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Friday, July 29, 2016

Richard Artschwager

A wooden book finished in Formica...a news photo painted on a Celotex ceiling it real art or fraudulent art?
One of the hardest concepts to convey in art is the concept of conceptual art. Landscapes are easy to understand. Still-lifes sometimes have embedded within them all manner of hidden meanings, but usually they're more laden with nostalgia than profundity. Portraits often deal with complex and profound character traits far beyond the subject's mere likeness...but that's rare. Even Abstract Expressionism has a concrete aesthetic foundation upon which to build an understanding of the basic art elements from which it is conceived. Conceptual art, on the other hand, frequently stretches the very definition of art nearly to the breaking point...sometimes even beyond. Is the artist using some readymade object in making a valid point, or merely deceiving the viewer into accepting virtually anything as art, provided it is isolated from its natural environment and perhaps labeled with some dubious distinction and title. Very often gallery and museum space devoted to conceptual art appears more as a sophisticated hoax than high art. He didn't start out with this in mind, but the American illustrator, painter, and sculptor, Richard Artschwager, became one of the earliest and best conceptual artists.
The head and hands behind a career of more than fifty years.
When Richard Artschwager was born in 1923, conceptual art was barely more than a figment of Marcel Duchamp's fertile imagination. His Fountain from the wall of a men's room had made for some interesting intellectual calisthenics among the jurying artists of the famed 1913 Armory Show in New York City, but it had, after all, been rejected, ending up ignominiously discarded in a back alley. Even the avant garde of the high-flown, New York art world were not ready for conceptual art, especially that involving porcelain plumbing fixtures. Even by 1941, as this son of German-born immigrants entered Cornell University to study chemistry and mathematics, cutting edge art was barely daring to explore paint splattering and Cubist constructions so rarified the artists often couldn't come up with conventional titles, finding themselves merely numbering their works instead. Art was centered on feelings rather than ideas.

Hospital Ward, Richard Artschwager, acrylics on Celotex panel.
World War II didn't change much in that regard except to stir the pot, sending Artschwager off to Germany and exposure to the remnants of German Expressionism, while bringing others of their ilk scurrying to the United States in search personal safety and the presumably open-minded freedom to explore the unknown frontiers of the ultimate "art for art's sake" as seen in the New York School. Back in the U.S. by 1948, Richard Artschwager decided to chuck his hard-earned Bachelor of Science degree in physics to indulge his first loves--his new wife, an even newer daughter, and art. The closest he could come to satisfying all three was to work as a New York City baby photographer. Even that he was often forced to put aside to earn a living as a bank teller and furniture salesman.

An altar styled after a packing
By 1956 however, Artschwager had turned his creative impulses toward the design and manu-factured of simple, practical, mod-ern furniture. His work as a furniture maker was later to leave its mark on the art he would create. In 1960 Artschwager scor-ed a commission from the Catholic Church to design and build portable altars for ships (left), which inspired him to start producing small wall objects made of wood and Formica. Moreover he was quite good at this new art form and surprisingly successful until 1958, when tra-gedy struck. A fire destroyed his entire studio and all its contents. Undeterred, Artschwager took out a large loan to restart his busi-ness.

Cradle, 1967, Richard Artschwager
Designing and building furniture set Artschwager thinking about furniture, not as utilitarian furnishings but conceptually--thinking about their shapes, their purposes, their sculptural elements. By the 1960s, Artschwager was becoming a nascent conceptual artist at a time when Abstract Expressionism and even Modern Art in general were starting to run their course. Pop lay on the horizon; action painting and the emotional upheavals which drove it were starting to become tiresome even as Minimalism pointed the way to the nihilism marking the death of nearly a century of Modernism. Artschwager slowly began to move away from producing art for art's sake but to using art conceptually to explore ideas and ideals.

Formica over wood. Comfort means nothing. Only form
and conceptual function governed Artschwager's
chairs--sculpture for the eyes.
In 1961, Artschwager discovered Celotex, a rough-textured fiberboard used on ceilings as acoustic paneling. Artschwager's paintings on Celotex during 1960s demonstrate essentially opposite characters. His paintings depict images of the environment, carefully framed with Formica. He met gallerist Leo Castelli, who liked his work and exhibited it in group exhibitions during 1964. Artschwager often used Formica that looked like burl wood, a deformity in the grain caused by trees under stress. As applied to modern geometric forms, Artschwager made sculptures that have the strange sense of being ordinary objects while simultaneously being pictures of objects. As a support for paintings focusing on architectural subjects culled from photos in newspapers, magazines, and books, Artschwager used Celotex panels rather than canvas. Its random pattern of surface texture captures little puddles of thinned acrylic paint, blurring any image painted on it. The Celotex makes painted images as fuzzy as a bad TV picture. The bulky silver frame gives the dissolving scene some heft, but something also seems askew. It takes a moment to realize that the composition's perspective is out of whack. Artschwager uses these properties to his advantage as seen in Destruction III and Destruction IV (below) based on the explosive demolition photos of the Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City.

A scene of destruction painted on a building construction
material called Celotex.
Much of Artschwager's sculpture produced in the 1960s and after relates to the then prevailing Minimalism as the artist viewed his Formica surfaced furniture as a distillation, as seen in his Table with Pink Tablecloth (below), which appears to reflect his similar treatment of chairs, pianos, clocks, doors, and other domestic items. And finally, in more recent years, Artschwager has tended to dispense with various constructed pieces in favor of installations starting with his 1976 Exit--Don't Fight City Hall (bottom) which he set up in a ground floor hallway of New York's Museum of Modern Art. By painting the word "exit" on each of five hanging lights, Artschwager demonstrated that conceptual art does not always demand the sterile environment of white-on-white gallery space to be effective. Following many honors, exhibitions, and retrospectives, Richard Artschwager died in February, 2013, after a brief illness. He was eighty-nine.

Table with Pink Tablecloth, 1964, Richard Artschwager.
Exit, Don't Fight City Hall, Richard Artschwager

George W. Bush, Artschwager's
Celotex President.


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