Richard Artschwager

American Sculptor, Painter, and Draughtman

Born: December 26, 1923
Washington D.C.
Died: February 9, 2013
Albany, New York
My most important quality or property is curiosity. And that had its beginning in what I was going to do with my life.
Richard Artschwager

Summary of Richard Artschwager

Artschwager was a highly regarded artist whose idiosyncratic presence was a feature of the contemporary American art scene for some fifty years. Though difficult to tie-down to one specific movement, his work, which includes sculpture, site-specific installation, painting and drawing, has referenced Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptualism (very often all at once). Artschwager's goal was to confound categories and he excelled in causing pictorial and textual confusion through a series of remarkable stylistic hybrids. He transformed the mundane into objects and images that became both familiar and alien.


The Life of Richard Artschwager

Artschwager was an artist connected with his audience, "There isn't any art until some creature sees and consumes it", he stated, and even then it can only claim to be art if the viewer "has a reaction" towards it.

Progression of Art


Table with Pink Tablecloth

In this curious hybrid object, Artschwager creates an unusual tension between reality and abstraction. Although the title describes this work as a "table with pink tablecloth" it is too low and too solid to push a chair under. Slick panels of Formica applied to its surface suggest a speckled pink tablecloth, the woodgrain of table legs and even the dark, empty space underneath, but ultimately their synthetic veneer is a reminder that this is a flat replica of reality.

Made early in the artist's career, this work is one a of a series exploring the boundaries between real objects and their relationship to art. Artschwager described these works as "useful furniture with an overlay of representation". He was particularly interested in the way objects are represented in the pared back Cubist art of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, and in the minimal still life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. Like them, he was searching for ways to translate two-dimensional versions of reality into three-dimensions and even described this work as "the way a table with a tablecloth is in a painting".

Working in New York throughout the 1960s, Artschwager was keenly aware of the ideological tensions between modernist abstraction and the rising trends for Pop Art. But here he blends interests in both strands, melding playful allusions to domesticity with a pared back, slick language of Minimalism. But as artist and critic Roberta Smith points out, Artschwager deliberately defied any easy categorisation, noting "at different times, [he] identified with Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, without landing squarely in any category. Part of his cachet was that no one quite knew what to do with him". This fusion of art styles was to have a profound impact on the Neo-Geo movement of the 1980s; especially so on the American painter Peter Halley.

Formica on Wood - The Art Institute of Chicago


Door, Mirror, Table, Basket, Rug, Window D

Commenting on a series of drawings using oil pastel, charcoal and graphite that Artschwager produced in his later career, art critic John Yau pointed to the fact that drawing had always been central to the artist's practice and he was, in fact, "one of the few contemporary artists whose drawings constitute a distinct, self-contained body of work within his far ranging oeuvre of paintings, sculptures, and various hybrid combinations". Yau first offered the oft-quoted statement from Artschwager (made in the early 1960s): "Sculpture is for the touch, painting is for the eye. I wanted to make a sculpture for the eye and a painting for the touch". Yau asked that on having taking this statement on board, "we might inquire of the artist, what is a drawing for?".

Yau records that in the mid 1970s Artschwager abandoned his studio set up to concentrate on "the familiar and rewarding practice of drawing". It was through his drawings that he established the six principal subjects that would "become his own imaginative obsession until 1980". They were (as the title of this work confirms) Door, Mirror, Table, Basket, Rug, Window. Artschwager described the process as follows: "I flipped to a drawing of an interior, a room I had once occupied, and made a list of the six objects that were in it. I decided to take this as an instruction to make one drawing, then another, and another, and so on. The instruction endured and I 'played' those six objects like I play the piano - I guess you could say that it was some kind of fugal exercise".

Pen and black ink and graphite pencil on board, sheet (irregular) - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York



A playful balance between illusionism and artifice is created in this surreal installation. A replica of a door is installed into the gallery space, suggesting imaginative possibilities of escape. But the wood grain texture is a little too polished and exaggerated to be real, while the cheap plastic handle adds to the work's artificial quality. When installed next to an enlarged black punctuation mark (closed bracket), the flat, motif-like quality of the door is heightened further. Artschwager commented on works such as this one, "What interest me is above all the line of demarcation between ordinary things and the ones we recognise as objects of art".

