TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 2000

CURTAIN CALL: THE ART OF RICHARD ARTSCHWAGER

With the nearing of the new century, Richard Artschwager made a double return, both to his teenage years in New Mexico and to his art of the 1950s, the period before he hit on the vein that he has mined to such rich effect for forty years. After serving in the army during World War II, Artschwager had gone back and forth between art classes, a roster of short-lived jobs, and, finally, the design and construction of furniture, a trade that would leave its mark. Meanwhile, though, he had regularly revisited New Mexico, and both there and at home in New York he had produced drawings and abstract paintings based on the western landscape. Some of these appeared in Artschwager’s first show, in 1959, but he didn’t pursue this direction. In fact, as he remarked to me this spring, describing the Southwest-ish landscapes now emerging, “These are the first since then—there’s a kind of nostalgia here, because I’m still very attached to that part of the world.”

Nostalgia in Artschwager’s terms, however, is not the usual seductive but vaporous bath, and his “Pastorals (Nature/Culture),” 1991–99, are not really landscapes as such: Their cliff-bound mesas, valleys, and rocky spires could also be—and surely are—studio setups of objects screened under cloth. It is as though Cézanne, instead of setting apples and china on a linen-draped tabletop, had first put down the props, then thrown the linen over them and pondered the result. It is principally the skies that establish the scenes as landscapes—and these are clearly art-full, their whorls and eddies bouncing off the grain of Artschwager’s fibrously patterned supports while also nodding benignly in the directions, perhaps, of van Gogh, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and other more shadowy models.

The effect might be comic, an art-historical joke, but for a certain agreeably spiky resistance typical of Artschwager. He is, in any case, after serious game: the kind of categorical confusion in which he has always specialized, and through which he believes that art points to the “pre-literate vision” that has long been his dream.1 Nothing is ever just one thing with Artschwager; an anonymous sheet of walnut-pattern Formica is both itself and a depiction of a wooden plane; a table or chair is furniture, sculpture,and image all at once. Artschwager has called one of his early table works, Table with Pink Tablecloth, 1964, a “multipicture,” “a painting pushed into three dimensions.”2 It may involve no paint, but its simply arranged inlays propose an image even while they cling to an abbreviated cube: We see a schematic table and tablecloth, the latter “drawn” by lateral Formica triangles adjoining an upper square of the same color. Perhaps Artschwager’s new paintings find him still pulling ideas out of textiles and tables: In Pastoral IV, 1999, the flatter areas of country are checkered like a gingham tablecloth. But hints like this one are rare—more often whatever is under those drapes could be as small as a book or as big as a crate. There is nothing to tell us their scale.

It is pleasant, though, to think they might be crates, since among Artschwager’s significant innovations of the ’90s was a body of sculpture based on the handmade crates in which artworks are commonly shipped. These works of 1992–95 announce an indeterminacy of category, each one simultaneously implying an art object’s container and constituting an art object in itself. In this sense the crates rephrase Artschwager’s fascination with the painting’s frame, to which he has often called attention, here enlarging it, there lining it with mirror, or letting it bulk up into an independent work. (I am thinking of pieces such as Two Indentations of 1967, in which a heavy, beveled surround frames the depression where an image might be expected but is not found.) Blocky constructions of heavy, handsome two-by-fours and plywood sheets, the crates continue the picture frames’ fusion of art and its case, the nearest manifestation of its context or environment. In fact, they are a more radical version of that fusion, for a picture’s frame is at least designed to be seen, if only by default, while a crate is hidden away after use. The sculptures also suggest other earlier works by the artist, for the viewer inevitably tries to decipher their various shapes, making guesses at what might be inside them—and sometimes arriving at familiar Artschwager forms, such as a piano, perhaps, and, predictably, a table and chair.

Other recent Artschwager creations also put familiar themes through unexpected paces. One ’90s group, the “Splatter” works, describes what might happen if, oppressed by a surfeit of stuff in your apartment, you decided to dismember and flatten your fumiture and plaster it to the wall, but don’t try this at home—not unless you have Artschwager’s carpentry skills. Actually a direct precedent for these works, Untitled (Table) of 1962, shows those skills more cleanly: It seems to be a wooden table that has been butterflied like a leg of lamb, then wedged into the crook between wall and ceiling. Despite the intricate play of surfaces and angles, the object is immediately recognizable, and the wood is bare and neat. The ’90s examples, which fit not between wall and ceiling bur into the comer between two walls, are more abstract and more ungainly. The awkwardly flying limbs of these near-biomorphic shapes suggest a certain violence—as if the artist had somehow managed to hurl a desk at the wall, where it had splintered, spread, and stuck. Amalgams of three-dimensional media-Formica, aluminum, wood—the works are also brightly colored, their acrylic skin pushing them into Artschwager’s familiar, carefully engineered vagueness between painting and sculpture. The principle of Untitled (Table) was an idea that Artschwager had, then put aside for thirty years, but that particular vagueness-and the way he moves art out of its usual place (for sculpture, the floor; for painting, the wall, but not the corner)—are hallmarks of his thinking.

