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Richard Artschwager

American Sculptor, Painter, and Draughtman

Born: December 26, 1923 - Washington D.C.
Died: February 9, 2013 - Albany, New York
Richard Artschwager Timeline
"My most important quality or property is curiosity. And that had its beginning in what I was going to do with my life."
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Richard Artschwager
"I use visual perception as a way of bringing people into my space."
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Richard Artschwager
"I would wake up at night and think, 'What the hell have I gotten myself into? You don't want to do that!' But you gotta do something, and with art, there's freedom - which is actually very seldom practiced by artists."
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Richard Artschwager
"The drawing is already partly there - it's in the paper. And the paper is talking before you do."
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Richard Artschwager
"There isn't any art until some creature sees and consumes it. And has a reaction."
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Richard Artschwager
"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."
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Richard Artschwager
"One thing that's interesting to me is that the surface is almost really interrupting the image, it's almost fighting the image. You really have to try to form the image, and there's this interesting feeling of resistance, to being able to really identify the image."
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Richard Artschwager
"Painting is something that leads itself. It is for the critic or historian to give it a framework."
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Richard Artschwager
"Art happens when somebody is looking... Art is not an object; it is an event."
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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.

Accomplishments

  • Having left behind a career as an independent cabinetmaker, Artschwager turned to making "furniture-like" sculptures using cheap industrial materials. With a preference for laminate Formica and Celotex (a roughly textured insulation board), he found a way to mimic a range of textures and surfaces that was in keeping with the kitsch veneers of Pop Art.
  • Artschwager was attracted to the idea of symbolic meanings as expressed through linguistic signs. From this fascination he derived his so-called "blps" series whereby he represented punctuation marks, often as three-dimensional objects, using a whole range of typically gaudy materials. These "cartoon-like" sculptures effectively uprooted the flat linguistic mark from the page and showed how these seemingly innocuous motifs could transform the gallery space in which they were (dis)placed.
  • Keenly aware of the conflicts between the legacies of abstraction and the ascendency of Pop Art, Artschwager embraced the latter's celebration of suburban domesticity but through a stripped-down version of abstraction. By this means he succeeded in producing an unusual tension between reality and conceptualism and offered thus an interrogation of the overlaps between the world of objects and art's relationship with those objects.
  • Artschwager was well known for his deadpan humor. In signature "impractical interior" pieces such as his furniture sculpture, Table with Pink Tablecloth (1963), and the surreal-like installation, Door (1983), his work demonstrated a playful and witty dimension that kept alive the legacy started by such greats as Marcel Duchamp and René Magritte. His willingness to allow humor to undercut the planning behind his art also influenced key contemporary artists, notably those of the YBA movement and especially Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin.
  • Artschwager's paintings might be considered somewhat surrealistic in the way they represent familiar worlds, such as domestic interiors, that do not quite add up. These pieces demonstrate his skill at restaging his peculiar structural combinations as two dimensional pieces. His paintings and drawings explore the same dynamics of pictorialism, surrealism and abstraction and in so doing they unseated, very often to disquieting affect, the conventions of both mediums.

Biography of Richard Artschwager

Table with Pink Tablecloth (1964)

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.

Important Art by Richard Artschwager

Table with Pink Tablecloth (1964)

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.

Door, Mirror, Table, Basket, Rug, Window D (1975)

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".

Door (1983-84)

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".

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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd

"Richard Artschwager Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
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First published on 19 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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