Richard Artschwager

Sprüth Magers

Since the 1960s, Richard Artschwager has been reconstructing objects associated with utility and domestic life—furniture, pictures, and other household items—but with deformations verging on the grotesque. Even purely semantic abstractions like punctuation marks are inserted into the elastic space of his art. At the same time, he tells us, this process is meant to “celebrate” the everyday object in its nonfunctionality. Artschwager worked as a cabinetmaker with his own workshop in the ’50s before committing to art almost a decade later—with work clearly influenced by his professional experience in the intervening years. He describes his approach as an aesthetic liberation via the radical transformation of utility: “I’m making objects for nonuse. . . . By killing off the use part, nonuse aspects are allowed living space, breathing space.”

Fittingly, the objects on display in Artschwager’s recent exhibition in Berlin looked so familiar it was disorienting—items so everyday that they took on an abstract, pictorial quality. The show was at the same time a retrospective and a premiere: Among the works included were new sculptures constructed according to plans from Artschwager’s early sketchbooks from the ’60s. In a small anteroom, copies of the sketchbook pages were displayed along with a single painting, Landscape with Macadam, 2007—or rather, a picture of a painting, stylized to the point where it can be viewed as an object. The work’s only truly painterly aspect is, ironically, the imitation wood of the picture frame. Even art, then, is interpreted as an object for daily use and paraphrased in terms of the artificial. The sculptures in the main room further developed this principle of mimicry: The rather austere arrangement was composed of various chairs (including an armchair ominously titled Seat of Judgment, 2008) as well as a table, a piano, and two vitrines. Works from the “Splatter Chair” series, 1992–2008, hung in three corners of the room, far above eye level. Finally, near the back wall of the exhibition space, three brushy plastic three-dimensional exclamation marks (each titled Exclamation Point [Chartreuse], 2008) hovered as if floating there, strikingly at odds with the rest of the room, their neon color as well as their subject matter making them a visual antithesis that underscored the ensemble.

Artschwager’s deformation of the object in the direction of the image has much to do with compressing materiality into a plane. Take Table/Table, 2008, a simple cube depicting an abstracted table with four legs and a pink tablecloth whose corners hang down over the sides. All surface, the piece’s elements are distinguished only by the varying colors of the materials. The table legs, for example, are represented by wood grain, the “empty space” beneath the table depicted in green—a three-dimensional object as a flat, abstract composition. And Artschwager performs this reductionist distortion of the object with the material most characteristic of his oeuvre: Formica. This substance is virtually inscribed with imitation, conventionally used to copy any number of different materials with its smooth, adaptable surface. Artschwager blends picture, sculpture, and materiality to arrive at a grandiose minimalism of faked surfaces—and uses his art to celebrate the beauty of the out-and-out artificial.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.