Throughout the 1980s Artschwager had hit his stride as an artist, as he continued to expand upon the boundaries between reality and perception. This work is one of a series made from painted wood, which developed on from his earlier Formica furniture sculptures and explored the same interplay between ordinary objects and their representation in art. During this time, he was also branching out into Installation Art, exploring how domestic spaces could be alluded to with the arrangement of objects, and undercut with the inclusion of jarring abstract elements.

Punctuation marks - what he termed "blps" - were a prevalent feature in Artschwager's mature work, and once removed from their original function and exploded in scale they take on a whole new meaning; especially when placed alongside supposedly familiar objects. Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum notes how Artschwager's punctuation marks, "appear as humorous, sensuous forms yet mute ones, detached from the dramatic feeling or sound that they would imply in a text".

Acrylic on Wood, Glass, 2 parts, installation view at Mart Rovereto - Guggenheim, Bilbao



The pages of a sensuously glossy book seem to have fallen open in the centre, revealing the matt, grainy surface of the flat pages inside. Resembling an open Bible displayed on a pulpit, the book has an air of grandeur and importance. But there is no text, only a series of tooled in vertical lines and any allusion to further pages are undercut by the book's black, shiny exterior surface. A balance of opposites happens here, between realism/abstraction, two/three dimensions and matt/gloss.

Books are a recurrent motif in Artschwager's art, taking a variety of forms from the familiar (as seen here) to the oblique and abstracted in other works. He was particularly drawn to books because they straddle a role between physical object and flat pictorialism, which was an ongoing subject of fascination in much of his art. Richard Armstrong from the Whitney Museum of American Art has referred to this strand of his art as "pictorial sculpture", while curator Jean Christophe Ammann notes how Artschwager's work merges sculpture with a flattened language, creating a "transition from the third to the second dimension".

Artschwager was also attracted to books because they can conjure up associations with domestic or interior space, an ongoing theme in his art. His use of Formica here is typical of the artist's practice, and brings a playful element to the work with connotations to post Second World War interiors, creating what Frances Richard in Artforum International calls "a sleek joke on surface and function".

Formica and Wood


Double Sitting

This painting illustrates a strange and unsettling interior space that doesn't quite make sense. A Formica-panelled floor unites two walls leading off in separate directions. Strange chair-like forms project out from each wall, creating illusionistic space and suggesting a trace of figurative presence, while their outlines are reflected in the floor below. On closer inspection, the elongated perspective of the floor and oddly mirrored walls lends the work an uneasy and uncanny quality, recalling, perhaps, the distorted Surrealism of Dorothea Tanning.

Although primarily known as a sculptor, Artschwager made paintings throughout his career, exploring the same curious combinations of pictorialism, surrealism and abstraction as seen in his sculptures. He enjoyed upending the conventions of both mediums, making sculpture appear clean and flat, and painting textural and sculptural. He used real Formica here to create the effect of floor panels, but unlike his sculptures, where Formica creates an artificial effect, in this painting it takes on an almost photographic realism.

Artschwager's paintings and sculptures of this period shared the same playful repetition of motifs associated with domesticity, including chairs, tables, doors, books and pianos, rendering these once familiar items a strange, and even menacing quality that draws out undercurrents of discomfort about suburban life. Writer Alex Kitnick points out how radical and influential this strangely uneasy sense of malaise has become on the shape of Postmodern and contemporary art practices: "Artschwager's 'tasteful' vernacular still sticks out like a sore thumb, reminding us of his talent for bringing to the surface everything that lurks beneath".

Synthetic Polymer Paint on Board and Paint on Formica - The Museum of Modern Art, New York



Artschwager originally made this public art installation for the exhibition Beelden in de Stad (Sculptures in the City) in Rotterdam in 1988. Two white, concrete forms were placed facing one another on the sloped banks of Rotterdam's canal, rising from the ground with organic, wave-like forms. One of his most abstract sculptures, there is no direct association to reality in this artwork, an ambiguity reinforced by its lack of title. Instead, Artschwager has likened the curling, flickering forms with each season: flower (spring), flame (summer), fence (autumn) and ice (winter).

