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"No guarantee" – Insights into the Work of Richard Artschwager

"If you recognize something, you don't necessarily have to see it clearly," says Richard Artschwager. His sculptures, drawings, and paintings have always posed a challange to the viewer. Silke Sommer provides us with insights into the artist's most important work groups and explains why we can't rely on anything here, and why everything is conceivable.

For over forty years, Richard Artschwager has been breaking with the conventions of art and of seeing with a playful lightness. His work is highly mobile; it penetrates into every area of life and, in the process, it repeals art's most powerful rules of "stasis, si-lence, separation." (1) Artschwager's work adopts a multiplicity of forms and adheres to no rules. It provokes in order to make the structures of perception and reality immedi-ately experienceable. Artschwager's art formulates the questions; there's no guarantee, however, that it will provide the answers.

Richard Artschwager, born1923 in Washington D.C., first completed his studies in natural sciences before deciding to move to New York to become an artist in 1949. His experiences with the New York art scene and the Studio School of the exiled French-man Amadée Ozenfant helped form his skeptical attitude:

"Studying at the New York School (outside) and the School of Paris (inside) made some deep impressions, the telling one being an increasing conviction that nothing much could be added to these estimable bodies of art."(2)

This assessment directed Artschwager's attention to using the everyday objects at hand as a point of departure for his work. Beginning in the early fifties, he made his living with a furniture-making business; this, of course, became his studio as well, and the materials, tools, and products he used became the objects of artistic investigation.

Richard Artschwager, Untitled (Table), 1962
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

Furniture/Objects – Function and Identity of Things

For Artschwager, furniture gradually lost its unequivocal utilitarian character through the rationalized and repetitive process of building it in his carpentry workshop. Ques-tions concerning the relationship between the function and identity of things took on increased importance.

Is an object such as Untitled (Table), one of Artschwager's earliest works and carefully handcrafted from wood, still a table – even though its distortion and position in space make it impossible to have a seat at it? Or is the form, which seems as though it had burst open between the wall and the ceiling, more a parody of a table? And if this is the case, then what use is it? We're confronted with an intellectual game on the defining characteristics of and conventional expectations concerning a table. The deci-sion is left up to the viewer and hangs as much in the balance as the object itself.

Richard Artschwager, Portrait I, 1962
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003
In its form, size, and manner of building, the bureau Portrait I resembles other furniture produced by the hundreds in the workshop. Only the way it is painted seems strange: it's an imitation of the properties of the wooden surface it's painted on. Thus, the object becomes both the image motif and support. The manner of painting shifts the piece of furniture out of the realm of the utilitarian and into the realm of art, which is useless by definition. The distorted representation of the wood grain in coarse enlargement and in black and white locates the object on another plane of reality. Al-though it is physically present in the here and now, it seems more like a faded memory than the object itself. If the physically real object of the bureau is pushed into the illusionary space of painting, and reality becomes an illustration of itself, does the image on the bureau conversely turn into something objectively real? Does the painted man in the picture possess a presence in real space?

Formica – A Synthesis of Object and Likeness

In using the industrial material Formica, Artschwager hit upon the perfect instrument for pushing these strategies of distortion and irritation even further. The peculiar qualities of Formica, that "great, ugly material, the horror of the age," (3) lie in its unlimited possibilities for imitating every material imaginable through photographic reproduction. The veneer conveys an artificial likeness of the original surface.

Richard Artschwager, Portrait II, 1963
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003
Richard Artschwager, Chair, 1963
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

In works such as Portrait II or Chair, this imitation is used to create a perfect syn-thesis of object and likeness.

"If you take that [Formica] and make something out of it, then you have an object. But it's a picture of something at the same time as it's an object." (4)

The various qualities of the materials to be imitated are reduced to their visual attrib-utes and then replaced by different types of Formica. The object's sides are covered with corresponding representational views. Even the negative space beneath the chair is represented by a flat field of black Formica integrated into a closed pictorial surface. A three-dimensional image of an object in space arises, assembled together from its two-dimensional views.

"It's not sculptural. It's more like a painting pushed into three dimensions. It's a multipicture."(5)

Comparable to the method of painting Artschwager used previously, Formica pushes the object one step further away from the present tense. The wood veneer seems "as if wood had passed through it, as if the thing only half existed."(6) The object hovers on the boundary between the illusionary world of image and its real presence in space, and seems as though it were constantly on the verge of switching sides. Its position can never be clearly defined.

Richard Artschwager, Mirror, 1988
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003
Mirror Images – Conventions of Art and Habits of Seeing

Why do we see an image in the object atop the bureau of Portrait II ? Why do we gaze in curiosity at an object such as Mirror and expect to see our reflection? In keeping with our previous experience, we recognize the conventional formalities of a picture immediately: a rectangular surface flush with the wall and contained by a frame. In reality, however, nothing is depicted in the framed picture on the bureau, nor is anything reflected in the mirror's surface. Our expectations, based as they are on habits of seeing, are disappointed. We are looking at empty space, framed as a manifestation of the idea of an image. The topos of "painting as mirror" becomes palpable in the form of a three-dimensional object; at the same time, as an idea robbed of its contents, it is carried into monochromatic emptiness. Irritation replaces tradition.

Richard Artschwager, Untitled, 1963
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003
Richard Artschwager, Untitled (Girls), 1964
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

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