RICHARD ARTSCHWAGER, who died Feb. 9, changed my life. But the change had nothing to do with his sculptures or paintings, nor with meeting the man himself-though he was an interesting sideways talker, full of candid answers to questions I hadn't asked. What did the trick was his drawings, a big stack of them, which the art dealer David Nolan placed on a table for me one day in the spring of 2008. "You Might," he suggested lightly, "want to have a look at these."
I wasn't so sure. This was back when I was still doing a fair amount of freelance writing, and I had agreed impulsively, late one night at a party, to write something about Artschwager without really knowing what I thought about him. As I started leafing through the drawings, my anxiety grew. There was a diagram of a strange sort of buckle of clasp. Then a World War II soldier. Then a pastel landscape in bright oversweet color. The pile was like a shuffled deck of cards-jumbled, heterogeneous, nonsensical. How could anyone write about this?
Twenty minutes later, I felt different. Not only was there a pattern, there was even a story. Around 1960, Artschwager had stopped drawing. A few years later he started again, literally from scratch. The earliest sheets were almost blank, one or two thick charcoal lines with mock-clinical titles like "Study of Line". Next were images of small puckerings and tearings, imaginary damage to pristine sheets of paper. Then magnifications of paper fibers, followed by the beautiful fire drawings, images of paper's antithesis (done in charcoal, of course). They were the reveries of a materialist, thinking about the stuff in his hands. In the decades that followed, Artschwager proceeded to draw tables and chairs, light fixtures, rooms, his attention expanding outward like the wandering gaze of a child. The subjects grew steadily more various, finally reaching a nostalgic plateau with remembered landscapes of New Mexico, where he grew up.
None of the drawings were masterpieces of touch of draftsmanship. They didn't put me in a state of infected fascination the way, say, Arshile Gorky's drawing do. They were lean, succinct drawings, leaving lots of white paper: thinking drawings. A few of them were drawn from life, or from photographs. The majority, though, and especially the ones I liked best, were clearly invented, mind-made-not too far from being cartoons, but with an extra sense of weight and light. Even the sparest projected unmistakable pleasure in charcoal itself, its smoky tactility, its airy middle tones. I felt a funny connection to the mind behind them-more affinity than admiration. Back in my studio, I found myself imagining what Artschwager would think. Not Artschwager the real person, but the mind behind those drawings. I imagined him leaning against a wall, not saying anything, just watching what I was doing.
When did I begin using nylon mesh instead of canvas? When did I develop my addiction to the airbrush color that is marketed as "Smoke?" For months I had been growing dissatisfied with the way I was making paintings, but with Artschwager in the house, changes quietly accelerated. I never thought I would give up flake white, the most seductive of all materials. But I did (goodbye to Robert Doak, the crankiest, best, most interesting flake-maker in Brooklyn!). Soon I found myself working in an entirely new way. I had always spent most of my studio time redrawing. Now I began working directly from the drawings, cutting them into stencils and spraying over their edges. The effect offered a rudimentary illusionism, like handmade flash photography. Each shape was crisp and bright a reverse silhouette outlined by dark peripheral mist. There wasn't any more interior modeling; instead, I could layer shapes to build flat depth. The process itself was exhilarating and frustrating. The transition took two years, and they felt long. At the end, though, I had a new sense of room. My subject matter hadn't changed much, but the paintings freshly looked handmade and mind-made-cartoonlike, but with an extra sense of weight and light.
By this time, my essay long since published, I had forgotten about the imaginary visitor in my studio. I was thinking about other things that inspired me: David Smith's spray drawings, Elizabeth Murray's last paintings. Then one day I found myself working on a side project, a little mesh painting of an artist at work. He's smoking, looking at his easel, where there's a drawing of the back of his own head. I thought of him as Gerberman, a fictional character I had used in earlier paintings. But this Gerberman had a mustache-where had that come from? He looked leaner too, not quite familiar-not really Gerberman at all. Wait, I thought to myself; I know who that is. That's Richard Artschwager.
by Rachel Wolff
At 88, with a Whitney retrospective ahead, what is the last great minimalist doing? Simplifying his own life.
On my way up to Richard Artschwager’s Chelsea apartment, I’m being briefed about the air-conditioning situation. He likes it a bit on the balmy side, Yale University Art Gallery curator Jennifer Gross tells me as the elevator rises. It reminds him of his New Mexico youth.
