New York

Richard Artschwager

Julie Saul Gallery

In Richard Artschwager’s photographs, ordinary materials become psychotic: the grim, intricate surfaces of pseudo-organic substances such as wood-grain Formica or of such natural materials as malachite appear peculiarly unstable. In these images, things seem about to dissolve, even as they maintain their precision: they are subject to invasive inspection, though kept at a safe, “fictional” distance. The photographer can be thought of not simply as a master of ironic illusions, but as a kind of surgeon, particularly when, like Artschwager, he works not only in black and white but in seemingly infinite gradations of gray, suggesting a nuanced yet cold-blooded observation.

The photograph, then, is the ideal instrument for conveying modernity’s generic model of vision: the simultaneous assertion of perceptual veracity and suggestion that the image in question is slippery, even unreal. That Artschwager favored photography from the beginning of his career is evident in the eight seemingly innocuous snapshots he took while an American soldier at the end of World War II. In these photographs, everyday things become strange, even eerie. Similarly, Artschwager’s famous abstract blips—deceptively simple lozenges emblematic of the shutter’s click, which, when inserted into any environment, call attention to its irksome distinctiveness, even as they maintain its banality—appear in many of the photographs (of California bus shelters, a bunker in Hamburg, a Dutch park, the facades of New York museums), and even as independent abstract constructions. But it is in the photographs and photo-paintings of texturally rich, ordinary objects that appearances become most uncanny, while remaining militantly commonplace: a rocket becomes an explosive erection; an ornate chair, an intimidating personage; an office, a Piranesian prison. Artschwager’s devious approach, simultaneously deadpan and psychically charged, brings out the terror of the quotidian.

In this unprecedented exhibition of his photographs, Artschwager, obsessed with objects, and above all their “skins,” discloses the way of seeing that makes him a visionary. He has described his images as “photo-objects,” as though to suggest they are doubly objective, yet he uses photography to give what he depicts subjective weight. Many of these photographs are of chairs; these would seem to be conceptual works except that, unlike those of Joseph Kosuth to which they are a kind of response, his chairs have distinct personalities. The image of a chair made in Mexico is particularly telling—for its history as well as its appearance. After shooting it from various angles, Artschwager lost the negatives, and rephotographed the photographs intending to wrap them around another chair in a technological version of the return of the repressed, but this project was never completed. It is in Chair/Chair, 1987–90, that the repressed erupts with full psychological force. As Artschwager acknowledges, the piece alludes to his father, an amateur photographer: the “model” was “a chair that we had lying around the house, but it’s gone, busted. All I have is a snapshot out of my father’s endless collection of endless snapshots.” The chair is clearly Artschwager’s madeleine. In this stocktaking, nostalgic exhibition the artist takes a hard if also sentimental look at his own development, adding his own endless collection of snapshots to that of his father. This exhibition was, literally, a memento mori, as well as an act of reparation. Artschwager’s works have been thought of as ingeniously destructive, but in fact they make good the object, however obliquely.

Donald Kuspit