New York

Richard Artschwager

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

I have admired Richard Artschwager’s work for a long time. A few years ago I wrote an extensive piece on his drawings, so my admiration is not something I’ve kept to myself. Yet this exhibition, which focused on a number of his well-known early pieces, bothered me deeply. There was something all too cunning about the show’s timing and focus, and something disturbing about the slick, airless, and textless catalogue. The only point it documented was in which major collections the strongest pieces now resided.

The point of this exhibition was not simply to show us examples of Artschwager’s early work, but to suggest that they anticipate the neo-geo style, and such artists as Meyer Vaisman and Jeff Koons. By stressing Artschwager’s pivotal influence and historical importance, the show validated both his and the younger artists’ work. The subtext of this validation being: if you’re not useful to someone else, how can you possibly be making art of any lasting value?

How lucky that we, who have such short memories or no memory at all, merely had to connect the dotted lines of this fictive family tree in order to be enlightened. The sculptures selected for this exhibition were made between 1962 and 1968 (the year Artschwager switched from Formica to rubberized hair). By concentrating on a small part of what the artist has done during the last 25 years, as well as encouraging a reading of “stylistic” and “intellectual” affinities, the exhibition fostered a deliberately narrow view of his accomplishment and use of materials. I remember when critics were accused of sticking artists in stylistic ghettoes—lyric abstraction, say, or Color Field. Now galleries do the job for us. This year the rage is for genealogical proof and historical continuity In order to be successful, young artists have to prove they are somebody’s heir.

About the affinities, I will say this: Artschwager’s work is far more supple, resonant, witty, elusive, intelligent, and formally tough than his descendants’. In the sculptures selected for this exhibition, Artschwager repeatedly finds ways to impact imaginatively many diverse possibilities within the sleek confines of the Formica’s shiny surfaces. In Chair/Chair, 1965, for example, the artist makes a sculpture of two “identical” chairs pressed back to back. He then denies their sameness by changing their colors, so that one is brown and yellow while the other is white and pinkish brown. He also uses color to define the negative space demarcated by the chair legs. Among other things, Chair/Chair is an austerely sensual bundle of pictorial contradictions, which not only turn formal problems and its attendant discourse inside out, but enlist the viewer’s aid in doing so.

In contrast to much art of that period and this, Artschwager’s work doesn’t simply illustrate an approved critical discourse. This is one of the reasons why, in the ’60s, he never received the attention lavished on his less venturesome contemporaries. Instead of fitting in, Artschwager’s highly provocative work was seen outside such mainstream currents as Minimalism, Pop art, and Conceptual art. Always unpredictable, in the mid ’70s he devoted much of his time to the then unfashionable medium of drawing. To contextualize him now (particularly in terms of a recent trend), to make him a forefather or kindly uncle, is to once again dilute the issues his work raises, sidestep their questions, and overlook their compelling, ironic, and mysterious presence.

John Yau