At surface level this makes the work seem somewhat conventional in comparison with Artschwager's earlier works, but this quality is entirely deliberate, parodying the supposedly profound meaning artists so often attach to abstract public art. This attitude reveals his disdainful attitude towards inert public art projects that fail to engage with the public, lending his work a cheeky, subversive quality. Since his work was never really intended to be a popular project, it is perhaps ironic that it is such a well-known and celebrated talking point in Rotterdam. It even has its own nickname amongst locals who know it as "De Watertanden" (The Water Teeth).

Concrete - Rotterdam



Rough planks of natural, untreated pinewood are bolted together to form an enclosed wooden box resembling a packing crate. But when seen from above, the entire construction is made into the shape of a Biblical cross. This religious reference transforms a seemingly ordinary object into something new, injecting into it an air of tragedy. This work is one of a series of constructions made since the 1990s which resemble packing crates shaped into a range of geometric forms, some stacked on top of one another or arranged into groups, others attached to the wall. As is typical of Artschwager's practice, there is an air of ambiguity about this work. He deliberately toys with our desire to work out what is inside this container, or what it might be designed to hold, frustrating the viewing experience by insisting the packing itself is the final work.

When seen in a gallery context, the object seems as if it could be made to hold a particular work of art, ready to be unpacked, and this quality lends the gallery space around it an incomplete, makeshift quality. This ability for objects to transform the space around them was an ongoing subject of fascination for Artschwager in the latter part of his career, and one that would have long lasting repercussions in the contemporary art world. In particular his influence can be seen in the architecturally aware art of Dan Graham and Nathan Coley.

Wood, Bolts


Exclamation Point

A huge, Day-Glo exclamation mark punctuates the space around it, expanding outwards into three-dimensional space like a burst of life. Orange plastic bristles turn this recognised symbol of expression into a grossly exaggerated caricature of itself, suspended mid-air with a whimsical playfulness. Removed from all textual context, the symbol becomes uprooted and appropriated, taking on a strange new meaning.

This work is one of a long-running series by Artschwager in which exclamation points and other forms of punctuation are transformed into three-dimensional objects in a variety of textural materials, from fuzzy or fluffy to rubbery and solid. Removed from their usual linguistic context, some of these codes still carry with them the same resonant emotional impact, while others become ludicrous and ridiculous. Transformed into solid forms, Artschwager observes how they can subvert and change the gallery space around them, echoing themes explored in his codified objects and arrangements.

Artschwager's fascination with the symbolic meanings of punctuation was also expanded into his famous "blps" series from the late 1960s through to the end of his career. Made from flat, lozenge shaped forms which he displayed in a range of contexts, these seemingly simple motifs have the power to subvert and upend the context around them. The same attitude towards repetitious motifs, but with a decidedly digital slant, can be seen in the technologically advanced paintings of Jacqueline Humphries.

Plastic Bristles on a Mahogany Core Painted with Latex



Following a visit to his childhood home of New Mexico in 2006, Artschwager was inspired to produce a series of landscapes through which he explored the effect of pastel chalk on different kinds of papers. He had stated previously that "paper always talks a lot" and it was this maxim, coupled with the fact that he suffered a sense of longing for his childhood, and especially memories of travels with his mother, that led him to explore drawing on surfaces that ranged from colored and hand-made paper, sandpaper and even velvet. As the Sprüth Magers Gallery, Berlin said of the series, "The different surfaces shift our focus from the image to the materiality, making paper an essential attribute of the work itself [and that the] color, composition, and sense of time passing all derive from the feeling of a long road trip across the American west. The shifting landscape invites contemplation of both nature's capacity for constant change and its eerie timelessness".

The New York painter Alexi Worth (cited by the David Nolan Gallery) added: "Garishly beautiful and ebullient, these pastoral hallucinations hark back to the horizontal line drawings of the late sixties, and beyond them, to Artschwager's earliest exhibited work: the abstract landscapes that Donald Judd admired back in 1959, with their "quick, spiked strokes,... communicative of abbreviation". For the artist himself, they look back even further, to the New Mexico of the 1930s, where he spent his teenage years. Their subject is, as he put it with typically laconic candor: "Homesickness. Which continues".