Other recent works are figures in rubberized hair, another material with a history in Artschwager’s oeuvre, this time going back to the “blps” of the late ’60s. The blp is a capsule-like device that Artschwager scattered through the landscape, indoors and out, sometimes painting the shape on the wall, sometimes affixing it as a wooden relief, and sometimes producing it in hair. “I wanted something our of focus,” the artist told me. “The blps, as black spots, are in-focus, or hard-edge; so l wanted something out-of-focus, but having the out-of-focus quality in the material itself. Then I picked that up again. I had a thought that went like this: Make a silhouette, but fill the inside, which is nominally empty, with something—something that should be as nothing as black, but something.” The nothing that is something has a certain crawly creepiness. Seeing it back in the ’60s on a blp, one might have interpreted its fuzzy surface as a quizzical riposte to the machined and finished planes of Minimal art; today, Artschwager picks up on the association of soft- or blur-edged forms with movement and speed and sets most of his figures falling, diving, or running. This literal, frozen version of a convention of vision produces a typical Artschwager conceit.

Again, I see a deadpan, poker-faced comedy in many of these works, but when I ask Artschwager about that quality, I am gently rebuked: “Humor has roots in disorder,” he replies. “I don’t know what to do with it. If a work makes you laugh, I don’t mind that, but I’ve been talking about calculation, I’ve been talking about strategy, and I wouldn’t know what to say about humor.” What Artschwager’s calculation and strategy seem to target is the point where the viewer is torn between contrary interpretations—or, rather, where the viewer must let contrary interpretations coexist. Of his New Mexico landscapes-cum-still lifes, for example, Artschwager argues:

The tablecloth and the landscape: they’re both at work, and you don’t worry about which they are. . . . You have the still life, the close-up, and you have boundless distance—and you can hit both of those. One tends toward putting it in the same space you’re in, the other is the window onto the landscape. I load it up with readings you can have. . . . If you’re making art, you don’t have to edit out either the one or the other.

If we didn’t have language, we wouldn’t even have that as an issue. Everything would come streaming in, we would take in everything, and only make a choice if it were a matter of life or death, starving or eating, those places where language first made itself happen. Language is a limiter, language is abridgment. It makes the event fit the vehicle, the vehicle being language. But if you can relax about the language and go straight to the art, you have a better chance of getting it.

It is of course a truism that visual art is a visual experience, and cannot be reproduced in verbal language—that no attempt to describe art can be complete. I doubt that Jackson Pollock would have found anything to disagree with in Artschwager’s resistance to language. He might have had trouble, though, with the younger artist’s canny ironies—with the way that resistance plays out. Artschwager was in New York during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism but did not join in; his approach to the art object is fundamentally phenomenological (“I began thinking about phenomenology in 1962,” he told me, neatly pulling the rug out from under many younger artists), always focusing on the structures of perception, and on the notions and intentions at play in the process of perceiving. Whether immediately or with a little untangling, you can usually relate his works to this basic interest, which must complicate your reactions as you experience them.

Unraveling the functioning of a general principle, however, doesn’t always tell you so much about a specific artwork—about its wit, its intelligent eccentricity, its underlying spirit. Look, for example, at White Cherokee (Pastoral I), 1991–98, a work on Celotex that predates the New Mexico paintings and seems to presage them. At night, a Jeep Cherokee moves through trees and scrub. The upper two-thirds of the picture are a wild cloudscape. Looking at the image, I think of a line from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts: “Security is sleeping in the backseat of the car.” Outside, a broad country, empty and darkling; inside, peace and steady advance. But then there is no inside, for Artschwager’s truck is a featureless cutout of white Formica inset into the surface of the Celotex. Similarly, just as, in his old furniture pieces, Artschwager might show the vacancy under a table with a piece of black-veneered ply, here he insets another Formica cutout, this one a long and narrow yellow triangle, to show the beam of the headlights. What could be more practical? Yet the use of Formica tiles to indicate both solid body and bodiless light involves a certain pictorial slyness. Meanwhile the trees curling wispily upward might remind you of van Gogh’s cypresses, and the spiraling coils of the clouds echo the swirls in the surface of the Celotex. These clouds don’t quite have mirror symmetry but do divide into two roughly equal, similarly constructed parts; they are also broken by another pair of Formica insets, these a flat blue, and reading simultaneously as solid medium and infinite distance. It is a picture of mystery and artifice, of dry humor and unexpected warmth. As Artschwager said this spring, “I’m making romantic landscapes right now. There’s zero irony. If I had any kind of epiphany, it’s that everything matters. That’s a romantic idea.”

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1. See, for example, Ingrid Schaffner, “Archipelago Bop,” in Richard Artschwager: Archipelago (Frankfurt am Main: Portikus, 1993), p. 25.

2. See Richard Armstrong, Richard Artschwager (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1988), p. 24.