Katherine MacAlister meets conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner at Blenheim Palace

Lawrence Weiner is waiting for me at the top of the steps at Blenheim Palace. Framed against the bright blue skies, the 73-year-old is dressed in a dull red beatnik leather jacket, jeans, and black suede boots, his long grey beard covering his weathered face.

And yet despite his resplendent outfit he is eclipsed by the words Within A Realm Of Distance written in bright blue letters above his head, a reminder that I’m in the presence of the world’s most famous conceptual artist.

It’s a clever introduction to his new exhibition, an announcement and intention of what is to come, and although lurid and certainly out of keeping with the English Baroque architecture, it doesn’t take anything away from the palace.

Both genres sit easily alongside each other, blending the new world with the old. And this, if anything, is Lawrence’s intention here; to make a statement, to force us to think about his work, enjoy and marvel at its audacity, this melting point of class, art and society.

“It is an attempt to build a simultaneous reality that can exist within the current one,” he agrees.

Ironically, we then shuffle off to the staff kitchen for our interview, no state rooms for us then, and perch unceremoniously at a small rickety table.

“Ask me anything you want. I’m a big boy. I can take it,” he drawls. Utterly without ego, chatting to the workmen, joking away, he is excited and nervous, saying this is his finest hour, his piece de resistance in an applauded career.

Considering that Lawrence was just 18 when he put on his first show, thus launching an entire global art movement, that is quite something.

Yet, despite his worldwide fame and popularity, his fervour for his work is as ardent as ever. Put simply, it is his way of changing the world.

And yet when first approached by Blenheim he was interested but not convinced. Swinging by during a European road trip, Lawrence took in the setting and returned home to New York “to see what I could come up with”.

So was it an immediate response? “No. I didn’t know if it would work out,” he says, “but once the ideas started coming, the sculptures took a few months to complete and here we are.”

His nine works are being installed as we speak, and having been given a guided tour, I could only marvel at the pieces already up, taking me through the long library where ‘More Than Enough’ circles the ceiling, through to the chapel where ‘A Penny Here A Penny There’ is symbolically emblazoned.

Blenheim Art Foundation then had to bear in mind the strict heritage regulations. “It has been interesting finding solutions to Lawrence’s work,”Antonia Jolles admits.

So does Blenheim compromise his art? “Not at all,” says Lawrence. “Artists always have to find their own place in the world and their art has its own sensual reality.

“You can not take away people’s history and this is about my reality in their time.

“It’s about the different ways you look at the world and the simultaneous realities of what is present. It’s a very simple language,” he adds.

“Everything has a historical context as a result of the people who came before. So this is about coming into a structure and opening it up, it’s about the work itself.

“It’s not about imposition, it’s about presentation and that is very important.”

And yet Lawrence’s own personal history is as tangible as the statements in his work.

Involved in social protests, Lawrence soon realised that his work was a much more effective way of getting his message across.

“It was how I dealt with the reality of the situation,” he explains. “And the bravado of youth.” Born in the Bronx and leaving school at just 16, he began exhibiting at 18: “I might have come from a slum but I knew where I wanted to be. My parents were literate, but it was a good education that set me up for life.”

Oxford Mail:

  • Lawrence Weiner in the long library at Blenheim Palace, one of the rooms where his new pieces are being displayed

His parents had expected him to be a teacher, but a trip to the Museum Of Modern Art in New York changed everything. “I was utterly overwhelmed and instantly at home,” he remembers. So what did his parents say?

“My father said I would break my own heart,” Lawrence recalls. Starting off as a painter, he changed tack to move on with his narrative sculptures.

“It was a massive turning point for me. It became all about the materials – to discover the message in each sculpture while they find their place in the sun,” he smiles.

The here and now is obviously where Lawrence is most at home, and doesn’t want to dwell on the past, saying that it is not relevant to his exhibition.

As for his age, Lawrence says he is a bit slower these days but his schedule is as rigorous as ever; “The travelling around does get harder as you get older,” he coughs.

“The body is going but the mind is okay, so I will just keep using it. When it goes I’ll be the last to notice,” he laughs gruffly.

“But this is the best thing I have ever done because it’s a great mix of new works mixed in with some older pieces and put together as a collection, whether it succeeds or not...”

Is he worried? “Yes, I’m a nervous wreck. To start with I kept thinking why me?

“But now I’m here and I have done the work, I know why. Because it’s a conversation and an argument between the two worlds, the two realities – mine and theirs.

“And hopefully I’m good enough at what I do now for people to understand that.”

Where and when
Lawrence Weiner: Within a Realm of Distance is on at Blenheim Palace until December 20.
Go to blenheimpalace.com for further details