Pastel on gold paper

Biography of Richard Artschwager


Richard Artschwager was the son of Ernst Artschwager, a Prussian botanist, and Eugenia Brodsky, a Ukrainian artist and designer. The family moved from Washington D.C. to Las Cruces in New Mexico in 1935 because of Ernst's tuberculosis - and remained there for the rest of his childhood. Eugenia, who had studied at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington and at the National Academy of Design in New York, would take her adventure-seeking son on art trips into the desert lands surrounding Las Cruces (journey's that Artschwager would retrace in his later years).

Artschwager was by all accounts a bright and inquisitive boy who inherited from his parents a keen interest in art and natural science. One of his first artworks was, as he later recalled, a "shockingly accurate" portrait of his father. But, as he also recalled, his natural talent for drawing slowly gave way to a preference for "more serious things, namely biology, genetics [...] science in other words".

Following in the footsteps of his father who also studied there, Artschwager majored in science and mathematics at Cornell University, New York, in 1941, but his training was interrupted by the outbreak of war. In 1942 he served in the European Army, taking part in the Battle of the Bulge; an experience he found deeply traumatic ("I experienced violence. I have experienced fear" he recalled). After sustaining a slight head injury, he was moved to administrative duties in Frankfurt, where his responsibilities included moving high-profile prisoners across the continent. Artschwager was soon promoted to an intelligence posting in Vienna where he met his first wife, Elfriede Wejmelka. They were married in 1946, and relocated to the United States in 1947. Artschwager finally completed his BA at Cornell, in 1948.

Early Training and Work

After completing his degree, Artschwager found himself torn between the arts and sciences and, after a period of deep soul searching, he decided: "I went to art because it's unpredictable, and science, except in rare cases, is uncovering what's already there". Nevertheless, he felt that this change of direction, and especially the pressure on an artist to "be original", seemed to him "like jumping off of a cliff". He took on a range of temporary jobs including baby photographer, bank teller and lathe turner. Artschwager still found time to study, attending the New York City studio school of the established French ex-patriot Amédée Ozenfant. It was here that Artschwager learned about the minimalist language of Purism.

By 1953 Artschwager had found his station as a furniture designer, producing a variety of simple modern pieces. This brought in a steady income which was particularly pressing given the birth of the Artschwagers' first daughter. Sadly, Artschwager's thriving furniture business was torn apart when, in 1958, a fire destroyed his entire studio and all the inventory. However, his short career as a guildsman would stay with Artschwager who later translated these skills through his work as a sculptor and installation artist.

Having taken steps to rebuild his furniture business, Artschwager began to experiment with the production of art. The story goes that he had watched a television show featuring an antisocial child hammering together random pieces of wood and took this as a "whispered instruction" to pursue the path of an artist. But his first exhibition was of paintings and watercolors of Southwestern landscapes which was held at the Art Directions Gallery in New York in 1959. In 1960, Artschwager was then commissioned by the Catholic Church to build a series of portable altars for ships. Working with the low-budget industrial laminate Formica inspired Artschwager to introduce this material into his art. He was particularly intrigued by the material's ability to mimic a range of surfaces but with a kitsch Pop Art sheen.

Mature Period

During the 1960s Artschwager's career gathered pace through a string of exhibitions. As Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, observed, a sculptured piece called Handle (1962) was considered his breakthrough work: "A rectangle 4 feet wide and 30 inches high is beautifully crafted from a cylinder of honed and polished wood. Although three-dimensional like a sculpture, it hangs on the wall like a painting. Made of wood, like a painting's traditional frame, it only encloses a view of the wall behind it. Meant to be grasped, as any handle would, it cannot be touched because it is a work of art". With his confidence at a new high, Artschwager sent slides and a covering letter to New York's Leo Castelli Gallery, a renowned leader for showcasing new art. The gallery accepted him for a group exhibition where he took his place alongside the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg. The Castelli gave him his first solo exhibition in 1965 and he remained on its books for some 30 years.

