Lawrence Weiner and Metaphor

by Mark Staff Brandl

Conceptual Artist Lawrence Weiner is quite fond of formulating statements in which he claims to have dismissed metaphor from his artwork. This is a very short article to point out that he is completely wrong. In fact, his use of vinyl lettering, called “text” in the artworld, is an obvious combination of tropes, masking itself as non-tropaic, which is in itself another metaphor.

Art critic Barry Schwabsky writes of the influential New York painter Jonathan Lasker in ArtForum magazine:

The desire for an imminent fundamental change linked to a new understanding of trope is indeed in the air, not only for me; ever more frequently, artists and authors have begun to refer to metaphor and cognitive metaphor theory. For example, Frank Davey, a Canadian poet with an involvement in theory, states the following in an interview with Héliane Ventura in the journal Sources.

Jonathan Lasker once told me he thought the Minimalists had been trying to make an art without metaphor, and in fact had succeeded; but the point having been proved, he continued, there’s no longer any urgent motivation to produce more metaphor-free work. Barry Schwabsky 1

It can now be seen that the Late Modernist attempt to undermine metaphor, whether in Minimalism, as described by Schwabsky and Lasker above, or in Conceptualism, as mentioned above with Wiener, although necessary at that time, did not actually function as expected, but was rather a negational, metaleptic trope in itself. One of Minimalism’s chief metaphors was that of theatre as/for presence, others included industrial furnishing and factory production as anti-decorative, and objecthood as anti-painting — thus anti-(art) history. One might assert that Minimalism was in truth an assemblage of similes. Likewise, Conceptualism can be shown to be based on a tapestry of metaphors and metonymies.

However, at this point let me simply discuss one small example in one Conceptualist’s work, Lawrence Weiner.

Weiner’s early Conceptualist works were both pseudo-pragmatic and the art object themselves. He presented instructions or descriptions such as “A Square Removal from a Rug in Use.” 2

Since then his work has developed into purely abstract language, such as fragmentary lists of prepositions. It has become an often tedious variation on concrete poetry, losing the strength it had earlier as vague potentiality.

Yet this vagueness, presented in vinyl letters on walls appearing for nearly almost 50 years, on the walls of galleries and museums and Kunsthallen around the world, Weiner sees as free of metaphor. There are in reality two chief metaphors in use. The Conceptualist elephants in the gallery, so to speak, as they are easily perceived yet never acknowledged.

First, the use of text itself. Text is a metonymy of intellectuality. Intellectuals, especially scholars, tend to write papers, write books, and the like. They (we) often generate reams of pages of text. It is an important part of their activity (thus indeed a synecdoche of intellectuality). Creating them is an important activity of such people and one of the foremost things others picture when they consider scholars, philosophers and other intellectuals. Therefore it makes an ideal stand-in for them, as it is contextually related to their thoughts. Thus, text is a metonymy of intellectuality and intellectuals.

Second, such vagueness as Weiner uses nowadays in his texts can be seen as poetic (an interpretation he resists), yet even more so as either an inadvertent parody or a travesty of the texts that intellectuals create. Scholarly writing is all too often extremely difficult to read, densely packed, seemingly on the edge of comprehensibility. Purposeful vagueness is thus overly artsy (a metonymy of the avant-garde) or dreadfully opaque (a distorted synecdoche of intellectuality). In short, it simply screams “ain’t I smart!”

I could continue with the metaphors underlying the physical materiality of Weiner’s presentations. Such as — work done by (usually unpaid or underpaid) assistants: metaphors of corporate production; machine-cut letters: metaphors of brain over body (anti-handicraft); vinyl: metaphors of “contemporary materials”; and so on. All of these playing hidden metaphors against suppositions of the metaphors of earlier Modernists, thus also making them metalepses!

However, my purposes have been served. It is clear that no matter what is claimed, Lawrence Weiner’s art, and I assert, most Conceptual Art and Neo-Conceptual Art, whether good or bad, is deeply grounded in interlocking base metaphors; metaphors commonly ignored because they are so transparent.

Interpreting Lawrence Weiner with Embodied Metaphor

by Mark G. Taber

Embodied metaphor theory can be a powerful framework with which to approach Lawrence Weiner’s wall installation work. For example, consider this piece exhibited at the Whitney Museum in 2007:


This text was exhibited on a very tall and narrow wall in a vertical orientation. In language time is expressed in many embodied metaphors. In English the future is typically in the space in front of the body, the past is behind. For example, talk about future events as being “on the horizon” or past events as “behind us” unselfconsciously use this metaphorical model of time.

Consider the text: “A HOLE IN TIME.” What can this be if not a metaphor? If time is a first person subjective perception then it can’t have a hole because in that case time is neither an event nor a thing.4 But if we think about it as an embodied metaphor using the model of walking on a line towards the future, and take time as a dimension and mark off our path with regular intervals to measure time, then it becomes plain that walking towards the future on a timeline and encountering a hole blocking the way presents us with a dramatic aberration.

Now consider “BEFORE & AND AFTER.” If continuing with the embodied metaphor of walking along a timeline then “BEFORE” logically becomes the span of time when encountering the “HOLE” is in the future and in front of us as we walk, and “AFTER” is when the “HOLE” is in the past and behind us.

The piece is (or was at the Whitney) large scale and so can be walked towards and around. Walking towards it as though literally on a timeline the text reads from top to bottom like a piledriver ramming into the gallery floor where one might expect to find the hole the text is referring to. In that sense encountering the text in the gallery enhances its power and is more than an arbitrary upsizing of text that belongs in a little book.

From the point of view of embodied metaphor the piece is logical and with this framework in place it becomes possible to ask deeper questions about what this piece brings to mind. Is it possible that a straight line ruler metaphor doesn’t capture all the permutations of the dimensions of time? Maybe we need some new metaphors about time to capture additional complexities? How does one cross over a hole in time? Weiner must think it’s possible, otherwise the text might instead read “STOPPED BY A HOLE IN TIME.” Maybe one doesn’t cross over a hole in time, maybe we need a metaphor for a swerve in time. What is a hole in time anyway?

But enough speculation. The point is that embodied metaphor theory can render this piece logical and intelligable and compelling.

  1. Barry Schwabsky, “Jonathan Lasker - Brief Article,” ArtForum (September 2000). Cited from <>
  2. The exact phrase, thus artwork, is “A SQUARE REMOVAL FROM A RUG IN USE,” also referred to as Statement Nr. 054. Lawrence Wiener, 1969.
  3. Lawrence Weiner As Far As The Eye Can See, Whitney Museum of American Art. 945 Madison Ave, New York, NY. (November 15, 2007 to February 10, 2008). Cited from
  4. “Time.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Cited from