The entrance gallery of the Richard Artschwager exhibition at the Hammer, on view through September 1, is painted in a shade of bright blue used by the artist on various objects, a blue that perfectly compliments his monumental exclamation point made of yellow plastic bristles. It is a late work, 2008, while on the floor stands an early work, a dark formica covered cube with the pale pink shape of a tablecloth, also in formica. Made in 1964, the piece references three powerful moments to coalesce in that decade. As Whitney Museum curator Jennifer Gross, who organized the show, writes in the catalogue, "His pictures and objects sobered up Pop, lightened up Minimalism, and made Conceptual art something other than just a thinking man's game."
Richard Artschwager, "Exclamation Point" (Chartreuse) 2008
Gagosian Gallery, New York
© Richard Artschwager. Photography by Robert McKee
This level of ambition, intelligence, talent and humor were not necessarily to be expected of Artschwager. Raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the son of a German botanist father and Russian artist mother, Artschwager studied biology and mathematics when he first went to college but was drafted in 1944, wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, and then worked in counter intelligence. When he went back to Cornell University in 1947, he completed his degree in physics. When he moved to New York City, he made a living as a maker of fine cabinets and furniture for a decade. But he also studied painting with Amedee Ozenfant and slowly integrated his craft with his ideas about perception. In1965, his work was included in a group show at Leo Castelli, where he continued to show for the next 25 years. He was forty-two years old.
If it seems an improbable story, Artschwager always made improbable art integrating the quotidian with the exalted, the banal with the extraordinary.
Richard Artschwager, "Destruction III," 1972
Stefan T. Edlis Collection. © Richard Artschwager
Photo Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York
The show is extremely well-installed by Hammer curator Anne Ellegood with his series of grisaille Celotex paintings given just enough space: The Polish Rider series of interiors and the Destruction paintings chronicling the moment by moment implosion of the Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City. All are executed from photographs, like Warhol's work at the time, but painted on the rough surfaces of the material used for ceiling tiles so that up close they are quite difficult to see, while from a distance, the images coalesce.
And there are a number of Blps, weird shapes, often oval, made of rubberized horsehair in brown or black that Artschwager mounted in the corners of galleries to be seen with the peripheral vision. He first concocted them in 1967 while teaching at UC Davis.
Richard Artschwager, "Description of Table," 1964
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Gift of the Howard and Jean Lipman Foundation, Inc.
© Richard Artschwager
Photo: © 2000 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Photograph by Steven Sloman
Much of his sculpture refers to the basic shapes of chairs, tables, rugs and lamps but by covering them with formica, he melded the forms with a photograph of a surface like enlarged wood grain. And Journal II is an explosion of diagonal slashes in formica of wood grain of brown and grisaille mounted in the corner of a gallery with a giant chrome hinge for an effect wacky, charming and smart.
Artschwager, who died last February at the age of 89, may have felt like an outsider but his legacy is sophistication itself. His great contribution is, as he said, making "a sculpture for the eye and a painting for the touch." Organized with the Yale University Art Museum, the show will travel. For more information, go to Hammer.UCLA.edu.
Banner image: Richard Artschwager. Journal II, 1991. Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Elvehjem Museum of Art General. © Richard Artschwager