To finish out 2008, the Gagosian Gallery Rome presented "Quid Pro Quo" by Lawrence Weiner, my favorite show since the gallery opened in 2007. The opening party was crowded as usual but slightly more subdued, seeming more intellectual than glamorous for once, no doubt due to the artist’s Conceptual Art pedigree. Weiner installed two wall drawings in the gallery’s elegant oval central space, scattering his signature block-letter phrases through the gallery in swooping, almost decorative arabesques.
Weiner had arrived a only few days earlier to supervise the installation, but he clearly knows Rome well, well enough to treat lightly something so grand. He spelled out "3 COINS & A FOUNTAIN," for instance, in red letters that span the narrow strips of wall between five tall windows. The text ringing the room at baseboard level is more erudite: Virgil’s "si parva licet componere magnis," or "if one dares compare the small with the great," which has been called the theme of the Aeneid.
The Roman context, in fact, gives Weiner’s work, with its simple oppositions and variables, an uncanny historical resonance. "Quid pro quo," indeed.
Eight framed drawings are also on view in a back room, enough to save Larry Gagosian’s reputation as a dealer with commercial intentions. However, at this point Gagosian probably realizes that it is easier to invite Roman collectors for dinner at Dal Bolognese than to sell them art. †
In any case, Weiner is not an artist from Gagosian’s stable but he agreed to do this show because he doesn’t have a gallery representing his works in Rome. Weiner collaborates with many galleries around the world but he has an old-school tendency to be faithful to his dealers and he has said that he will only work with the Roman branch of the multinational Gagosian Gallery.
Long-limbed, naturally elegant, with an archaic beard and knowing look, Weiner was clearly inspired by the ancient history of Rome with its seven mythological hills and its legendary Trevi Fountain. But when I asked Weiner what Rome and Italy really meant for him, he replied, "Nothing! Being here for me is like being in Germany or in France."
He continued talking about the Italian contemporary art world and it soon became evident to me just how informed he is. "Here everybody complains about the lack of support from the government, but all Italian art needs is a little bit of trust from the art people about what their kids are doing." I was happy to discover that Weiner thinks my native country has undervalued talent, but sad to find out that even abroad, Italians are seen as "people who complain about being miserable, then go for a three-month holiday."
Weiner implied that history wasn’t all that important to him. Rather, he said he chose these Latin quotations because they seemed so contemporary. "Art is about sensuality, not about remembering," Weiner said. "The only context an artist wants is now." Suddenly, his astute observation rendered the entire gallery and his own work somehow useless.
I now understand that Lawrence is digging into the past, seeking ancient emotions that don’t necessarily exist anymore. This work is not about ancient Rome. Nor is it about history, nor inspiration. The power that emerges from this installation is nostalgia for emotions that Weiner felt long ago, maybe in another life or perhaps in a dream. These are now prisoners of his deep, sparkling eyes.
At the opening, Roman dealer Pio Monti joked to Weiner that "a man without a beard is like a woman with a beard." The charming man with a beard, with tender but strong eyes, a bit weary from too much walking around Rome, seemed to look forward to returning to his five-star room at the Hotel Hassler nearby -- "The most beautiful room I ever had in Rome!" -- to get some rest, before continuing his journey toward a new destination.
Lawrence Weiner, "Quid pro Quo," Nov. 21, 2008-Jan. 17, 2009, at Gagosian Gallery, Via Francesco Crispi 16, 00187 Rome.
LAVINIA FILIPPI is an art critic based in Rome.