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No Careerism Here : Richard Artschwager has doggedly pursued his artistic vision, at the expense of notoriety.

May 06, 1997|KRISTINE McKENNA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In terms of career, it doesn't pay for an artist to be too original. A case in point is New York-based artist Richard Artschwager, whose work goes on view Saturday at Burnett Miller Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. Now 74, Artschwager has exhibited regularly for 35 years and was the subject of a traveling retrospective that stopped at MOCA in 1988. He remains generally unknown, however, largely because his idiosyncratic work slips through the cracks of several different genres.

A former furniture maker whose paintings and sculpture incorporate elements of Pop, Minimalism, Photo-Realism and Conceptualism, Artschwager makes "impossible" objects that appear to be utilitarian, but on closer examination prove to be of no discernible use: His doors won't open, for instance, his mirrors don't reflect, and the chairs he makes are impossible to sit on.

Using materials associated with mass production--Formica and Celotex--Artschwager is often described as Pop or Minimalist, but he doesn't fit neatly into either camp. Whereas Pop was ebullient and immediate, Artschwager is muted and remote. Minimalism rejected illusion, but Artschwager courts and plays with it. His work is freighted with wry humor evocative of that of Marcel Duchamp, but in strictly visual terms it presents a dissolving reality reminiscent of the work of the French pointillist Georges Seurat.

The son of immigrants from east Prussia, Artschwager recalls that his father worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., and contracted tuberculosis during a field trip to El Paso. So in 1935, the family moved to Las Cruces, N.M., in pursuit of therapeutic weather. Anticipating a career in science, Artschwager enrolled at Cornell in 1941, but his schooling was interrupted in 1944 when he was drafted, sent overseas and wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. Recuperating in Vienna, he met Elfriede Wejmelka, whom he married in 1946.

Returning to Cornell in 1947, Artschwager earned a bachelor's degree in science in 1948 but by then had decided to switch careers. "My grades in science weren't that good," Artschwager says. "So when one of my art teachers told me I should go to New York and study with Amedee Ozenfant [a colleague of Le Corbusier's who promoted a Cubist-based style known as Purism] I took his advice," says Artschwager, speaking by phone from his home in New York, where he lives with his fourth wife and two children, ages 7 and 11, from his third marriage.

Artschwager studied with Ozenfant at a point when most artists were flocking to Hans Hofmann's classes in Abstract Expressionism, a style Artschwager says he loved but which he felt had been covered. "I didn't envision myself doing anything revolutionary in art because revolutionary art doesn't come along too often--[Jackson] Pollock and [Jasper] Johns may've been the last to achieve it. I did feel, however, that if I couldn't at least turn a page, I ought to do something else.

"Going into art then was the equivalent of dropping out in the '60s, and in a way it broke my father's heart," says Artschwager, who supported himself in the late '40s with a job as a baby photographer. "Consequently, I felt a crying need to do something useful, so in 1953 I decided to take up a trade, and later that year I walked into a lumber company near my house. Everything there was on a huge scale--they had planks of mahogany that seemed as high as a two-story building--and I looked at those materials and thought I could work with them and make simple furniture."

Artschwager's furniture business flourished until 1958, when his factory burned down. "The loss hit me so hard I couldn't speak for a week," says the artist, who had a wife and 4-year-old daughter to support. "I had to be in the space because I had employees, but I was too upset to care if what I did went anywhere, so I had a playful attitude toward whatever I was going to do next. And that's when I began to make art.

"Radical notions were in the air in the early '60s, and in 1962 I had this epiphany and decided the time was over for editing," he says. "From then on everything counted, and every day would be a good day. I also started drawing then, and sometime in the early '60s I saw some large woodcuts that weren't very good, but their heroic scale caught my attention. Things happen when you make something big, and I began thinking about drawings that were too big, with everything enlarged, including the tooth of the paper--which was an effect I achieved by painting on Celotex. Obviously I had one eye on Franz Kline who'd done something similar--his paintings look as if they were made by a person 15 feet tall."

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