New York

Richard Artschwager

Castelli Gallery uptown

I was surprised to learn that Richard Artschwager had been making—in one form or another—acrylic on cellotex paintings of the kind he’s showing now since 1964. Surprising, because although over the last five or six years I’d seen his different sculpture and Conceptual work, I’d never realized he’d been painting as well all along. And unusual paintings they are, looking so much like drawings it’s hard to believe they’re painted. All are interiors or parts of interiors, some fairly large and most divided into sections. A curious feature is why the views are sliced into sections. For the slicing looks deliberately arbitrary. Interior (West), for example, is sliced horizontally across the middle; and Interior (Southeast) is progressively sliced into three with the largest slab at the top and the smallest at the bottom. Although this arbitrary—and sometimes serial—framing device is accented by the addition of a super glossy chrome frame around each section, it’s not so much this which is unusual as is the surface of each painting. All are painted on cellotex, an industrial material with a decorative textured surface, and it’s the paint on this surface making them look like charcoal drawings of great age. Cellotex with its repeat small circular whirl surface is, in any case, a funny mix of geometry and accident. The circular swirls go in lines across the surface with each swirl slightly raised like the frozen relief center of a miniature whirlpool. Artschwager uses this preformed and funky surface as a base for all the paintings. It’s instant texture. Whatever imagery’s on top is unavoidably and interestingly altered by the texture of the cellotex. It’s ironic because Artschwager, on the one hand, deliberately accepts a situation over which he has little control, and then he works with imagery over which he has a great deal of control. It’s a little like the idea of working on nonvirgin canvas as a dislocation device to defuse the ego of the painter. Artschwager adds a nonhumanist twist by turning to an industrial process for assistance.

Exactly how Artschwager makes each painting I don’t know. It looks like he rubs the paint into the surface in clearly defined areas, which may even be stenciled, as the seats look in Interior (West). The paint then sticks only to the raised surface of each swirl. Although all the interiors are rather opulent with decorative rugs, wide windows onto idyllic vistas, and candlesticks on the wall, this painting process anesthetizes them. In other words, it defuses them as particular interiors. They look a bit like a cross between the surface of Monet’s last Water Lilies and the imagery of middle-period Vuillard; even these references are denied by the way Artschwager divides up the painting, which is definitely post-Minimal.

I said I was surprised by how long he’d been doing these cellotex paintings, because I wanted to use Artschwager as another example of pluralism and thought these paintings were different from his other work. However, Artschwager is a pluralist anyway. He’s been in and at the edge of very different movements since 1962. He could fit happily into either a Pop, Minimalist, Conceptual, or straight painting bag. If he does have an obsession though it’s with surface, something which only came clear with this show. Whatever Artschwager’s done, from his untitled stained wooden frame of 1962 that predates Minimalism by years, the concern with surface is always there. Wittily alternating between abstract and figurative imagery, painting, and sculpture as well as mixes of these in no way detracts from this. Formica and cellotex he could claim his own. Surface, however, has not been an end in itself but a way of posing questions about the nature of objects.

A few years ago I saw one of Artschwager’s Blips stenciled on the wire grill of an elevator in Soho, and it strikes me now as a clue to Artschwager’s interest in the very particular kind of surface in the Interiors. At the time an open mesh grill seemed a strange place to spray. The Blip was stenciled with white spray onto black wires, giving an outlined pattern where each strand of wire was highlit by the paint, especially where it met the edge of the stencil. Although the context has changed, it’s the same kind of formal interest with the Interiors. The cellotex parallels the wire grill as a preformed surface, in that it only comes to life when its raised surfaces are marked. Artschwager has been remarkably consistent.

James Collins