New York

Richard Artschwager

Leo Castelli Gallery

Richard Artschwager has been an improper Minimalist, a warm Minimalist, which by definition is a contradiction in terms. His continuous reference to the object (furniture), his attention to materials and texture (Formica), and the possibility his work articulates for correlations and interrelations between these two concerns set him apart from his colleagues as far back as the ’70s. Then, his Duchampian irony imbued his work with warmth, as did his refusal to moralize and his benevolent skepticism, which at times was transformed into an amused and amusing sarcasm. Artschwager’s Minimalism could not be taken as credo because the work’s underlying nature is subversive—not only in terms of art conventions and the work of other leading artists (accepted codes, in other words), but also in terms of the work itself. His geometries are excessive, yet the purist absoluteness of the forms, typical of orthodox Minimalism, is less apparent in the wake of their similarity to objects of use (a table, a chair). For Artschwager the tautology “a parallelepiped is a parallelepiped” no longer makes sense, so closely does one of his parallelepipeds resemble a table, and so closely do its colors and materials recall the International style.

This constant, corrosive ambiguity sets a continuous trap for attempts at judgment. Artschwager has created more doubts than certainties, and the one reward for those who have appreciated his subtlety has been the registration of the uncertainty, the instability, and the fluidity and historical and existential artificiality that characterize his art. The works heavy definition, their lines, colors, and materials, all define them as objects while reciprocally removing any possibility of escape into either the mystical universe of form (a critique of minimalist Platonism) or the aerial sphere of ideas or concepts (a critique of post-Minimal scholasticism). In general, Artschwager’s art has made up an artificial universe of Formica, a decor pretending to be a symbol or a symbolic system. Specifically, it has constituted a continuous negation, a laical dissent. Art is what it is, but it is also what it is not—a decoy for desire, a trap for the intellect.

Nearly 20 years separate the objects in the recent show from Artschwager’s early work. He has maintained his anticonventional tone—“Conventionality in art resides in the convention of art,” he wrote in 1967—but meanwhile his work has become more seductive and more polemical. It is seductive in spite of itself, for the passing years and the changing of fashions and styles have made possible a more direct approach to his work than was available in the ’60s. Terms of absolute reference no longer hold, and models of meaning that were once disquietingly ambiguous are now typical of artistic production. We have become accustomed to the coexistence within a single artwork of a duality between affirmation and negation, accustomed to the intrusion of the artificial as a stimulus rather than an obstacle to an increasingly sophisticated enjoyment. But the work is seductive nonetheless. Stemming as it does from a time other than the current moment, Artschwager’s art maintains a disenchanted faith in form, in the dimension and depth that is the original foundation of form: form as appearance, rooted in a complex, multiplanar reality. This is what distinguishes his objects from other polished surfaces, and from the superficial veneer—brilliant, subtle, hard, yet fragile—that characterizes so much current art.

Since the beginning of the ’80s Artschwager’s work has been gloriously positive and full of meaning. This fullness is polemical in terms of his affirmation of density and depth, and in terms of Western traditions, in which he participates with complete awareness—perspective, functionalism, the abstract purity of geometry and of rationalism. Irony is transformed into excited consciousness. This affirmation, high-minded but not haughty, noble but not detached, is the greatest homage that Artschwager renders to what he has called the “Living Surrogate,” and to us, his contemporaries with whom he shares his work. And long may it be so.

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.