Prof Kasper König
Director, Museum Ludwig, Cologne
Forty Years of Richard Artschwager – Continuities and Discontinuities
Laudatio for Richard Artschwager on the Occasion of the Award of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize 2007
I am very happy and honoured to have been invited to speak today on the occasion of the presentation of the Roswitha Haftmann prize to Richard Artschwager.
You refer in your speech, Mr Becker, to the play on words in the artist’s name, and I can recall being quite fascinated by it myself long before I had even become acquainted with Richard Artschwager's work. I came to New York in 1965. I had already worked and studied in London and intended to do the same across the Atlantic. To this end I had hoped to find part-time employment with Richard Bellamy, but discovered upon my arrival that Green Gallery was closed. And yet, although he was just as broke as his business, Bellamy still had what was without a doubt the most intriguing gallery in New York at the time. He had set up shop on the premises of an elderly art dealer from Chicago, Noah Goldowsky. Even I had heard of Goldowsky, whose father, a native of Odessa, was a renowned anarchist and the initiator of the Ladies‘ Garment Workers‘ Union. In Goldowsky’s modest space, Bellamy had mounted ‘From Arp to Artschwager, Annual Sculpture Show’.
At first I thought it must be some kind of Dadaist event, an exhibition devoted to Arp and his notional family – because to a German-speaker, the word ‘Artschwager‘ could be construed as a bilingual neologism, a combination of the English word ‘art’ and the German word ‘Schwager‘, or in-laws. I had no idea it was actually the name of a real-live artist. In any event, I was bowled over by the show, which included Mark di Suvero, a small Rodin hand, and ‘La Chaise’, small but stacked, all swelling bosom and generous derrière. Very impressive. And then of course there was Artschwager’s ‘Handle‘.
But let us return to matters at hand. Very early on, and at the same time in the wake of the various -isms that rushed into the vacuum created in the art world of the 50s and 60s when Abstract Expressionism had left the stage in America, Richard Artschwager began to construct the oeuvre he is still developing more than 45 years later, a body of work that categorically resists any and all definitive labelling, one which seems as diverse as it is consistent and possesses one feature which is unfortunately all too rare in the art business these days: a humorous twinkle of the eye.
When Richard Artschwager came on the art scene, in the early 60s, Donald Judd and other critics hailed his furniture sculptures as a successful marriage of the geometric formal vocabulary of Minimalism with a tribute to everyday objects à la Pop Art. It is interesting to note in this context that Artschwager constructed the ‘Bedroom Ensemble‘ for his colleague Oldenburg. Furthermore, one of the best exemplars of this style was a simple cubic shape Artschwager had covered in a layer of multicoloured Resopal. A four-sided surface and a number of pink triangles suggest a tablecloth, while a patch of light brown conjures up the table itself and one in dark brown gestures towards the empty space beneath it. The object could in fact be used as a table (although it wasn’t clear what to do with the legs) even as its formal reduction and chromatic scheme made of it an image of that table.
Resopal, also known as Formica, plays a key role in Artschwager’s artistic development. As is generally known, he had spent the 1950s using precious woods to produce tables, cabinets, chests of drawers and other furnishings in his New York cabinetmaker’s studio. Thus, like other artists of his era, before turning his attention to the visual arts he had provided himself with a foundation in a handicraft that would brook no illusions or deception. I recall visiting Artschwager in 1969/1970 in this carpentry shop of his. The lingua franca there was Spanish, since virtually the whole staff was Puerto Rican. Artschwager spoke it himself. He was out delivering furniture uptown when I arrived, and I had to wait half an hour for him to return. The reason for my visit has come back to me now as well. At the turn of 1970, the Americans had expanded their operations in the Vietnam War to Cambodia and Laos, and the country was under a great deal of tension. A small circle of friends, including better and lesser known artists such as Bill Copley, the composer La Monte Young and the painter Alfred Leslie, got together at Copley’s place to discuss possible reactions to the military strikes. At the time there was an extremely interesting proposal on the table, to ask Picasso to send his ‘Guernica‘, which was at the time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to Hanoi. Then, when the city was bombed, the New York Times would be able to protest at the impending destruction of one of the 20th century’s most influential works of art. So a friend of Picasso’s was asked to arrange the project, but in the end it fell through. In fact, some very highly placed people intervened and killed what they held to be a crazy idea. I myself took that very same crazy idea and used it to develop an exhibition for the Moderne Museet in Stockholm, where I was working at the time.
