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Use Value: An Interview with Richard Artschwager

Up and Down/ Back and Forth is what Richard Artschwager has entitled his exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim. From May 10 to July 6, 2003, over 40 drawings, sculptures, paintings, and multiples created between 1965 and 2003 can be seen in the exhibition hall in Berlin. Cheryl Kaplan visited Richard Artschwager in his New York apartment and interviewed him exclusively for

Untitled (Library), 1989
Deutsche Bank Collection
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

Richard Artschwager creates intrusions. You'd hardly suspect. All seems perfectly above board. Then something slips in, making us realize that what we think we're seeing might be splitting up before our eyes. First it was Formica, then it was the blp and Celotex. Appearing in abbreviated form, from exclamation points and quotation marks to drawings, paintings, and sculpture,

Richard Artschwager in his appartement
New York City 2003
Artschwager's language is a long-term system that expands on the inside. Things get blanked out. But you might not know that right away. That he spent years making furniture is just another part of that index. In the late 60s and mid-70s, Artschwager was part of the inner circle of pop art that included Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Lichtenstein. Artschwager, however, always stood slightly apart.

Untitled (Quotation Marks),
Courtesy of Alexander Edition © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

It makes sense that his grandmother attended lectures given by Dmitri Mendeleev, the inventor of the periodic table. But then, the code that is Artschwager's is also ours. And it is very human. It would be easy to see Artschwager's architectural drawings and paintings as buildings. But he reaches through, seeing what Wystan Hugh Auden saw in his poem, Musee des Beaux Arts:

"About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; …"

Richard Artschwager in his studio, 2003

As I'm about to leave, Artschwager shows me a series of photographs accounting for some of the blp's peripatetic existences. The blp, missing its "i," is commonly understood as belonging to radar. It's that spot of light that indicates the position of a detected object and comes with a high-pitched electronic sound. In Artschwager's world, the blp began in 1963, in one of his notebooks. He was searching for a "very hard, dense, heavy after-image." [Artschwager notebook, labeled 12/23/63]. As Artschwager quickly tells me, he spent a lot of time drawing on magazines, doing what Duchamp had done to the Mona Lisa: defacing things. Inasmuch as the blp is about language, it is also about deletion or omission. "The blp was born in the winter of 1967-1968 while Artschwager was teaching at the University of California, Davis." [Ingrid Schaffner, Parkett, vol. 46, p. 26, 1996]

By late 1968 and for years afterwards, the blp would appear on power plants, museum walls, and even a university campus. Tamed to paper, the blp continued to have a life of its own as it jettisoned back into the world. It was occasionally fuzzy and often rubbery. Acting as a non-container, the blp's mission is to interrupt by not interrupting. The blp, like most of Artschwager's work, is discreet. Artschwager once described the blp as "a mindless invasion of the social space by a logo-like, totally useless art element. It is small, has high visibility, relentlessly refuses to give up its uselessness." [Artist's statement, Art & Design, vol. 8, May/June 1993, p. 80]

Locations, 1969
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

Returning from a short swim in a pool Johnny Weissmuller once trained in, Ann Artschwager is getting ready for their journey abroad. In twenty-four hours, the Artschwagers will land in Brittany. As Richard tells it: "When I get there, I'm going to send a postcard to Britney Spears' parents – they should know how to spell her name!"

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