View of “Richard Artschwager,” 2020. Photo: Erika Ede. © Richard Artschwager/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

View of “Richard Artschwager,” 2020. Photo: Erika Ede. © Richard Artschwager/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Richard Artschwager

Curated by the late, great Germano Celant, this ambitious retrospective of Richard Artschwager’s works occupied a single gallery of the Guggenheim Bilbao. The densely packed show, which was co-organized by the Guggenheim Bilbao and Italy’s Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, featured almost seventy pieces made between 1962 and 2013, the year of the artist’s death. Rather than provide a historical overview of Artschwager’s career, it proposed an immersion into his fundamental concerns—indeed, the visitor was besieged by them on all sides. Their only constant was the artist’s questioning, in various ways, of the dividing lines between art and everyday objects.

Historically, the art object is distinguished by its uselessness and sophistication. Though the idea of the work of art as an end in itself continues to operate today, formal perfection and the use of noble (that is, rare and durable) materials have been questioned since the time of the historical avant-gardes. But Artschwager’s use of vernacular and kitsch materials such as Formica and Celotex is more than a continuation of the broad trend of the desacralization of the work of art. Plato said that art is a double distancing: It is neither the idea nor the entity, but an appearance. (In his philosophy, simulacra and imitations get a bad rap.) One of Artschwager’s greatest contributions may well have been his refusal to take sides on the question of the status of the artwork, deciding, instead, to come at it from the flank. His work circulates through realms of intermediacy and ambiguity: Synthetic materials appear organic, sculptures look like furniture, pieces of vinyl can be mistaken for holes in the wall, and so on. “High” and “low” materials are deliberately mingled: A sophisticated material is covered with an ordinary one, or they are equated through juxtaposition. This confuses categorizations and creates a superposition of frames of reference. Think, for instance, of Pianofart, 2008 (Formica and wood); Head and Shoulders, 2008 (Formica on wood); or Exclamation Point, 2010 (plastic bristles and latex paint on mahogany). These anarchic games operate not only on a material level, but also on a semantic one. In this exhibition, doors that lead nowhere (Door }, 1983–84); Pop crucifixes (Cross III, 1986); and confession booths (Tower III, Confessional, 1980) as well as punctuation marks in shrill colors invaded the gallery, throwing viewers off and offering them a chance to rethink art’s hackneyed codes.

Celant’s curatorial design heeded Artschwager’s hybrid spirit. Rather than presenting the various typologies in self-contained groupings, it hopped back and forth from paintings to rubberized-hair works, from an unplayable grand piano to corner sculptures and strange pieces of furniture. Artschwager’s appealingly irreverent aesthetic made for a delightful show that the visitor could explore with curiosity and astonishment. Unfortunately, that sensation was undermined by all the lines on the floor keeping viewers at a distance from the works, turning what could have been a relaxed visit into an orthopedic exercise.

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.