A celebrated show was once mounted in Europe, at the Basel Kunsthalle under Arnold Rüttlinger, and again in the early nineteen-sixties in Stockholm, I believe. It was called ‘Four Americans‘ and featured works by Alfred Lesley, Stankevic, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The last two went on to widespread fame, while the first two have dropped out of sight. As a sequel to this show I had proposed – perhaps rashly and naively but certainly with enthusiasm – mounting an exhibition of four Americans whom I found exemplary of their country, almost legendary in their Americanism and very independent, people who really bucked the trend. It was to be called ‘Dick, Bill, Cliff and Jack‘, a reference to a painting by Fernand Léger showing a sailor with a tattoo made up of three girl’s names, Clementine, Barbara, and one other. The first two had been crossed out by the tattoo artist, and the mariner’s main squeeze of the moment was shown standing by his side. But the exhibition was immediately nixed from on high. Leo Castelli had gotten wind of the plan and found the idea of letting four American ‘G.I.s‘ represent American art in Europe’s museums extremely unprofessional. Among other things, the tension in the US at the time made it difficult for him to imagine showing four American artists identified by their nicknames as at once a vital and an eccentric package deal.
Against the backdrop of his craftsmanship and the contemporary socio-political situation, Artschwager’s work with Formica, what he called a ‘horridly beautiful‘ material and the ‘terror‘ of the age, became a profound encounter with the surface and appearance of things. Formica, which had been manufactured of pressed board since the 1930s, often featured a pattern of wood grain or stone on its uppermost surface and was thus a thorn in the eye to all those who prided themselves on their ‘good taste‘, and who would never dream of owning furniture made of anything other than wood or other authentic materials. Formica was an insipid rip-off of the fine textures of upper middle-class residential culture, an attempt on the part of petty bourgeois office clerks to better their station. Reliably washable and low maintenance, Formica scarcely develops a patina and is among the most a-historical materials known to architecture and interior decoration.
By removing it from industrialized mass-production and using it instead to make a work of art, Artschwager evokes the paradoxical nature of this highly charged substance. The same is also true of the found furnishings he covered by hand with mock-wood patterns. In combination with rigid geometric forms or with what had once been common utensils, these surfaces trigger a sense of unease, and the viewer is suddenly unsure how to feel about them. It becomes clear that their appearance and effect had previously been taken for granted, and that the principle of repression had thus been in operation. Furthermore, it arises that even a form which has lost its unambiguously assigned content nevertheless continues to steer our perceptions and our movements. In reference to a simple wooden cross he had made during that same period in the early 1960s, in order to experience the production of a symbol with his own hands, Artschwager said that it wasn’t possible to do anything but sit or kneel at the foot of such a form, for all that it might have lost its religious significance in this or that particular case.
At the same time as he was creating his furniture and Formica sculptures, beginning in the late 1960s Artschwager started to do paintings on Celotex, whose surface structure resembles grisaille. It is a function of the medium onto which the mainly black-and-white images are applied, the backs of hard wood fibre boards. His subjects were initially drawn from the real estate pages of the Sunday paper, which Artschwager would enlarge enormously and transfer to the rough surface of such a board. Artschwager's process was closely akin to the techniques used by the American Hyperrealists, very much in vogue at the time, and was driven by his will to liberate his work as entirely as possible from any personal character; in addition, however, he also aimed to make these pieces a-chromatic, and thus remove the very feature of the Hyperrealists’ pictures, their brilliant colour, that made them such an enormous commercial draw.
For Artschwager, a work of art must be determined by its material and by that material's structure, and not by the artist's signature. In addition, his affinity with figures such as Steve Reich and Yvonne Rainer also played a role: artists who did not produce objects, but who were instead of pivotal importance to the history of the ideas that animated the art produced and received around them, and who were always open and sympathetic to Artschwager, in large measure no doubt because of his background in the natural sciences. It may also be of interest to know that in the 1950s Artschwager spent a year as the student of Amédée Ozenfant.
Artschwager allows his materials to react, just as he also allows the blurring of contours in these painted surface structures. It gives his paintings a texture that lends a confusing physicality to the scenes portrayed, which are for the most part exterior or interior views of buildings. The contradiction he is constantly conjuring up and celebrating across an incredibly broad spectrum is an artistic principle he maintains to this day, and which never ceases to surprise us. These are pictures that make a corporeal impression, the flipside of the pictorial impression that arises from the painted or glued surfaces of his sculptures. The artist himself has the following to say about his chiastic treatment of generic traits: ‘Sculpture is for the hands, painting for the eye. I wanted to create sculpture for the eye and painting for the hands. ‘
An early work of Artschwager’s may be seen to function as a hinge between his sculptural and painterly approaches: ‘Portrait I‘ (1962) features the painted portrait of a man propped up on a hand-painted commode. The shades of grisaille link both the piece of furniture and the portrait with black-and-white photography. I’ve read a number of things about the piece. Some people say it’s a self-portrait. I myself have always believed it was the man who is supposed to have shot Kennedy, Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald. But of course it is neither a self-portrait nor a picture of Oswald, but instead whatever you happen to want it to be at the moment. It’s a portrait standing on a commode, and in a certain way it recalls a vanity in a bathroom, although it offers the mirror image of a man without in fact being a mirror. This combination and interlacing of various materials, techniques and artistic media continually provides the momentum for so many different groups of works by Artschwager. You might say it’s the same way with the great comics – perhaps the greatest of them all as far as I’m concerned, Buster Keaton. There is a certain recurrent momentum that only Buster Keaton could provide, and yet for all that it is absolutely universal.
