Richard Artschwager, who died in February at 89, was that exceedingly rare artist who made paintings and sculptures of virtually equal merit.
In contemporary art, usually it’s one or the other. Painters paint, sculptors sculpt, and the differences between them constitute a gulf difficult for one artist to bridge. A few painters, such as Ellsworth Kelly, also manage estimable sculpture. Jeff Koons, to cite perhaps the most prominent current example of a sculptor-who-also-paints, has made some terrific sculptures since the 1980s, but every Koons painting I’ve seen has pretty much been a sad waste of canvas.
Not Artschwager — who, it should be pointed out, almost never used canvas as a support for his paintings, a pertinent fact that we’ll explore in a moment. The traveling retrospective now at the UCLA Hammer Museum features about 145 works that include drawings, prints, photographs and ephemera. Some omissions from the early years and a jumble of late work make the show less than satisfactory. But the eye- and mind-bending paintings and sculptures from 1962 to about 1974 cement his reputation as a major artist shaking up a pivotal era.
A primary reason for Artschwager’s unusual success as both a painter and a sculptor is that his paintings are pictures made into objects, while his sculptures are objects made into pictures. The slip and slide between two and three dimensions in both bodies of work keep a viewer on his toes, unsure of exactly what he’s looking at.
His best work induces what artist Ed Ruscha has helpfully described as the “Huh? Wow!” sequence of response, rather than the dispiriting “Wow! Huh?” For art, there’s nothing better than that.
Take the 1964 sculpture “Description of a Table,” installed in the first room with a suspended exclamation point made of chartreuse plastic bristles (think emphatic visual scrub brush). Like the title says, five flat planes in a cubic form describe a plain wooden Parsons table topped by a white tablecloth set on the diagonal. Artschwager built the cubic form from plywood, then covered it with carefully joined pieces of Formica — wood-grained for the table top and legs, white for the cloth and black for the empty space beneath the table.
Visually seamless, the Formica pieces fit together like a puzzle, establishing a picture in three dimensions. (Huh?) The table is a bit lower than it is wide — about 26 inches tall and 32 inches on a side, so it’s not a perfect, stable cube. Your mind, though, wants to make it into one, and the slight instability of the form helps keep the odd pictorialism off-kilter.
You could use this handsomely made box as a table, and the melamine laminate would be easy to clean. As a sculpture, however, the socially sanctioned status of the object says “hands off.” Art isn’t utilitarian, but it is functional; this pictorial sculpture seems to have crafted its own distinctive niche for demonstrating how. (Wow!)
If “Description of a Table” is an object made of pictures, both visually and conceptually, Artschwager’s 1967 “Train Wreck” is a picture that turns the tables (you should pardon the expression). The artist practically cobbled the painting together as a construction project, applying thinned acrylic to the slightly whorled surface of Celotex fiberboard, a building material often used for insulation. It’s framed in wide, light-reflective aluminum that looks like window trim.
Based on a black-and-white photograph of a railroad accident, “Train Wreck” shows four derailed cars at the mouth of a tunnel in the woods. The zig-zag pileup recedes dramatically in space, with the linear angles of the cars establishing a strong visual thrust toward a traditional one-point perspective in the distance.
Here’s the hitch: The vanishing point is just to the right of the tunnel mouth, missing the opening by a few feet. Is that what caused the train to crash?
Train tracks converging in the distance provide the classic explanation of how one-point perspective works — or at least how it used to work, before Artschwager got his hands on it. Painterly illusion here bumps up into deft material fabrication, which makes the image resonate as an emphatically man-made object.
Artschwager’s choice of Celotex was ingenious, its patterned surface causing the acrylic paint to puddle in its nooks and crannies. Visually, the picture faintly blurs.
The vibrant broken brushwork of Impressionist painting, deadened from decades of fawning public appreciation, is enlivened once more as a method for emphasizing art’s imaginative power — even though all the color is drained out. You squint when looking at an Artschwager painting, which heightens its sense of demanding physicality.
At the Hammer, the technique reaches a crescendo in the fourth room, where several examples from his series of “destruction” paintings are installed. Based on newspaper photographs of a demolition-by-dynamite of the huge, once-opulent, long-abandoned Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J., the blurred images of bricks-and-mortar dramatically falling apart cause your eyes and mind to struggle to pull the dissolving picture back together into something coherent. The artistic tension between destruction and construction, representation and reality is ratcheted up — a useful strategy in a modern environment flooded with disorienting mass-media.
Later, Artschwager applied the “Destruction” technique to portraits of prominent public figures who were responsible for unfathomable devastation. Portraits of Osama bin Laden and President George W. Bush are disconcertingly poignant, since they depict the stark limits of representational understanding of human identity. A self-portrait mulls the artist’s own cultural role in pulling things apart.
The most haunting of these works is “Natural Selection,” based on a 1995 newspaper photograph of a group of U.S. military recruits. Their camouflage uniforms dissolve into the painting’s fractured Celotex surface. Standing in the center — as if hiding in plain sight — is a stalwart Timothy McVeigh, the subsequent American terrorist whose racist, anti-government ideology eventually exploded at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
“Natural Selection” demonstrates that later Artschwager can be powerful. So does a sepulchral body of eccentrically shaped sculptures based on ordinary shipping crates; a reconsideration of “Description of a Table” that is larger and injected with unusual color; and, some strange constructions that are like Formica, wood and paint impossibly flung and splattered into the gallery’s corners.
Still, the show pretty much peters out around 1974, when Artschwager himself felt stuck, and he began to experiment with finding ways out of the impasse. Chaos descends on the show, and one wishes for a bit more curatorial clarity in sorting things out.
Which brings us to a question that was immediately posed when the show had its debut at New York’s Whitney Museum last October: Did we really need an Artschwager retrospective — the artist’s third, all of them seen in Southern California — right now? Certainly it’s useful for younger generations, who might be unfamiliar with his wonderfully quirky achievement (the Museum of Contemporary Art hosted the 1988-89 survey). But, if so, it’s hard to excuse pivotal omissions that would have illuminated Artschwager’s development.
Take “Handle I” (1962) — a continuous, 4-foot-tall rectangle of beautifully polished wooden railing affixed to the wall — which is not on view. The handrail is a legacy of Artschwager’s prior work as a cabinetmaker. Hung on the wall like an empty picture that simultaneously invites and rejects your grasp, it does little to steady the visual and conceptual transit between picture and object on which his marvelous paintings and sculptures soon evolved.
Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd.
When: Through Sept. 1. Closed Monday.
Info: (310) 443-7000 or https://www.hammer.ucla.edu