That youth, of course, has long since passed: Artschwager will turn 89 in December. Yet in his advanced age, inclinations toward the distant past, toward what might be deemed his natural habitat, seem to have manifested themselves in new ways. The mountainous vistas from his childhood (and his earliest art-making days) have reemerged in striated color pastel compositions on paper, some of which are intersected by empty roads that vanish into the distance. It’s a departure from the work for which he’s best-known: the wry-funny Formica-sheathed sculptures of furniture, and his grisaille paintings on Celotex, a fibrous white board used primarily for insulation.
Artschwager rises to greet us as we make our way into the modest one-bedroom he shares with his wife. Their living-room walls are lined with works by both the artist himself (a Formica sculpture resembling a tall, skinny piano; an abstracted 1962 acrylic-on-Celotex that looks like a plowed field) and others, many of them friends and fans (Ed Ruscha, Albert Oehlen). He’s chatty and convivial, for the most part, as we discuss the full-career retrospective, curated by Gross, that opens at the Whitney on October 25. But on the subject of his work he takes long, deliberate pauses to formulate his thoughts (longer than he’d like, from the looks of it). He’s keen to discuss what motivates him, especially after all these years, and the conflicts that have driven him from the get-go. “My most important quality or property is curiosity,” he says. “And that had its beginning in what I was going to do with my life. To paraphrase my father, ‘Are you going to be an artist or are you going to be a scientist?’ ” He was, essentially, reared by one of each—his mother was a hobbyist painter, and his father was a biologist who worked with plants.
By PETER PLAGENS
David Nolan Gallery, 527 W. 29th St., (212) 925-6190
Through Dec. 3
Richard Artschwager (b. 1923) is one of the last living American artists to have served in World War II. He studied with pioneer modernist Amédée Ozenfant in Paris. All through this oddball grizzled veteran's body of work, varied in form but consistent in tone, he's remained against the grain. It's a lot easier to say you like Mr. Artschwager's grudgingly figurative, defiantly homely paintings and sculptures than it is to actually do so. (He paints a plank of wood with a cartoonish wood grain, for instance.) Liking them, however, has its rewards—such as prying open your jaws of taste just a little bit further than you're used to.
Nolan's main room is occupied in part by several pastel drawings in basic landscape configuration—a road leading in perspective toward an across-the-page horizon, which is topped by a narrow layer of sky. Technique: antimastery mastery. Color: foggily intense. Mood: red-state melancholy. Unsolved mystery: In one picture, a giant leg sprouts from the ground.
On the far wall hangs "Roofline," a big painting on Mr. Artschwager's preferred rough surface of celotex, a fiberboard material used in residential construction. It depicts a pitched plane of brick-red roofing tiles and a pinkish furrowed field (or maybe a weird sunset cloud formation). Separating them on a diagonal is a purplish rain gutter. I don't know what it means. But the work has been semipleasantly bothering me ever since I walked out of the gallery.
By Roberta Smith
In the last several years Richard Artschwager’s art seems to have lost some of its usual cool, and this is a good thing. Colors have warmed and a degree of direct observation has softened the intense artifice, grounded in an idiosyncratic fusion of Pop Art and Minimalism, that is so basic to the wide-ranging Artschwager brand.
Most of the recent works here depict desert landscapes similar to those the artist knew and loved in his youth. They are pastels on paper or acrylic on his trademark Celotex fiberboard, although its ersatz brush-stroke textures seem to have lost their satiric edge. In “Landscape With Rosettes” the textures add body to a field of tumbleweed that basks in the palpable, quietly electrifying sheen of a yellow moon. In “Untitled (Roofline)” the textures are outdone by color: a wedge of red shingles and a wedge of striped pink that could be tilled field or streaky sky. These areas meet along a gray diagonal that is probably a gutter, but what matters most is their woozy, tilting glow and the irreconcilable spatial ambiguities.
Perhaps in an attempt to show that the give-and-take between observation and artifice enlivening these works is not really new, Mr. Artschwager includes a dozen small landscape drawings in combinations of watercolor, pastel and graphite from around 1950. Their improvisational shorthand — unexpectedly reminiscent of Milton Avery — is full of scrolling tangles, scratchy lines and staccato marks that telegraph the desert’s sage, chalky strata and distant buttes. They suggest that Mr. Artschwager has not so much lost his cool as reclaimed an earlier part of himself.
By Valerie Gladstone
When artists enjoy long lives, their fans reap tremendous advantages. This thought came to mind when looking over Richard Artschwager’s new works at David Nolan Gallery. Born in 1923, he has never fit into any category for very long, passing through styles that superficially resembled pop, minimal and conceptual, all the while confounding critics who have tried to pigeonhole him.