The 1960s was a prolific period for Artschwager who found his artistic niche experimenting with a broad array of materials and styles. His art of the period straddled the space between art and function and the boundaries between realism and abstraction. Art critic William McDonald wrote, "At a time when most artists worked in clearly determined styles [Artschwager's] slyly confounded the usual categories. His most famous sculpture, 'Table With Pink Tablecloth, from 1964, is something of a cross between Pop Art and a Minimalist cube by Donald Judd: a box neatly veneered with pieces of colored Formica to create the image of a wooden table with a square pink tablecloth draped on it".

He continued to experiment with Formica, making works with an appealingly glossy surface that typically made allusions to suburban domesticity. He was also drawn to Celotex, a roughly textured insulation board, onto which he began painting reproductions of found photographs depicting scenes from recent history. He discovered that painting on this surface could replicate the textural surface of poorly produced newsprint or television images. This effect echoed elements of Pop Art, but, in contrast to Pop Art, Artschwager's imagery and motifs were more obscure, subtly toned and cerebral and leaned much closer to the language of Minimalism.

While engaged in a teaching post at UC Davis in California, Artschwager became inspired by his fellow faculty staff who were exploring the workings of Minimalist languages. He recalled, "those guys set a good example - with William T. Wiley, Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Wayne Thiebaud and others". Within his own practice he tried to refine his language into a more economical style leading him to discover his famous "blps" (pronounced blips) series. As he explained: "I was trying to see the minimum number of brushstrokes or lines to make something that is recognizable as a cat. I think I got it down to seven or eight [...] Take one of those marks and put it somewhere [...] take a felt marker on a newspaper [...] black dots blocking out somebody's eyes; somehow the black dot travelled, as a thing unto itself, not round but elongated. It turned into a 'blp', and there it was". Artschwager adopted the trademark logo of the "blp" from the late 1960s until the end of his career, exploring how this odd black mark could alter the space in which it was placed. Indeed, he recreated his "blps" in a variety of materials to be installed inside gallery and museum spaces and also placed "blps" in the form of stencils and reliefs in museum grounds for visitors to happen upon or even to seek out.

In 1971, Artschwager separated from Elfriede. A year later he re-married to the artist and writer, Catherine Kord. This shift in personal circumstances coincided with changes in his artistic practice as he moved into the realms of site-specific installation. His drawing and painting duly took on a greater architectural awareness, too, as he explored how he could create pictorial spaces through fragmented or abstracted symbols of domestic interiors. From these drawings emerged six principal objects - Door, Mirror, Table, Basket, Rug, Window - that became motifs in what he described as a "fugal exercise" in painting and drawing. With this his profile grew, he befriended and influenced a number of new artists including Ed Ruscha, Gerhard Richter and Malcolm Morley. Moving into the 1980s, he began working more and more on painted wood sculptures that mimicked the same artificial qualities of his earlier Formica works, but now with a much sharper sense of spatial and contextual awareness.

Late Period

From the late 1980s onwards Artschwager was hugely successful and busy enough to employ a team - anything from three to fifteen strong at a time - of studio assistants during a particularly prolific spell when he produced large-scale site-specific works. In 1989 Artschwager divorced Kord, later marrying Molly O'Gorman with whom he had two children. In 1991, while exhibiting his work with the Mary Boone Gallery, he met and fell in love again, this time with Ann Sebring, who was assisting at the gallery at the time. After divorcing O'Gornan in 1993, Artschwager married for a fourth and final time, the pair remaining a couple for the rest of his life. Known amongst his peers as a joker and trickster, the somewhat chaotic nature of his personal life was reflected in the eclectic nature of his creative ambitions. By the end of the century he declared that he had finally mastered both his personal and artistic goals: "By this time, as of 2000 - give or take - I can confidently claim to have total insight into every aspect of my life".

In this later period he looked back (as artists often do), revisiting the medium of painting on Celotex and exploring a range of figurative subjects. Art critic, and regular champion of Artschwager's practice, John Yau, observed, "it seems to me something changed in this most recently completed body of work, which has people in it; it's a different view of domesticity and time". One of his most controversial paintings of the period, Osama, (2003), featured Osama Bin Laden (the mastermind of the attack just 2 years prior), but the Gagosian Gallery did not include the work in their catalogue for his solo exhibition in 2003 on the grounds of its potentially "incendiary nature". Other works in this political vein (though the artist himself refused to state his political position) featured George W Bush, images of the Taliban in Afghanistan and a self-portrait.

