Los Angeles

“Artschwager: His Peers And Persuasion, 1963–1988”

Daniel Weinberg Gallery

Until recently, Richard Artschwager’s work had always been considered an anomaly at the margins of late Modernist practice. Although tied variously to Dada, Surrealism, Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, and long considered seminal in exploring the blurred significations of painting/sculpture, sculpture/furniture, and object/image, the almost fetishistic banality of much of Artschwager’s output makes it extremely difficult to categorize. While his frequent use of Formica, celotex, and media-generated imagery points to a simulationist esthetic critical of Modernism’s innately self-reflexive “artfulness,” Artschwager’s nonutilitarian works are nonetheless unique, handmade objects, generating an often hermetic aura that is as seductive as it is estranging.

In the wake of the renewed interest in Artschwager’s work following his recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum, a contextual survey of his peers and influence was both timely and long overdue. Unfortunately, instead of a narrowly focused exhibition tracing Artschwager’s deadpan deconstruction of everyday fabrication, this exhibition offered an uncritical, all-inclusive approach to the artist that seemed to have more to do with artist-gallery affiliation (i.e., the ready availability of works) than rigorous curatorial evaluation.

The section of the show devoted to Artschwager’s peers was the least muddled, largely because it opted to explore an undefined but shared “zeitgeist” rather than a specific conceptual unity. Malcolm Morley’s grisaille battleship painting, H.M.S. Hood (Foe), 1965, and Chuck Close’s five-part color-separation portrait, John, Progression, 1983, were both linked to Artschwager’s celotex paintings by their use of grid structures and mechanical sources as fragmentation devices that mediated between the painting and its ostensible subject. Anticipating much of the conceptual experimentation of the late ’60s and early ’70s, the works were presented less as autonomous objects than as frames for a series of textual fragments.

Whereas Joe Goode’s disembodied stairway to nowhere, Untitled, 1971, and John Torreano’s jewel-encrusted Green Drops, 1983, echoed the architectural ambiguities of Artschwager’s nonfunctional Formica “furniture,” the show’s attempt to project such influences onto the anticommodity commodities of Tony Tasset, Haim Steinbach, and Jeff Koons was more problematic. It is far more valid, for example, to read the appropriated readymade strategies of Koons’ Plexiglas-boxed carpet cleaners and Steinbach’s shelves of consumer durables along the Dada-Pop axis of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol (theoretically processed through Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord) than to ascribe the work even indirectly to Artschwager’s more production-oriented concerns. Similarly, Sherrie Levine’s knot paintings and Allan McCollum’s surrogates have more to do with the direct questioning of originality (theoretically derived from Roland Barthes) and the proliferation of serial production than do Artschwager’s works, which display a more ambivalently phenomenological approach to simulated objectness.

Such catchall curating-by-association serves little purpose other than to obfuscate the connections that actually do exist between Artschwager and his followers. Certainly Robert Gober’s non-functional sinks and Nancy Dwyer’s Formica word/objects can be traced directly to Artschwager’s (unopenable) door, but to omit relevant artists such as Ti Shan Hsu in favor of the Romantic nostalgia of Annette Lemieux is not only misguided but directly antithetical to Artschwager’s confounding vision.

Colin Gardner