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Richard Artschwager dies at 89; painter and sculptor

Artschwager created sculptures carefully crafted from wood and often covered in Formica. His paintings, mostly limited to black acrylic, were applied to cheap materials and derive from photos.

By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic

February 11, 2013

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Richard Artschwager, an artist who turned his apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker into a distinctive approach to making sculptures and paintings that defy easy categorization, died Saturday in Albany, N.Y., following a brief illness. He was 89.

A retrospective of Artschwager's work, which travels to the UCLA Hammer Museum in June, closed Feb. 3 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. It was the Whitney's second Artschwager retrospective and will be the third to be shown in Southern California. The first was co-organized by the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art in 1979, while the Whitney's 1988 retrospective was also seen that year at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Artschwager is primarily known for three unique bodies of work. His sculptures, carefully crafted from wood and often covered in a veneer of ordinary Formica, establish a subtle tension between the conventional utility of furniture and the perceived uselessness of art. His paintings, mostly limited to black acrylic applied to a cheap building material known as Celotex board, frequently derive from photographs, but they are given unexpected material heft with the addition of heavy, light-reflective metal frames.

Finally, an installation aspect took the form of small, lozenge-shaped pieces of black wood or vinyl decals that the artist inserted into unexpected architectural places. The shape recalls the space to be filled in with black pencil or ink on a computerized questionnaire like a standardized exam or election ballot, or the hole in an old IBM punch-card. Artschwager called these abstract lozenges "Blps" — pronounced "blips" — and their subtle references suggest that a meaning or an answer is located someplace else. He deployed them like perceptual black holes that draw curious energy from the spaces around them.

What unites Artschwager's disparate sculptures, paintings and Blps is their exploration of the vagaries of perception. A viewer is never quite certain of exactly what he is looking at — including the object's status as art. For instance, merely through different colored shapes of laminate veneer, a plain waist-high cube might also describe a solid table, the empty space beneath it and the thin tablecloth on top of it.

Coming of age in the 1950s, when emotion was at the core of Abstract Expressionist painting and sculpture and the purity of different mediums was paramount, Artschwager instead turned to sense perception to make art that crossed established boundaries. Furniture was a touchstone for the development of his work.

"Handle" (1962) was the breakthrough piece. A rectangle 4 feet wide and 30 inches high is beautifully crafted from a cylinder of honed and polished wood. Although three-dimensional like a sculpture, it hangs on the wall like a painting. Made of wood, like a painting's traditional frame, it only encloses a view of the wall behind it. Meant to be grasped, as any handle would, it cannot be touched because it is a work of art.

Artschwager was getting a "handle" on the direction his art would take for the next 50 years. Painting, sculpture, context and perception seem to collapse into themselves in this eccentric object, as the old categories are being erased. Qualities that would soon be attributed to Pop, Minimal and Conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s are all present.

"Portrait I," also from 1962, further elaborated his interests. An ordinary bedroom dresser is topped by a framed picture of a slightly grinning man. The wood grain of the dresser is hand-painted, its swirls a pastiche of Abstract Expressionist gestures, while the photo-based painted portrait is blurred and out of focus, defeating the commemorative purpose.

"Portrait II," made the following year, accelerated his evolution. This dresser has no drawers, forsaking function, while the face in the picture has been replaced by a solid plane of Formica that is the same material from which the dresser/pedestal is made.

Formica was patented in 1913 as an electrical insulation substitute "for mica," a silicate that resists electrical current, but after World War II it gained widespread popularity as a decorative laminate. Artschwager applied its low-art properties to high-art purposes. He exploited the plastic's artificial pictorial qualities, since it imitates not only natural materials such as stone and wood but the brushwork in abstract paintings.

