Richard Ernst Artschwager (December 26, 1923 – February 9, 2013) was an American painter, illustrator and sculptor, best known for his stylistic independence; however, he had associations with the Pop Art movement, Conceptual art and Minimalism.
Richard Artschwager was born to European immigrant parents. His father, Ernst Artschwager, was a Protestant botanist born in Prussia, who suffered greatly from tuberculosis. His mother, Eugenia (née Brodsky), an amateur artist and designer who studied at the Corcoran School of Art, was a Jewish Ukrainian. From his mother, Artschwager received his love of art. In 1935, the family moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, because of his father's deteriorating health. At that time, Artschwager was already showing a talent for drawing.
In 1941, Artschwager entered Cornell University, where he studied chemistry and mathematics. In the fall of 1944, he was sent to England and France to fight in World War II, as part of his military service. Wounded in the head, he was assigned administrative duty in Frankfurt, where he moved high-level prisoners across the continent. Among them was Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, a German general whom he brought to Oslo to be put on trial by the Norwegians for war crimes. Artschwager was later assigned to an intelligence posting in Vienna. It was there that he met his wife, Elfriede Wejmelka. The two married in 1946 and returned to the United States in 1947. Artschwager then returned to college and, in February 1948, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in physics.
Artschwager, however, could not deny his first passion and was encouraged to pursue the arts by his wife. After he received his diploma, the couple moved to New York City, where he worked as a baby photographer and his wife as a designer.
In 1949, taking advantage of the GI Bill, Artschwager began to study with Amédée Ozenfant in Paris for a year. Ozenfant was a purist painter, who placed precision and rationality above all else. In the early 1950s, Artschwager abandoned art to work at various jobs, particularly as a turner and a bank employee. In 1953, he began to sell furniture, to ensure regular income, after the birth of his daughter. In 1956, he designed and manufactured simple and modern furniture. His work as a furniture maker left its mark on the art he would later create, as a 1960 commission from the Catholic Church to build portable altars for ships inspired him to start producing small wall objects made of wood and Formica. He was quite successful until 1958, when a fire destroyed his entire studio and all its contents. He then took out a large loan to restore his business.
Return to artabstract expressionism reigned supreme. He enrolled in a workshop concentrating upon the nude and painted in the abstract easel format, derived from landscape painting. His paintings and drawings from this period were exhibited in two group shows at the Terrain Gallery in 1957 and in October 1959 at the Art Directions Gallery on Madison Avenue, where they were recognized by Donald Judd.
In 1960, Artschwager received a commission from the Catholic Church to construct portable altars for ships. This led him to consider how to transcend the utilitarianism of tables, chairs, and cabinets, and to seek a mode of artistic expression more consistent with his identity as a craftsman. During this period, he built a series of small wall objects in wood and Formica, a decorative staple of American kitchens.
In 1961, he took a snapshot of a dustbin. The quadrille photo was implemented and expanded on the canvas. Shortly after seeing a painting by Franz Kline, Artschwager discovered Celotex, a rough-textured fiberboard used on ceilings as acoustic paneling, as a medium to enhance the load gesture. In 1962, he directed his first combination work, using painting and Celotex sculpture (Portrait I and Portrait II). Also from 1962 Artschwager also painted grey acrylic monochrome pictures, basing his images on black-and-white photographs, characteristically of modern buildings as shown in property advertisements, as in Apartment House (1964).
At the end of 1963, Artschwager was very productive. Chair, a substitute geometric version, is a work very representative of this period, with the red Formica used to mimic the back rest.
In the mid-'60s, Artschwager made small framed objects from Formica. He sought to incorporate, for the first time, human presence into his sculptures. His paintings on Celotex during this period show essentially opposite characters. His diptychs show his first attempt to incorporate space in the table. From 1964, his paintings depict images of the environment, carefully framed with Formica. He met gallerist Leo Castelli and his gallery director Ivan Karp and ,who appreciated his work and exhibited it in group exhibitions during the spring and autumn of 1964.
