Visiting With Richard Artschwager

by Ian Wallace, Winter 2012

Richard Artshwager and his wife, Ann, are trying to sell their converted church in Hudson, New York. The house is of the type that seems to abound in the area, with high, paneled ceilings and a large stained glass window. It is, perhaps, a little too nice; they’re having trouble drumming up interest. Richard’s grand piano sits in one corner, next to his easel. Recent years’ work occupies the floor and walls: in one room, a five-foot neon-orange exclamation point, made from wiry bristles on a skeleton frame, something akin to a giant pipe-cleaner, hangs by a wire from the ceiling. In another room, there is a low, wide piece of furniture, like a rounded Adirondack chair, with a beautiful, brown, animal hide seat. This, it turns out, is Chair/Chair, an artwork, made in 1987. Is it a sculpture?  A multiple? (As it turns out, it is an edition of 100 that Artschwager produced for Brooke Alexander Editions.) As Ann showed it to me, her gesture was ambiguous; I wondered whether I was being beckoned to sit on it, or simply to admire it.

Chairs, until recently, were the dominant motif in Artschwager’s art, along withtables, windows, pianos and organs. His work almost reads like a minor version of European avant-garde Modernist design; one stripped of all functionality. His most abstract pieces imply utility—with padded areas for sitting or kneeling, sliding doors and handrails—and simultaneously impede it. In this sense, Artschwager calls Handle (1962) a “guide” to everything he’s made since: it’s a prefabricated oak railing formed into a rectangle and bracketed to the wall, like an empty picture frame. You want to grab hold of it, and it is, indeed, a handle, but a handle on nothing.

The basis of Artschwager’s work, which he’s been producing since the late ’50s, is an aesthetic sensibility that springs from Plato’s notion that objects in the world are mere approximations of ideal forms. His work isn’t necessarily concerned with truth; he’s more interested in the capacity for an object to be what it is and, simultaneously, to be an image of what it is. The effect can be funny, like a cartoon of a face, or uncanny, like a mask, depending on what the subject is and how far it strays from its original source. It’s a simple idea that has a startling ability to be endlessly repeated on a whole range of subjects without losing its transformative capability, producing encounters that are immediately strange.

To call Artschwager’s practice a taxonomy of forms seems particularly aptconsidering that the artist began his adult life on a track toward science. He graduated from Cornell, where he studied chemistry and math, in 1948. After a brief tour in the army, during which he performed tactical intelligence work for US intelligence division G2 in Germany, he moved to New York. There, he “scammed his way” into a job as a baby photographer and “apprenticed himself to himself” as a cabinetmaker and carpenter.  Eventually, the repetitive process of building chair after chair is what lead Artschwager to begin thinking about the objects he was making as prototypes for another kind of construction; something that could capture the dissociating effect of looking at the same object over and over again.

Living in New York and supportedby the GI Bill, Artschwager spent a year studying under Amédée Ozenfant, the French cubist painter whose concept of a “pre-literate vision” was highly influential for the younger artist’s development. However, he was thirty-six years old before he showed in his first exhibition. His wife at the time (his first wife; he’s been remarried several times) was the one who told him that he should be an artist rather than a craftsman. Though he’d been painting for years, he only embraced the idea at her suggestion.

Despite the fact that it took some persuading to get him there, it seems that art was the natural landing point for Artschwager’s intensely philosophical work. His sculptures are mostly reminiscent of furniture: they’re chairs, tables and pianos that act as Platonic images of chairs, tables and pianos. The pianos are resolutely mute; the chair and table sculptures (they’re titled Blue ChairBrown Chair, Table with Pink Tablecloth and so on) illustrate their dual nature the best: you could sit on the chairs and eat off of the tables, if only this weren’t prohibitedby their special status as art objects. (Hence my conundrum in the artist’s living room when faced with his most chair-like Chair: what to do, without the rules of the gallery to tell one where to sit?)

