Richard Artschwager is sitting on the steps of one of his sculptures, leaning against its monolithic slab, quietly absorbed in a book. He wears jeans rolled up at the cuffs, white sneakers and a nondescript blue shirt. His legs are casually crossed, and he peers at the book’s pages through wire-rimmed spectacles.
In other circumstances, he could be reading beneath a park monument. Only Artschwager is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the park is an indoor sculpture exhibition, which opens today and represents a quarter-century of his life’s work.
The artist is proud. “It’s a beauty,” he says of the work’s presentation, which features his hallmark Formica furniture sculpture and paintings on Celotex. At 64, he is finally comfortable with having such a cumulative event. “I’m at peace with my gray hair and I’m at peace with the retrospective,” he says.
Though he’s shown with ultra-prestigious Leo Castelli since 1963, the New York artist and former furniture maker has been appreciated late in his career, having been largely lost in a garble of labels--Conceptual-Minimal-Duchampian-Dadaist-Photo Realist--which he predated or interpreted in a more personal manner.
In 1979, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., staged the first major survey of his work, and since then recognition has come in a rush. Two years ago, the Mary Boone Gallery showed a mini-restrospective of his ‘60s furniture constructions. Once frustrated by his works, critics suddenly began citing him as “brilliant,” “original,” “significant,” while a young generation of artists working with furniture has conferred him with the grand-old-man status of a classical artist.
The current show, organized by the Whitney Museum of Art, is the official bugle call, announcing that the art world has awakened to Artschwager.
For his part, the artist is eager to show his “stuff,” as he calls it. A tall, lanky man, he unfolds himself and stands affably smiling amid his art, like a young boy in a roomful of toys.
The monolith, “Tower,” for instance, seems playful enough. The viewer scampers up the steps, peeks through the camera-like opening, sees the white gallery wall and laughs.
Artschwager says he wants people to learn how to look, and he sees his art as a catalyst that stimulates their experience. They’re not being had, he says, but rather asked to participate.
“The artist should go away and disappear. Get the artist out of there and above all tape up his mouth,” he says, turning and loping off through the galleries. Among the works spread before him are the grinning ivories of his “Piano II,” “Elevator,” with its ascending and descending chorus of a - h-h-hs , his “Table with Pink Tablecloth” and “Tower III (Confessional),” in which he explored relationships of power after his second marriage broke up.
He stops in front of his twin table and mirror constructions.
“It’s meant to be what it’s like or what it could be like. You can take your choice. One is the fact and the other is the alternative,” he says.
“Why does art have to be so complicated? Of course, it doesn’t.”
His tour de force, however, the work he thinks he might not be able to repeat, is the prosaically itemized “Clothes Closet, Bed, Rug, Corner,” a black-and-white domestic scene he painted on Celotex three years ago. Artschwager has created two distances, two scales, two points of view, one on eye level, the other an Alice-in-Wonderland look at a tiny world down the rabbit hole, he says.
The tour de force is the rug. “It had to look right in respect to that (the small furniture), but it also had to look right in respect to that (the large corner), which is a different perspective. That’s done by letting the rug have wrinkles. It’s really too far from the wall, but it’s OK because of the patterns, and it’s folded back,” he says, beaming.
Artschwager desperately wants the viewer to see . “If you look long enough that will start happening,” he says.
Succinctly, Artschwager’s credo is “live and let live.” About the only thing he is sure of is ambiguity. The consummate analyst, Artschwager is constantly looking back at himself. He is a student of the Enlightenment, believing that critical reason can free humanity from indoctrination. “I’m an 18th-Century person,” he says. “The flaw is daydreaming.”
Reality is the ups and downs of his life: three marriages--the second one ending in “neurotic storm and stress"--dead spots of creativity, the 1958 fire that destroyed his furniture shop and ultimately signaled the way into art.
Existence is tricky. You’ve got to savor what you’ve got and not count on anything more.
“I’m looking at you in this setting which is this table and these other tables over there. Time-wise there’s eternity over here, then there’s your time, then eternity over there. So whatever you do, if you just turn your head that way, you refer to the emptiness there. That’s very special. You blink and that’s very special. Everything counts.
“I think that’s part of growing up and being less prone to edit great chucks out of your life. In your 20s, you can say, ‘That’s a rotten day,’ or ‘That was a rotten year.’ I can’t afford to do that anymore.
“My fraternity with you or him over there is we’re here a short time. That’s a solidarity that I really trust and it’s the only solidarity I’d press on anybody else.
“I’m at peace with the fact that I speak with a certain voice from a certain place. What I am is a petty bourgeois tradesperson making a little more money than he’s supposed to be. Which is a cheap shot. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything false or insincere about what I said.”
Artschwager homes in on the ambiguity that’s at the heart of his art-making: the useful and the useless.
“The concern about useful and useless becomes itself something to stare at, if not to contemplate. It could give you the hives. Once you’ve figured out that art can be image and fact, true or false, and it can be both at the same time, then if you’ve been making useful furniture, you can make furniture that is both useful and useless.
“It is not necessary that it be one or the other!” Artschwager says.
“People say I make furniture-related objects which are useless.” He pauses again. “I’m outraged!”
Artschwager asks his interviewer to look at his red “Chair” before leaving the exhibit. “I worked hard to make an image of a chair, but you can also sit in it,” he says triumphantly. “Proof of the pudding is that people are sitting in it all the time and the guards are having to tell them to get up.”
But for the time being, the chair is empty.