First exhibitsIn his work Artschwager explored problems of perception of space via more elaborate construction and decoration. He also worked with portable altars. In 1965, the keyboard he had played since his childhood, appeared in his work as an installation format architecture. Artschwager's efforts to animate the space became increasingly sophisticated. He exploited the traditional functions and duties of furniture in space. Throughout the 1960s, he produced many figurative paintings from photographs. He integrated time and movement in his paintings and then used perspective as a convention to create the illusion of space.
In 1966, he inaugurated a series using mottled brown Formica, a series that was the subject of his second solo exhibit at Castelli Gallery in late 1967. His original works of furniture were becoming more advanced, especially through his wall pieces. At the same time, he continued to produce many abstract paintings, which used spatial concerns marbled wall furniture. He drew a series of landscapes, which he used to prepare an exhibit commissioned by the University of California, Davis in the Spring of 1968. He used them in four basic forms of wood painted nois, as space punctuation: the birth of what the artist called "blps" (a term which has been attributed to dots seen on the screen of a military submarine), which were enlargements of punctuation marks produced in such media as wood, horsehair, and paint that embody the artist's growing taste for linguistic references. The blps were the sole subject of his first solo exhibit in Europe at the Konrad Fischer gallery in Düsseldorf in 1968.
At the end of 1968, he participated in the annual exhibit of sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The dispersed installation art work, called 100 Locations, put blps in a hundred different places throughout the museum, which drew attention to the brutalist architecture of Marcel Breuer and the works exhibited. They were used to publicly question the institutional context of art.
In 1970, he participated in the group exhibit Information at The Museum of Modern Art.
Architectural worksIn the 1970s, Artschwager began to work on architectural motifs. During the first half of the decade, he employed two processes—fragmentation and expansion. His theme was domestic interiors. He also included associations of various styles of furniture, gradually moving away from the rudimentary nature of them.
During the years 1971, 1972 and 1973, he explored the theme of very bourgeois interiors, which gave him a sense of stability while working on other paintings during this time of instability. Artschwager included the dissolution of any visual design on six Celotex paintings in 1972, which depicted the explosive demolition of Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City using photographic reporting.
In 1974, he developed classic architectural motifs, a compromise between the stillness of the interiors and the ongoing disintegration of destruction. The subject here is light, its ability to guide the eye, the movement's vision and the constant movement and fluid look. A series of imaginary drawings, representing all six items combined (a door, a window, a table, a basket, mirror, rug), uses inversions of scale, imaginative combinations and locations. This reflection on the spaces capable of containing all six, which is also a question about the context, causes them to turn again to the blps.
For the next five years, his production was essentially three-dimensional. He added to his works very large blps.
In the 1980s, there was preponderance of the mirror as object-own furniture to accommodate the reflections, possibly combined with other materials like Celotex, painted wood, and Formica.
In 1984 and 1985, he used painted wood and remained very active. This design occupies a central place in his creative process.
Recent workFrom about 1986 to the late 1990s, Artschwager, like many artists, employed studio assistants. The crew could number as few as three or as many as 15, expanding for large scale projects such as the construction of an evergreen tree, for the Chazen Museum of Art in Wisconsin (then known as the Elvehjem Museum of Art). Of Artschwager's body of work and recent shows, art critic John Yau notes that the artist has always been "interested in domesticity—tables, chairs—right from the first things ... paintings that were about interiors, houses, but always domesticity was held at a kind of arm’s length, and now it seems to me something changed in this most recently completed body of work, which has people in it; it’s a different view of domesticity and time."
Artschwager's "Osama" painting of Osama bin Laden was withheld from his 2003 exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in London because of its “potentially politically incendiary nature” and was not reproduced in the catalog. However, it was reproduced in a French catalog from Domaine de Kerguehennec (2003) opposite a portrait of George W. Bush.