By the turn of the century Artschwager had commenced work on a series of portraits. In its 2013 career retrospective, Berlin's Sprüth Magers Gallery described how the artist "rarely painted from real life" and usually preferred to construct his images "from memory [or to use] photographs and newspaper images enlarged to the size of easel paintings as the basis of his work". It added that the "magnification of the photographs, combined with the highly textured surfaces, cause the images to appear grainy and blurred, rendering the characters unrecognizable, yet retaining a heavy, sculptural effect. The grisaille techniques deployed in portraits such as Was me (2008) and Sixty + (2008) also work to invoke a photorealist aesthetic, prompting a non-subjective, and more object-like way of approaching the painting and the figure depicted".

By this time he had embarked on another new venture when he returned to the New Mexico of his childhood to execute a series of pastel drawings. According to the David Nolan Gallery (which hosted and exhibition of his landscapes in 2012) "Artschwager returned many times to New Mexico as an adult, still captivated by the endless roads, craggy terrain, and desert shrubs. He portrays the scenery from many different perspectives - from an airplane, atop an outlook, from the middle of the road [and that,] over the years, the vernacular of the New Mexican landscape became as important to his work as southern California was for Ed Ruscha".

In 2012 Artschwager produced a new series of mock-pianos, suggesting the essence of the object through various recognisable motifs. On first appearances the majestic aura of a grand piano is invested into this densely solid sculpture. But closer inspection reveals how Artschwager has deliberately created a tacky, cartoonish replica resembling a stage prop rather than an homage to the real thing. The work nods towards the clean purity of modernist abstraction, making sly references to artists of the past, most notably the pared back geometry of Kazimir Malevich. In these later pieces Artschwager consolidated many of the most important ideas of his career, uniting his uniquely irreverent humour with an interrogation into the boundaries between the real world and the art that represents it. Writer Alex Kitnick observes, "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".

He revisited his piano motif in a series of laminate sculptures in 2012. These pieces resembled different styles of grand and upright pianos, but rendered in an abstract manner that recalled the early twentieth century avant-garde. They proved to be his last significant pieces. Artschwager died in 2013 in Albany, New York after suffering a stroke. He was 89 years old.

The Legacy of Richard Artschwager

Artschwager's curious ability to merge the familiar and unfamiliar has had a profound impact on a new generation of artists, particularly those associated with the Neo-Geo movement. The exhibition Richard Artschwager, his Peers and Persuasion, 1963-1988, at the Daniel Weiberg Gallery in Los Angeles placed Artschwager's practice in the context of 16 contemporaries including Haim Steinbach, Joe Goode, Allan McCollum and Nancy Dwyer. Israeli-American sculptor Haim Steinbach took from Artschwager a fascination in the wonder of ordinary, domestic items that might otherwise go unnoticed, asking us to look at, and to newly perceive them, in a gallery context. His glossy shelves recall the slick veneer of Artschwager's Formica, but he arranges onto them eclectic and unusual displays of found, ordinary objects.

The Neo Geo artists based in and around New York - known as "the Fantastic Four" - comprised of Ashley Bickerton, Jeff Koons, Peter Halley and Meyer Vaisman all took influence from Artschwager's semi-abstract language of coded motifs that opened up geometric, modernist abstraction and channelled it back into popular culture. Both Halley and Bickerton shared a similar wry, irreverent humour about art practice though both brought a darker, more sinister edge into their art, criticising the increasing commercialisation and industrialisation of society.

In the UK, meanwhile, Many of the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the 1990s took a similar stance to Artschwager, merging Minimalist structures with the cheeky irreverence of Pop. This tendency was especially prevalent in Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin's early assemblages. More recently, the American sculptor Rachel Harrison makes direct reference to Artschwager through unusual hybrid constructions, combining objects such as synthetic wigs, cardboard boxes, vacuum cleaners and rubber noses with her own grotesquely bulbous figurative forms. In homage to Artschwager, Harrison even recreated his Table with Pink Tablecloth for her installation at the 2009 Venice Biennale.

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