New York

Richard Artschwager

Whitney Museum of American Art; Leo Castelli

In 1912, for the first time in modern painting, an artist simulated the textures of veined marble and wood grain. The artist was Georges Braque, who had been trained as a painter-decorator. Ever since, artists of many persuasions have used this “crafty” method of generating perceptual and conceptual paradox. Richard Artschwager, who was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker and produced furniture for a living in the ’50s, has also made simulated marble and woodgrain works, thus broadly locating himself in the Cubist tradition. Artschwager, however, has carried the method to a fresh extreme, generating a new absurdist art.

What in Braque was a way of contriving a material illusion, in Artschwager is a case of applied abstraction. He uses Formica and Celotex to subvert the reality they articulate and to disable it beyond repair. Increasingly today, the world seems to be experienced more through the simulation of reality than through the direct perception of reality itself. Artschwager creates an effect of unintelligibility and uncanniness by making abstractions that capture the sense of modern man’s withdrawal from the objective world, working at it with great vehemence through (as Richard Armstrong says in the catalogue for the exhibition at the Whitney) his pursuit of illegibility and dysfunctionality. Especially in the early works, such as Handle and Triptych, both 1962, and in his more recent works, he uses abstraction as an instrument of nullification and rebellion, emptying the object of its usefulness and emptying the art of its artfulness. Artschwager’s nihilism is thus not only directed at the world of useful objects (tables, chairs, pianos, mirrors, doors, altars, a turnstile, a walker, etc.), as Armstrong says, but against art. This is suggested by Artschwager’s destruction of the boundary between painting and sculpture, and by such mocking works as Expression/Impression II, 1964/87 (which also mocks Minimalism, to which many of Artschwager’s works bear an ironic resemblance). Artschwager has said that he became fascinated with Formica because “it looked as if wood had passed through it, as if the thing only half existed. . . . There was no color at all, and it was very hard and shiny, so that it was a picture of a piece of wood.” For Artschwager, the pictorial look of a thing and its ironic materiality cancel each other out, leaving the “work of art” in an exalted limbo of its own narcissistic making.

Perhaps the obliterating power of Artschwager’s texture is most apparent in his picturing of realistic American subject matter, memorable for its banality. Although the ostensible subjects of these works vary—from faces and figures to renderings of intimate interiors, public monuments, and suburban houses—Artschwager’s texture makes all of them grim and vacuous. It is not always clear whether he is voiding them by applying the texture to them as an external pressure, or using the texture to articulate their inner emptiness, but the same effect of meaninglessness results.

Artschwager’s sculptural objects make explicit another, if not unrelated, general quality of his works: their strong fetish character. The fetish, says psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, is “anal and shiny,” the target of “omnipotent control”—characteristics that apply particularly to the furniture pieces of the ’60s. Artschwager brings out this “perverse core” of art, as Chasseguet-Smirgel calls it—art as ideal excrement, summarizing all that has been lost in the process of living. This has become more apparent in his recent works, such as Flayed Tables, 1984–85, and all the “Dinner” paintings of the mid ’80s. Artschwager is one of that exalted minority of artists who remind us that genuine art consists of the utopian leavings of both life already lived and traditional conceptions of art.

Donald Kuspit