Curtain Call

By Frankel, David | Artforum International, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Curtain Call


Frankel, David, Artforum International


With the nearing of the new century, Richard Artschwager made a double return, both to his teenage years in New Mexico and to his art of the 1950S, the period before he hit on the vein that he has mined to such rich effect for forty years.

THE ART OF RICHARD ARTSCHWAGER

Nostalgia in Artschwager's terms, however, is not the usual seductive but vaporous bath, and his "Pastorals (Nature/Culture)," 1991-99, are not really landscapes as such: Their cliff-bound mesas, valleys, and rocky spires could also be--and surely are--studio setups of objects screened under cloth. It is as though Cezanne, instead of setting apples and china on a linen-draped tabletop, had first put down the props, then thrown the linen over them and pondered the result. It is principally the skies that establish the scenes as landscapes--and these are clearly art-full, their whorls and eddies bouncing off the grain of Artschwager's fibrously patterned supports while also nodding benignly in the directions, perhaps, of van Gogh, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and other more shadowy models.

After serving in the army during World War II, Artschwager had gone back and forth between art classes, a roster of short-lived jobs, and, finally, the design and construction of furniture, a trade that would leave its mark. Meanwhile, though, he had regularly revisited New Mexico, and both there and at home in New York he had produced drawings and abstract paintings based on the western landscape. Some of these appeared in Artschwager's first show, in 1959, but he didn't pursue this direction. In fact, as he remarked to me this spring, describing the Southwest-ish landscapes now emerging, "These are the first since then--there's a kind of nostalgia here, because I'm still very attached to that part of the world."

The effect might be comic, an art-historical joke, but for a certain agreeably spiky resistance typical of Artschwager. He is, in any case, after serious game: the kind of categorical confusion in which he has always specialized, and through which he believes that art points to the "pre-literate vision" that has long been his dream. [1] Nothing is ever just one thing with Artschwager; an anonymous sheet of walnut-pattern Formica is both itself and a depiction of a wooden plane; a table or chair is furniture, sculpture, and image all at once. Artschwager has called one of his early table works, Table with Pink Tablecloth, 1964, a "multipicture," "a painting pushed into three dimensions." [2] It may involve no paint, but its simply arranged inlays propose an image even while they cling to an abbreviated cube: We see a schematic table and tablecloth, the latter "drawn" by lateral Formica triangles adjoining an upper square of the same color. Perhaps Artschwager's new paintings find him still pulling ideas out o f textiles and tables: In Pastoral IV, 1999, the flatter areas of country are checkered like a gingham tablecloth. But hints like this one are rare--more often whatever is under those drapes could be as small as a book or as big as a crate. There is nothing to tell us their scale.

It is pleasant, though, to think they might be crates, since among Artschwager's significant innovations of the '905 was a body of sculpture based on the handmade crates in which artworks are commonly shipped. These works of 1992-95 announce an indeterminacy of category, each one simultaneously implying an art object's container and constituting an art object in itself. In this sense the crates rephrase Artschwager's fascination with the painting's frame, to which he has often called attention, here enlarging it, there lining it with mirror, or letting it bulk up into an independent work. (I am thinking of pieces such as Two Indentations of 1967, in which a heavy, beveled surround frames the depression where an image might be expected but is not found.) Blocky constructions of heavy, handsome two-by-fours and plywood sheets, the crates continue the picture frames fusion of art and its case, the nearest manifestation of its context or environment. …

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