Bad Eggs? Horace’s Ars Poetica and Lawrence Weiner’s Propeller Paintings

How to begin? And then, once you’ve started, what do your beginnings mean? What do they even look like from the middle? In 1987 the artist Lawrence Weiner mused on these very questions when he created this snazzy porcelain plate and cup set for the Fodor Museum in Amsterdam.

Lawrence Weiner Ab ovo usque ad mala, 1987

Weiner used the Latin tag Ab ovo usque mala (literally: ‘from the egg to the apples’), which is taken from Horace Satires 1.3 (lines 6-7) to describe the interminable song of Tigellius. Yet the yolk-coloured circle on the saucer and the parentheses on the large plate also point to Horace’s reference to the ‘double egg’ (gemino ovo) of his Ars Poetica (line 147), in his advice for epic poets to not go back to the beginning of the Trojan War (to Zeus and Leda and their offspring Helen), but to start in medias res. Like his namesake Laurence Sterne, Weiner, however, does not heed Horace’s advice. Instead, he does go back to the beginning – and like Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – to his own beginning, albeit as an artist. Accompanying the signature text and symbols in their bright colours, Weiner has also added blue-yellow and red-yellow depictions of his so-called ‘Propeller Paintings’ (1960-65). Although these paintings seem to (I don’t know how) slip through a Google Image search, here is a snap I took of page 8 of the 1998 Phaidon book Lawrence Weiner that gives you an idea of what some of these early works looked like.

Lawrence Weiner Propeller Paintings, 1960-1965.

These works appear throughout Weiner’s later work, for example in his artist book for OneStar Press DEEP BLUE SKY/LIGHT BLUE SKY, first published in 2003.

Lawrence Weiner from DEEP BLUE SKY, LIGHT BLUE SKY, 2nd ed. Onestar Press, 2007

So, when we are confronted with Weiner’s work from dOCUMENTA(13) THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE, should we think that the artist has finally heeded Horace’s advice? Or will we see him return ad ovum and to the Propeller Paintings once again?

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