The artist Lawrence Weiner lives on a quiet street in the West Village, in what was once an old laundromat built in 1910 and is now an unobtrusive five-level town house designed by the firm Lot-Ek. You may recognize some of the architecture: Lot-Ek is often cited for it inventive reuse of prefabricated objects (like shipping containers) and other industrial materials. In fact, the penthouse floor of Weiner’s home is built from discarded truck bodies. The floor below is the bedroom, the floor below that houses Weiner’s archives, and the first floor is the kitchen and dining room. At the basement level, Weiner keeps his studio, where he works. Not long ago, I stopped by to take photographs of his home and talk.
I didn’t come from a background that had any idea about what contemporary art was, it was not anti or pro, it had nothing to do with it. I do remember something my mother said when I was sixteen. I was going off to college, and I said, “I think I’m going to be an artist, not a professor of philosophy.” They all assumed I would be a professor because I’m good at logic, and she looked at me and she said, “Lawrence, you’ll break your heart.” And I said, “Why?” And she said, “Art is for rich people and women.”
I was more into labor organizing and civil rights in the fifties and the sixties. Through a lot of happenstance, I discovered this thing called art—what we call contemporary art. Where you try to do that funny thing where you don’t want to fuck up somebody’s day on their way to work, you want to fuck up their whole life. Art is a possibility to present logic structures that can change people’s perception of their entire existence. I gave it a shot, and I guess I just kept doing it.
We’ve lived here since some time in the eighties. I guess that’s a long time ago. I have no idea. I started showing when I was eighteen. I had my first show in 1960, and I don’t know what’s old and what isn’t old.
I lived on Bleecker Street for thirty some odd years, and then, because it was rental, we were going to lose it. It was falling apart anyhow, and it was one room and small. I had to find another place. I always liked the West Village; I grew up in the South Bronx, I went to high school down on Fiftieth Street, at Stuyvesant, and I was always taken up by the group of people that used to live in this area—Kerouac and that whole scene. We found this little house, and lived in it for like twenty years, and then the lords of the Earth were building every place around us and the light wasn’t right anymore, and we woke up one morning and decided that artists are not victims. Just like that. It’s a landmarked area, and it’s completely locked down, but we collapsed the house and built a brand new one.
I like the neighborhood, still. Nothing to do with the fact that there are seventeen-million-dollar houses. There are rent-controlled apartments left. The neighborhood, for all its faults, is still is one of the last totally mixed neighborhoods that functions as a neighborhood. And it accommodates the enormous quantities of those sad people from the suburbs who come in every day to go to the same two Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren shops. But it’s still a place when you walk out in the morning in your bathrobe and buy a pack of cigarettes if you need to. Somebody will stare at you from the suburbs, but they’re so harassed from having to park their car that you don’t really care. And the people who are angry about paparazzi are people who wish they were having their picture taken. It’s some poor guy standing out in the rain to take a picture of somebody getting their mail out of the mailbox. That’s pretty kinky.
I don’t do lunch. I don’t like lunch, I don’t understand it. It seems to completely break your day, and things I do seem to take weeks, and if you start working on something, you want to continue to work. So I sort of work and work and the other people go out to lunch and they do things, and I just work my way through. It’s not very exciting. And people who come by, like you, have a cup of coffee and sit and they chat. I’m a real cocktail party kind of person. I prefer cocktail parties to anything else. With a cocktail party people can talk, and they’re not trapped.
There’s nothing sillier than an M.F.A. What does it mean? Did you learn anything? No. To be a master you have to learn languages and you have to have these things. Nobody gets them. I don’t think the art form is so complicated that you need a college course in order to read it. I really don’t. Art and fashion are the last two bastions where the product itself is what attracts attention; it really doesn’t much matter who made it. There’s this legitimization of something with an M.F.A. But Gaultier draws a shoe, they look at it, they put the shoe in production, it comes out, and it works. Nobody had to know anything about the person. Art is the same thing, something is built and shown, and it enters the culture. I like schools, I like people to go to school, but the purpose of the Academy is to give answers. If they don’t have an answer, they give a solution. The purpose of art is to ask questions. They’re antithetical.
I wouldn’t tell a young person what to do. They’d have to figure out their aspirations, why they are making art, and they’d have to surprise me. How do you relate to people what it was like in the late sixties and the seventies, that there was a brutal war going on that did affect everybody, not just soldiers, in the United States? There was a whole different ball game going on. How do you tell somebody what they’re supposed to do? And how do I know why somebody else is making art? Sorry, I don’t have a pronouncement. I wish I did. Wisdom does not come with age. Skills come with age, but wisdom, I doubt it very, very much.