New York

View of “Richard Artschwager!,” 2012–13. Background: Table (Somewhat), 2007. Foreground: Exclamation Point (Chartreuse), 2008. Photo: Bill Orcutt.

View of “Richard Artschwager!,” 2012–13. Background: Table (Somewhat), 2007. Foreground: Exclamation Point (Chartreuse), 2008. Photo: Bill Orcutt.

Richard Artschwager

Whitney Museum of American Art

View of “Richard Artschwager!,” 2012–13. Background: Table (Somewhat), 2007. Foreground: Exclamation Point (Chartreuse), 2008. Photo: Bill Orcutt.

FITTINGLY, PERHAPS, for someone who enjoyed his first solo exhibition in 1965 at the age of forty-two, Richard Artschwager often played the roles of both wise guy and wise man in relation to his peers. Though commonly pigeonholed as an odd, idiosyncratic character in post-1960s art histories, Artschwager was, in fact, an adept insider and a wry interlocutor, appearing, for example, in Donald Judd’s landmark essay “Specific Objects” and Kynaston McShine’s watershed exhibition “Primary Structures.” What came across in his recent retrospective, “Richard Artschwager!,” curated by Jennifer Gross, however, was not only his critical—and often comical—position with respect to the mainstream currents of his time, but the way he consistently pictured these developments in relation to a wider field of design, engaging questions about the cultural role of objects not always addressed by his contemporaries. While over the years his own practice drifted away from his early investigation of the aesthetics of everyday objects toward the realm of Symbolist rumination, Artschwager’s commitment to the social life of things remained the stubborn kernel of his practice, and helps explain his continued relevance for artistic practice today.

After a first career as a furniture maker and craftsman, Artschwager transferred his energies full-time to artmaking in the early ’60s. He made the transition official by nailing together a collection of wooden scraps originally destined for tables and chairs and hanging it from the ceiling of his studio. The resulting mass, Portrait Zero, 1961, which is the earliest sculpture in the show, functions as an effigy-cum-piñata in honor of his old vocation. Description of Table, 1964, which rests nearby in this first (and terrific) gallery, also recalls the artist’s earlier profession, albeit in a different way. If Portrait Zero makes a literal and material reference to the hard core of design while utterly rejecting both its function and finish, Description dives headfirst into the realm of appearances. Comprising a single cube clad with “wooden” Formica legs and white Formica tablecloth, the sculpture looks like a table but isn’t; though one could technically rest a cup on it, the work’s solid sides frustrate use, offering no space for a seated subject’s legs. Like Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures, Artschwager’s hard objects render commodities unusable, but rather than present them as grotesque, bodily, and pornographic, Artschwager pictures them as generic and geometric, if not photographic. Sharing something with Dan Graham’s photo-essay Homes for America, which plunged Minimalism into a domestic world of everyday adornment, Description, too, uncovers the ornament latent in Minimalism, revealing surprising affinities between the cultures of decoration and standardization and suggesting that Minimalism’s sleek surfaces would soon instate a new decorative regime of their own.

Though often referred to as a sculptor, Artschwager made paintings since the beginning of his career. For him, each medium inverted the other. Where his sculptures are relentlessly flat, his paintings are unfailingly material. Typically gray like newsprint and made of acrylic on Celotex, Artschwager’s early tableaux, like much other Pop art of the time, revolve around photographic subjects. Crossing a generic material with a generic image—an experiment not so different from the one carried out in Description—such works offer a mordant banality. The Celotex renders the paintings strange, delivering surfaces crackling with television-like static, and, in certain cases, giving an almost charred appearance. In contrast to the work of peers like Richter or Warhol, however, Artschwager’s subjects often seem beside the point, even if they are at times explicitly political (see, for example, his 2002 rendering of George W. Bush). Indeed, the grandiose frames frequently bordering these works make clear that a painting for Artschwager ultimately functioned more as a stand-in for painting at large than as a distinctive work in itself. Fashioned out of materials such as shiny metal or wood with a particularly lurid grain, Artschwager’s frames remind the viewer that he consistently approached his art from a material, rather than pictorial, perspective. His work conveys the tension between material designs and immaterial signs, a fact often sublimated in our world of effortlessly circulating images.

If one of Artschwager’s fundamental contributions was thus to play with material, texture, and surface in ways that probed both the nature of function and the workings of representation, today these aspects of his practice appear most insightful when brought to bear on matters of social interaction. Frequently raising the specter of participation with his tables, pictures, and chairs, Artschwager’s work nevertheless prohibits such activity. His horrendous Formica and horsehair-slatted Double Dinner, 1988, is a case in point. No couple would ever want to sit here; the work’s contrasting textures and tight quarters rub us the wrong way. If many artists practicing in the ’60s sought to work in the gap between art and life, and many since have cleverly blended—if not problematically collapsed—the two, Artschwager, in his droll way, always went to great lengths to mind that gap by asking questions about the real and its representation. In 2007 he returned to these questions in his lime-green and baby-blue Table (Somewhat), which uses an ostentatiously friendly color scheme to update Description for a moment after relational aesthetics. If Donald Judd’s design philosophy of clean lines and simple surfaces eventually melded seamlessly into our contemporary environment, Artschwager’s “tasteful” vernacular still sticks out like a sore thumb (or, to invoke one of the artist’s better titles, a Key Member), reminding us of his talent for bringing to the surface everything that lurks beneath.

Travels to the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, June 16–Sept. 1.

Richard Artschwager passed away on February 9, just as this issue was going to press.

Alex Kitnick is an art historian currently living in Los Angeles.