This motif is the route to a deeper complexity in Artschwager’s paintings. Until recently he almost exclusively painted on Celotex, a rough, fibrous board commonly used as insulation and filler in airplane wings. Celotex comes with preformed swirling patterns on its surface, like the ceiling tiles in a hotel room. The majority of Artschwager’s early- and mid-career paintings are painted from blown-up portions of newspaper photographs, enlarged using a grid technique. The process was enhanced by the texture of Celotex because it gave the impression that the grain of the newspaper was being enlarged along with the image. In the ’70s, Artschwager executed a series of grisaille Neoclassical interiors, many based on postcard images of a mansion in upstate New York. This is when he began painting his frames with an exaggerated, wood-grain pattern in bright colors, finally linking his paintings to his sculptures in technique and concept: they become paintings that are simultaneously images of paintings.

With this development, Artschwager’s paintings began to complicate his body of work in an intriguing way. Critical writing on the work in general has tended to try to fit it into one of two dominant modes: because his sculptures often suggest abstractions, and they’re largely square, many art historians place them in the realm of minimalism. On the other hand, because they can seem cartoonish and permeated by an air of humor, he’s also been called a pop artist. Most critics seem content to allow his work to float somewhere in between those two poles, and simply treat his paintings as a sort of sidebar to his sculpture. You hear a lot about “Artschwagerian wit,” but there’s never been much of an attempt to define it.

In his recent work, however, Artschwager has been doing a lot more painting and drawing than sculpture (he still produces sculptures, but they’re fabricated in an industrial facility in Brooklyn). At the time of my visit, the artist was working on a large pastel drawing, a rust-colored landscape with a taenioid road curving between large, brown hills. The piece was to be included in an upcoming exhibition at a Chelsea gallery. Many of Artschwager’s newest works, from the past five years or so, depict similar scenes: not quite idyllic, these are rusty landscapes, some of which depict winding country roads; some appear to be close-up details of asphalt or grass. The most striking of the series that was included in this particular gallery show is called Landscape with Leg, and it’s exactly what one would imagine, based on its title: a pale, soft human leg sticks up at a forty-five degree angle from a ditch beside a highway road in the center of an earth-tone landscape. The rest of this body, presumably, is either absent or is buried head-first in the ground.

The body is central not only to this piece, but to all of Artschwager’s work. In fact, his work has always obscured bodies; Landscape with Leg is just the unique instance where the obscured body becomes partially visible. With a flattened chair comes an implied flattening of the body as well. The strangeness, the “wit,” of Artschwager’s work is that it eviscerates by extension: through his tactics of spatial and linguistic disassociation, and dimensional eversion—when he uses rubberized horsehair insulation as an external texture, or constructs wooden crates that act as strange, surrogate sculptures that could never possibly function as crates—the implication is always of an act being performed on the body of the person who comes in contact with them. His sculptures are monuments to unreality. In a series of collapses—of depth, of content, of image—Artschwager forces the viewer to see everyday objects as dissociated presences, and simultaneously forces the viewer to see him or herself as an equally dissociated presence, meeting his works halfway. Here I come back to Ozenfant, Artschwager’s teacher in art, who wrote, in his treatise of 1928: “Respect the profound and innate sense in us of nature’s fundamental reactions, and not too much outrage them: for then we are led to compare the work with its subject, which brings us back to the literal reality (as a monster reminds us of the normal creature).” It might be that the biggest influence Ozenfant had on Artschwager was to drive him to disregard this very tenet; all of Artschwager’s works are Ozenfant’s “monsters.”

Of course, I wanted to ask the artist about all of these ideas, to see if any of it resonated with him. I know from lectures and interviews that he’s given that he’s a very focused artist, always working from his set of core concepts and delicately balancing the unique materiality of his work, its Formica, Celotex and horsehair constructions, with the complex and technical impulses and concepts behind them. Richard’s memory, alas, is fading. It seems that, in sudden bursts of gregariousness, the most he can do is repeat the lines that he’s been repeating for decades when he talks about his work. Even these moments are few and fleeting and Ann had to answer most of my questions for him, with slight embarrassment.

Ann drove me back to the train station in Hudson. The back seat of their station wagon was occupied by one of Richard’s horsehair pieces, a large disc of wiry, black curls wrapped in plastic. This is one of a series of circular reliefs that hang on the wall, with human figures molded out of the curly black material so that they appear to be floating, mid-air. I squeezed underneath the packaged relief and buckled my seat belt. Richard was sitting in the front seat; he turned around and looked, inquisitively, at his sculpture. He didn’t recognize it. “What is that?” Good question.