Artists Who Make Instructions for Others to Make Their Art

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Tomorrow is Yoko Ono’s 79th birthday. Can you believe it? Nearly 50 years ago, John Lennon visited London’s Indica Gallery and climbed a tall, white ladder, grabbed a magnifying glass that was dangling from a thread and read the tiny Ono Ceiling Painting… on the ceiling. It said, simply, “YES.” Moved, he demanded to see the artist. And that’s how they met. Or not. It’s one of those rock ‘n’ roll myths.

Ono’s written messages are a large part of her body of work, as are “Instructional Paintings.” You might say this delegates her to the group of artists who don’t “make” their own work — instead, “Instructional Paintings” are pieces of work that are fully formed in the artist’s mind, placing the creation on the spectator. Here are some of the artists who do just that — create instructions for manifesting or completing their artworks.

Yoko Ono

Despite your personal feelings about Yoko and whether or not she “broke up the band” or whatnot, you have to admit that many of her instruction paintings are kind of delightful. This one, for example. And it’s probably nice when a museum wall with Yoko Ono scribbles on it tells you that you’re beautiful or a Voice Piece for Soprano instructs you to cathartically “Scream. 1. against the wind 2. against the wall 3. against the sky” through a complimentary microphone and loud speaker, even if many a MoMA visitor grumbled about how distracting that was. Yeah, she’s still got it.

Marcel Duchamp

Let’s go way back, to the big daddy of Dada. Duchamp’s Unhappy Ready-made (1919) was a wedding present for his sister Suzanne. She physically constructed the piece. Duchamp mailed the specific instructions, that is, to hang a geometry text on her porch and leave it there, bleaching in the sun, torn up by the wind, and drenched by the rain over time. The piece displays the fact that the forces of nature that will eventually destroy, corrode, and trash all humanity’s achievements. Cheery.

George Brecht

“Art by Instruction” blossomed in the mid-to-late 1960s, much to the earlier efforts of John Cage who taught at the New School for Social Research and laid the groundwork for Happenings and Fluxus. Ono was one of his indirect disciples. George Brecht was a student. His Water Yam was a mixed bag of kind of awesome, ranging from very simple performances with a lamp to obscure and surrealistic instructions for constructing a tableaux, which left much to the “realizer’s” imagination.

Lawrence Weiner

This is piece is one of Lawrence Weiner’s Statements, entitled “Two minutes of spray paint directly upon the floor from a standard aerosol spray can, 1968.” It’s two minutes of spray paint directly upon the floor from a standard aerosol spray can. Also, there’s someone else doing it on the right. Very nice. Although, Lawrence Weiner doesn’t really care if or how you carry out the work physically. That’s the decision of the “receiver” of the art.

Miranda July

Let’s jump on ahead to approximately now, to Miranda July’s Eleven Heavy Things — a travelling exhibit of public sculptures that really weren’t complete until you stood on them or poked your limbs and fingers into its stone white orifices, just like the signage upon them is egging you on to do.

Piero Manzoni

Well, what do you know. There’s a precedent for this one too! Not just any obscure artist of yesteryear, but the great Piero Manzoni whose Base Magica instructed the viewer to step upon the pedestal, into the strategically placed footprints, so that they would become a living component of his art work. Ta-da!

Sol LeWitt

In the late 1960s, conceptual art pioneer Sol LeWitt was focusing on installation and drawings that was incarnated by his language and by the hands of other artists and draftsmen. They were epic, Minimalist, geometry-oriented pieces like this one, Wall Drawing #65: “Lines not short, not straight, crossing and touching, drawn at random, using four colors, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall.” Other instructions would go like so: “On a wall, a triangle within a rectangle, each with broken bands of color” and “Isometric figure within which are 3′ ‘ wide black lines in three directions wide black lines in three directions.” Sounds fun, right? If, say, you were to make some Sol LeWitts, the artist said “It would be a compliment.”

Marina Abramović

On the contrary, you better not try to re-enact any of Marina Abramović’s art. Using her grand MoMA retrospective to pioneer copyrighting performance art pieces, the superstar meticulously instructed and boot-camped the performers of her nude human doorway Imponderabilia and her Nude With Skeleton cuddlers, etc. Anyone attempting to re-perform her pieces/intellectual property will need to abide to specific, authorized instructions. So should anyone participating in any of her recent, exclusive shin-dings — like the controversial MoCA Gala where human heads of performers protruded through the tables and the diners, donning special white robes, were specifically instructed against “touching, feeding, offering drink or disrespecting the centerpiece.”

Bruce Nauman

A much more relaxed gent is Bruce Nauman. His many instructional pieces were some serious metaphysical fun and anyone could DIY. Take Body Pressure (1974): “Press as much of the front surface of your body (palms in or out, left or right cheek) against the wall as possible. Press very hard and concentrate. Form an image of yourself (suppose you had just stepped forward) on the opposite side of the wall pressing back against the wall very hard. Press very hard and concentrate on the image pressing very hard. (the image of pressing very hard) Press your front surface and back surface toward each other and begin to ignore or block the thickness of the wall. (remove the wall).” Remove the wall! With your mind! So good, even Marina did it. Your turn. Just do it.

Oh, look…

Someone did it.