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Richard Artschwager - Biography and Legacy

American Sculptor, Painter, and Draughtman

Born: December 26, 1923 - Washington D.C.
Died: February 9, 2013 - Albany, New York

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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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony 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 Antony Todd
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First published on 19 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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