Artschwager often used Formica that looks like burl wood, a deformity of the grain that grows in trees under stress. Burl also finds a wry precedent in the elaborate wood veneers of 18th century aristocratic French furniture, widely considered a pinnacle of achievement in the European history of decorative art. Applied to modern geometric forms like cubes and plinths, Artschwager made sculptures that have the strange sense of being ordinary objects that are simultaneously pictures of objects.

As a support for paintings that often focus on architectural subjects chosen from reproductions in newspapers, magazines and books, Artschwager used Celotex board rather than canvas. Celotex is a textured building material that, like the original Formica, is also used as insulation. Its random pattern of surface whorls captures little puddles of thinned acrylic paint, blurring any image painted on it. Artschwager used the property to advantage.

"Untitled (Tract House)," from 1967, one of eight Artschwager works in the Museum of Contemporary Art's collection, is emblematic. An ordinary, boxy middle-class house fills the image, which is taken from a black and white photograph. The Celotex makes it as fuzzy as a TV picture on the fritz. The bulky silver frame gives the dissolving scene some heft, but something also seems askew. It takes a moment to realize that the composition's perspective is out of whack.

Follow the sidewalk leading to the home's entry, and the trajectory of the path just misses the stairs and the front door, landing in the bushes and bumping into a blank wall. The more you attempt to reconcile the domestic entry, the more the image of home seems to fall apart. The eccentric painting pictures the convention that says you can't go home again.

"Untitled (Destruction)" (1980), also in MOCA's collection, shows a tall building midway into an explosive demolition, apparently being razed to make way for something new. As the big, once sturdy building falls apart, your eyes struggle to pull together the fuzzy scene into a coherent whole. In a metaphoric struggle between life and death, collapse and construction, creation and ruin are held in pictorial tension.

In the 1990s Artschwager made an extensive series of sculptures in the form of shipping crates. On one hand they acknowledged the new internationalization of art, where at any given moment thousands of artworks (and artists) are in transit to someplace else. On the other, the sealed boxes convert the gallery or museum where they are shown into a mausoleum — a tomb for art that is ostensibly hidden inside. The container holds the hidden meaning, or else it is the visible meaning itself.

Richard Ernst Artschwager was born Dec. 26, 1923, in Washington, D.C., the son of German and Ukrainian parents. When his father contracted tuberculosis, the family relocated to Las Cruces, N.M.

In 1941 he enrolled at Cornell University to study science, but he was drafted into the Army to serve in Europe during World War II. Following the war, during a 1946 posting in Vienna, he met and married Elfriede Wejmelka, his first of four wives. Three marriages ended in divorce.

Discharged the following year, Artschwager returned to Cornell to finish his undergraduate degree. Encouraged by Elfriede, he moved to New York City to study at the studio school established by Amédée Ozenfant, a French expatriate artist. To support his new family, he set art aside in the early 1950s and took up a variety of odd jobs, including lathe operator, baby photographer and bank clerk. Eventually he decided to design, make and sell furniture. A devastating studio fire in 1958 destroyed his inventory.

In the wake of the disaster, Artschwager began to reconsider his abandoned plan to be an artist, and he used his experience as a cabinetmaker to explore the possibilities. He was 38 when he made "Handle" and "Portrait I," the works that announced the beginning of his rapidly maturing art. He began to be included in group exhibitions and had his first solo exhibition as a mature artist at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1965. His first Los Angeles solo exhibition was at Eugenia Butler Gallery in 1970.

Artschwager showed at numerous galleries and museums in the United States and internationally, including at Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and at the Venice Bienale. His final gallery exhibition last October at Gagosian Gallery in Rome featured five laminate sculptures of upright and grand pianos. Utilizing the Formica patterns to make references to early 20th century artists as diverse as Kazimir Malevich and Henri Matisse, they also made a retrospective nod to his first piano sculpture in 1965.

Artschwager, who lived in the small village of Hudson, N.Y., is survived by his wife, Ann Sebring; his children Eva, Clara and Augustus Theodore, and by his sister, Margarita.

christopher.knight@latimes.com