Artschwager uses objects as unseen vectors for his paintings: he applies images to three-dimensional objects, and thus plays the surface rhetoric of an image off against that of a sculpture. The aim of such synaesthetic hybridization is not to blur the distinction between opposites, but to evoke contradictions. As Melitta Kliege notes in reference to Artschwager, a contradiction is based on an extremely clear construct: it arises when ‘a‘ is at the same time ‘not a‘. In this sense, Artschwager’s visual strategy aims with extreme precision at the production of contradictions, for example by deliberately undermining the generic identity of his pieces. This may well be evidence of the analytic skill of a natural scientist – Richard Artschwager, after all, studied mathematics and chemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca in the 1940s.
But let us return briefly to analytic philosophy. According to univalent logic, a contradiction is the effect of an impermissible systemic flaw. If a contradiction arises, the flaw must be identified and removed. At the same time, there is also a school of thought within analytic philosophy that calls for contradictions to be tolerated, and views them as a challenge to the limits of the human ability to describe and to perform. There must be domains within language, within analysis and action that are not governed by the scheme of univalent logic, with its mutually exclusive recognition of ‘a‘ and ‘not a‘.
Similarly, Artschwager’s work does not subjugate itself to the dichotomy of sculpture and painting: it offers both images of the thing, and the thing itself. These two levels, the image and the object, are united in many of his pieces, a combination Artschwager describes metaphorically as two bulls locking horns. It is these contradictions, which he is constantly revealing, that lend his work its power to bewilder, to shake up our mechanisms for perceiving and interpreting, or to perplex us (and in my case to delight us) with proof of just how good and fresh art can actually be.
Thank you Richard!
Do I have any time left? I must say one more thing, about the ‘blps‘, and then I’ll stop.
The first ever ‘blps‘ were to be seen, at least in this country, at the legendary ‘When Attitudes Become Form‘ show in Berlin. At the time it was Artschwager’s colleague Daniel Buren who got done, for putting up posters without a permit in Bern. In the case of the ‘blps‘ it was Artschwager’s turn at the fifth Documenta, where he was caught red-handed in Kassel for applying the ‘blps‘ like graffiti without a permit.
Perhaps I should say a word or two about what these ‘blps‘ are. These variously sized oval creations, veritable masterpieces developed by Artschwager in 1967 and the year following, won his art international acclaim, at least in the eyes of his fellow artists. The ‘blps‘ are composed of horse hair, wood, steel or enamel and are either manufactured as objects or applied like graffiti to a wall. They tend to be found on the margins, whether in an interior space or on a house front. By Artschwager’s own account, the first ‘blps‘ were based on drawings: in Tintoretto’s ‘Finding of the Body of St Mark‘ (c. 1562), for example, a whole stream of ‘blps‘ seems to be issuing from the paintings in a picture gallery.
Im June of 1968 Artschwager covered Konrad Fischer’s gallery in Düsseldorf with his ‘blps‘. They spread out across walls and windows, and thus took control of the space quite aggressively. Richard Bellamy presented the ‘blps‘ in New York as part of his show of Serial Abstraction entitled ‘From Arp to Artschwager III‘; at the Whitney Museum’s annual exhibition of contemporary sculpture, meanwhile, the ‘blps‘, as part of ‘100 Locations‘, flooded the stairwell, the exhibition rooms, the lifts and the offices. In their resistance to appropriation by a system of signification and their embargo on hackneyed patterns of reception, the ‘blps‘ echo the strategies of Conceptual Art. Furthermore, the fact that Artschwager’s ‘blps‘ need not be produced by the artist himself is similar to the methods favoured by many Conceptualists. Artschwager does, however, attach a great deal of importance to the way his pieces manifest their physical presence in a given space. They are on no account to appear as holes stamped out of their surroundings, but rather as soft spots. To the extent that they are perceived, therefore, they question not only their own identity and meaning but also the function and particularity of the space in which they are displayed.
Artschwager wanted to install his ‘blps‘ at the fifth Documenta in Kassel as well, but he was arrested by the police as he was mounting them one night. Someone asked me to get him out, since I knew him. For his part, Artschwager was totally relaxed about the experience, happy not only to be freed from custody but also because, as it turned out, he had been among the first to see Kassel in its deplorable state during 1944 and 1945, as an intelligence officer with the American army. He was with General Eisenhower at the liberation of an almost totally destroyed city, where tanks and locomotives had once been manufactured. The General’s entourage included his orderly, his jeep driver, and Intelligence Officer Artschwager. According to Artschwager himself, there was a certain poetic justice in his returning to a Kassel now freed from the arbitrary cruelty that had reigned there at the close of World War II, only to be arrested and subjected to a thoroughly ordinary and decent police process. All of a sudden, he said, his experience had taken on an interesting momentum.
I was very impressed by this at the time, and I think that he has remained true to these principles to this day. He is simply a very unusual person, and we may count ourselves lucky to have him. I am delighted that you have won this award, Richard.