Richard Artschwager

Walter Kelly Gallery

Richard Artschwager’s celotexboard paintings, done since 1964, are views of home interiors drawn in charcoal that is allowed to seep through two tones of white acrylic. Up close, they are mystical and fuzzy, taking on the texture of the grainy board. From far away, they focus into mathematically precise patterns—a recap of Seurat. In his 1966–1967 diptychs and triptychs, a photo is fragmented, the images transferred to board sections and then reassembled optically, if not physically, by a continuous textural treatment. A section of marbleized formica interrupts these image fragments. It is photography, reborn as pictorial form, dimly anticipating photo-Realism.

Then, in 1967, he concocted little sculptures to give a room’s walls, corners, and fixtures a new function for art. And in 1970, when Soho and LA art students spray-painted fences, hydrants, viaducts, and stoplights with Artschwager’s symbolic oval “blps,” he became a Zorro whose identity grew each time his symbol appeared. Finally, in 1975 he exhibited 40 ink-drawing varieties on the theme of window, basket, mirror, table, rug, and door, making abstract symbols of the object-parts.

Now, Artschwager strikes again. “Ten Years of the Black Spot,” a kind of mini “blp” retrospective, brings us face-to-face with the flat wooden and spray-painted “blps,” the hanging “blp” capsules, and the related forms: brush, formica corner-wedge, and yes-and-no bowling balls. He always has been interested in viewer involvement, and here, as in Minimal art, the exhibition arrangement heartily demands viewer kinesthetics. All the different “blp” shapes lead one’s eye around the gallery space, which becomes a kind of 3-D Cubist collage. “Surface plane” is the hanging “blp” capsule at gallery center. “Volumetric depth” and “surface protrusions” are the shapes on the walls, on the floor, and in the air. All are “framed” by the entry door, which is stenciled with the biggest “blp.” One can stand outside and peer through this “frame” to see the whole exhibition. Or, standing in “volumetric depth,” one can observe that the hanging “surface plane” completely fills the stenciled “blp” on the door. In another notable relationship, an invisible line seems to connect an upper right-wall “blp,” the “surface plane,” and three lower left-wall “blps.” And one of the latter three is displaced as if hit, perhaps by the swinging “surface plane.” Clearly, Artschwager’s formal logic breeds whimsey. The brush, a round prickly shape, may be experienced as a shadow and a textural restatement of the bowling balls. The nonreflective elements press against the walls, while the moveable, high-gloss elements are on the floor. One might even accidentally trip over a “no” bowling ball and alter the composition by bringing the banged-into brush nearer the “surface plane.” Formalist paintings were never so much fun.

It might be said that Artschwager derives formulas from other art forms and presents them as his art, or as the reality. A Cubist violin may be elucidated by volumetric plane and surface depth, a newly revealed essence on a two-dimensional canvas; but Artschwager deduces the planes and depths, and his particular revelation is a physical room—a neat pun on the Cubist drive to create a real thing. Then too, the Minimalists strove to engender an essential immediacy, to encourage an instant, all-at-once perception with association-free, unitary shapes. Shapes were constant or knowable, the environment variable. But Artschwager’s environment is unitary, the shapes variable. His earlier little sculptures started as simple, Minimal forms, but became identifiable, over time, with his personality. Now he uses its variability to engender all-at-once perception of the association-purged, geometric gallery space. Artschwager does more than just stand and catch his breath. What makes his work appealing is the bizarre imagination he inserts into conventions.

––C. L. Morrison