A painter, sculptor, photographer and carpenter—he even made altars for ships in 1960—Artschwager’s consistent concern seems only to be investigating the illusions of perception. Though he did employ utilitarian objects and showed himself ingenious with geometric forms, they always served less of an immediate purpose than to comment on themselves. Full of ideas, yes, but not nearly as cool as most conceptualists.
In some recent works here he returns to the region of his childhood, Las Cruces, N.M., with atmospheric landscapes that capture the openness and rawness of that part of the country. “Landscape with Rosettes” shows a yellow sun or moon hanging in the sky over the rust-brown earth, its surface dotted with green shapes arranged in an irregular formation. The circular arrangements of leaves seem out of place—growth from a richer, wetter climate.
Two yellow lines cut across a square of brown earth in the middle of overgrown vegetation in “Landscape with Median.” The sky fades to blue-green in the distance. Because the lines—the median—go nowhere and serve no purpose, stopping almost as soon as they start, they give the impression of a dead end or of a futile human intervention into the wild.
In older works from the ’70s, Artschwager uses charcoal pencil and pastel when drawing on ivory laid Strathmore paper or paper handmade from crushed sugarcane pulp. By employing these textured surfaces, he gets the sculptural effect that he always seems to be after. Fittingly titled “Weave,” the drawings of crisscrossing gray and black lines look like window frames or even the bars of a cage. They are reminiscent of Franz Kline’s black-and-white abstractions and are endowed with the same fierce, insistent angularity.
To give a sense of his range, the gallery also includes “Arch,” a silver-painted wooden sculpture from 2007, a dynamic totem. A particular favorite, “Abstraction,” painted in 2004, looks like a Cézanne landscape with its geometry, the green and blue bands of color going off to the horizon. A maze as well, the work has the depth and two-dimensionality that Artschwager strives for. How wonderful that he never stopped at any of his dynamic stages, allowing us to see where they would eventually take him.
Through Dec. 3, David Nolan Gallery, 527 W. 29th St., 212-925-6190, www.davidnolangallery.com.
This show of Richard Artschwager's drawings and sculpture, "Objects as Images of Objects: 1966-2008," made it quite clear that the artist is nobody's mimic. Starting in the late 1960's, Artschwager has been referred to as a Minimalist, a Conceptualist, a borrower of Pop, and more recently, a forefather of Neo-Geo. But as demonstrated here, Artschwager (who is now in his mid-80's) continues to produce original and sophisticated work that is in the moment as well as visually and conceptually compelling.Download PDF (5.3 MB)
The inaugural exhibition at the new David Nolan Gallery features a 40-year retrospective of drawings and sculpture by the American artist, Richard Artschwager. His most recent work, shown for the first time, is n the form of a permanent architectural facade painted in the artist's signature cadmium yellow. The work was created in collaboration with Markus Dochantschi of studioMDA.Download PDF (1.5 MB)
The octogenerian artist, who also designed the gallery's bright yellow facade, claims to have put drawing onthe back burner in the nineteen-sixties to focus on sculpture. Bus, as the works on paper here prove, he never lost his passion for working in two dimensions. Some of the drawings use charcoal and pencil to solve sculptural problems of space, form, and light; others experiment with techniques of rubbing and cutting.Download PDF (2.3 MB)
A sly but unassuming presence on the New York scene for nearly 50 years, Richard Artschwager wields his talents in a humorously deadpan way that smacks more than faintly of nonchalance. A painter, sculptor, photographer and carpenter, he has, over the years, left very few subjects undrawn, unpainted or unwrought.Download PDF (84 K)
When it first appear on the art scene in the early 1960's, Richard Artschwager's work seemed situated somewhere between Pop and Minimalism. His boxy sculptures celebrated a reductive geometry while retaining a reference to everyday objects such as chairs, tables and framed pictures. His paintings, linear representations of banal scenes, combined a Pop-style mockery of pictorial illusion and a Minimalist reliance on industrial materials (his favored support was Celotex, a textured ground created from sugarcane pressed over panels).Download PDF (2.3 MB)
Richard Artschwager, an artist turned carpenter for a while, then an artist again, makes drawings of somethings, anythings and nothings. And sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. It really does matter, because whatever he zeroes in on makes you look.Download PDF (0.9 MB)
Two of the most intriguing minds in contemporary art are represented here in separate, small shows. Richard Artschwager presents nine new charcoal drawings. In several, a thin schematic line and pale shading describe rooms in each of which precisely six items are distributed. In a surrealistically angled corner, for example, a rug, a door, a window, a picture frame, a table and a towel are all attached to the walls as those in an art gallery.Download PDF (1.7 MB)