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Richard Artschwager dies at 89; painter and sculptor

Artschwager created sculptures carefully crafted from wood and often covered in Formica. His paintings, mostly limited to black acrylic, were applied to cheap materials and derive from photos.

February 11, 2013|Christopher Knight
  • Richard Artschwager was a modest, eccentric man whose freewheeling art didn't fit comfortably into any stylistic movement.
Richard Artschwager was a modest, eccentric man whose freewheeling art… (Los Angeles Times )

Richard Artschwager, an artist who turned his apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker into a distinctive approach to making sculptures and paintings that defy easy categorization, died Saturday in Albany, N.Y., following a brief illness. He was 89.

A retrospective of Artschwager's work, which travels to the UCLA Hammer Museum in June, closed Feb. 3 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. It was the Whitney's second Artschwager retrospective and will be the third to be shown in Southern California. The first was co-organized by the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art in 1979, while the Whitney's 1988 retrospective was also seen that year at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Artschwager is primarily known for three unique bodies of work. His sculptures, carefully crafted from wood and often covered in a veneer of ordinary Formica, establish a subtle tension between the conventional utility of furniture and the perceived uselessness of art. His paintings, mostly limited to black acrylic applied to a cheap building material known as Celotex board, frequently derive from photographs, but they are given unexpected material heft with the addition of heavy, light-reflective metal frames.

Finally, an installation aspect took the form of small, lozenge-shaped pieces of black wood or vinyl decals that the artist inserted into unexpected architectural places. The shape recalls the space to be filled in with black pencil or ink on a computerized questionnaire like a standardized exam or election ballot, or the hole in an old IBM punch-card. Artschwager called these abstract lozenges "Blps" — pronounced "blips" — and their subtle references suggest that a meaning or an answer is located someplace else. He deployed them like perceptual black holes that draw curious energy from the spaces around them.

What unites Artschwager's disparate sculptures, paintings and Blps is their exploration of the vagaries of perception. A viewer is never quite certain of exactly what he is looking at — including the object's status as art. For instance, merely through different colored shapes of laminate veneer, a plain waist-high cube might also describe a solid table, the empty space beneath it and the thin tablecloth on top of it.

Coming of age in the 1950s, when emotion was at the core of Abstract Expressionist painting and sculpture and the purity of different mediums was paramount, Artschwager instead turned to sense perception to make art that crossed established boundaries. Furniture was a touchstone for the development of his work.

"Handle" (1962) was the breakthrough piece. 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.

Artschwager was getting a "handle" on the direction his art would take for the next 50 years. Painting, sculpture, context and perception seem to collapse into themselves in this eccentric object, as the old categories are being erased. Qualities that would soon be attributed to Pop, Minimal and Conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s are all present.

"Portrait I," also from 1962, further elaborated his interests. An ordinary bedroom dresser is topped by a framed picture of a slightly grinning man. The wood grain of the dresser is hand-painted, its swirls a pastiche of Abstract Expressionist gestures, while the photo-based painted portrait is blurred and out of focus, defeating the commemorative purpose.

"Portrait II," made the following year, accelerated his evolution. This dresser has no drawers, forsaking function, while the face in the picture has been replaced by a solid plane of Formica that is the same material from which the dresser/pedestal is made.

Formica was patented in 1913 as an electrical insulation substitute "for mica," a silicate that resists electrical current, but after World War II it gained widespread popularity as a decorative laminate. Artschwager applied its low-art properties to high-art purposes. He exploited the plastic's artificial pictorial qualities, since it imitates not only natural materials such as stone and wood but the brushwork in abstract paintings.

Artschwager often used Formica that looks like burl wood, a deformity of the grain that grows in trees under stress. Burl also finds a wry precedent in the elaborate wood veneers of 18th century aristocratic French furniture, widely considered a pinnacle of achievement in the European history of decorative art. Applied to modern geometric forms like cubes and plinths, Artschwager made sculptures that have the strange sense of being ordinary objects that are simultaneously pictures of objects.

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