WEINER

CR: How did the project come about? Did you know of Browns before this experience?

LW: I knew of Browns. Jonathan Ellery & I began a conversation about art & design in the stream of life. We developed the conversation in N.Y. + London + when invited to participate in the Howard Smith Paper lecture series I accepted & continued the conversation.

CR: How did you approach the project? Were there any restrictions imposed on you by Browns about the type of work produced or were you allowed an entirely free rein?

LW: Within the collaborative structure we set up. There are aspirations & necessities that both participants (Browns [design] & L.W. [artist]) have. Perhaps the idea of collaboration is when both parties try to meet the aspirations of the other. Within the context of the project (mis en scene).

CR: How was the experience of working so closely with the designers on the project? What kind of discussions did you have along the way? How much did these conversations influence the work that you created?

LW: Each knew something the other didn’t. Perfect mesh of sensual & visceral. We asked each other quite often & when in doubt – leave it out. But as the conversation developed it began to appear on the pages of the journal.

CR: Your work strongly resonates with graphic designers – why do you think this is?

LW: Don’t ask me ask them

CR: Are there any particular designers that have been an influence / inspiration for your work?

LW: Inspiration: El Lizzitsky

Influence: Probably everything I’ve ever seen

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