In Conversation

Richard Artschwager in Conversation with John Yau & Eve Aschheim

Richard Artschwager, "Lunch for two" (2007). Acrylic, charcoal, hand-made fiber and formica on soundboard, 51 1/2 × 75 1/2 inches. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

Shortly after Richard Artschwager’s exhibition of paintings and sculptures opened at Gagosian Gallery (January 24–March 8, 2008) the Rail Art Editor John Yau and his wife, the painter Eve Aschheim visited the artist in his Manhattan apartment and home in Upstate New York to discuss his work.

Eve Aschheim: What are you working on these days?

Richard Artschwager: Eternal Life… but I don’t anticipate much progress. I expect limited progress. [Laughs]

John Yau: I saw an unfinished painting in your studio of a number of people, including a woman in a dress, holding long sticks, encircling a man.

Artschwager: That’s a mixture of intentions, the event and a fiction.

Yau: It is a strange painting; you said earlier it was a hybrid. It is a real thing and a fantasy. It’s violent.

Artschwager: The model was a group of people in the newspaper. Each person has a script; it is read to everyone by his or her own psyche, or somebody is reading it. The figures show some signs of expression or attitude. I pretty much individually work that up, to get each of them to develop their own character for better or for worse. There’s a dark side of this—to push around or be pushed around, that is a constant.

Aschheim: You deal comprehensively with many of the essential aspects of life: basic human drives, emotions and conditions, birth, death, family, meals, potatoes, memory, pornography, violence; one’s environment, landscape, roads, disasters, news, politics, urbanity, architecture and home. And these subjects are infused with the more philosophical issues, such as perception, phenomenology, irony, Modernism, abstraction, symbolism, and displacement, as well as your formal conceptions of spatiality on the border of the literal and depicted flatness/dimensionality. You’ve collapsed the difference between pictorial/sculptural space and art and common objects or furniture. I saw a woman put her bag on your sculpture of a table at your opening, thinking it was a table.

At the same time, very few American artists of your generation deal with violence. You did a number of portraits of killers: Osama bin Laden, Timothy McVeigh, etc.

Editor’s note: “Osama” the painting in Artschwager’s ny apartment was withheld from his 2003 exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in London because of its “potentially politically incendiary nature” and was not reproduced in the catalog. However, it was reproduced in a French catalog from Domaine de Kerguehennec (2003) opposite a portrait of George W. Bush.

Artschwager: Well, I experienced violence. I participated in the Battle of the Bulge. I have experienced fear.

Yau: Let’s go back to your most recent show at Gagosian. The first thing that struck me about the work is that all along you’ve been really interested in domesticity—tables, chairs—right from the first things that you made; paintings that were about interiors, houses, but always domesticity was held at a kind of arm’s length, and now it seems to me something changed in this most recently completed body of work, which has people in it; it’s a different view of domesticity and time.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Artschwager: Well, let’s see if you’re right, because something has changed, but there are a couple of constants: one that I picked up early would be to pay special attention to what’s underfoot, and that followed on an intention, a plan, not a hope, but an intention, to be original. And as I looked for, you know, territories, or where you could scratch around and find some originality, I quickly went for the underfoot, but it may have suggested itself when I took things from around me.… I encountered a ceiling that had a pattern, and that suggested that pattern could be anywhere. So I transplanted the pattern onto something else that was possibly underfoot…

I saw some Formica. Pay attention, pay attention. Around the same time, I think it preceded that, would be when I did a crazy thing. Ok, I was gonna make art, ok, I’ll make a painting. And I had as an inspiration, a chest of drawers, and so I painted a chest of drawers on a chest of drawers; that is to say, I painted grain over grain. I know that happened more than once, using the painted grain.

Yau: And then you painted a portrait—

Artschwager: Yes, it came from a photograph in a Spanish language newspaper, and the photograph was someone who had either raped or killed his sister. It was a young face that was loaded with history. Now how much of that was subjective, that I was seeing into it….I think it was there, and I recognized it, and I painted it. Previous to this, when I was much younger, and even before I went into the army, I’d done a painting of my father that was shockingly accurate—this was my first go at painting, period. So I filed that away because I was into more serious things, namely biology, genetics, science in other words. Later, postwar, I had met my first wife in Vienna, and that was the Occupation, and I hadn’t been in the war long enough so they stuck me in Occupation, and I met a couple of people and I had the language pretty much under control.

Yau: Right, you spoke German.

Artschwager: Right. So, anyway, I was interested in science and in art. Around the time our friendship got serious, a woman said to me: “You have to choose, focus on one. You can always change.” And so, I went to art because it’s unpredictable, and science, except in rare cases, is uncovering what’s already there. I couldn’t sleep that night—“What the hell have I done?” It’s like jumping off of a cliff. The door was open nevertheless… and then what to do with that… and it having to be original—how the heck can you be original?

Yau: So in ’47 you decided to be an artist and be original, but you made your first original pieces around 1962, right, when you did the sculpture Handle.

Artschwager: Yeah, in ’62. Formica, it came to my rescue, and non-European handy instincts, which is, what materials to use. “Handle” was made from stair railing, something that the individual naturally grips.

Yau: Things that people touch, like tables, chairs, and drawers, but then there’s “Lefrak City”, ’62…

Artschwager: Yeah, “Lefrak City” was also from the Spanish language paper, I know that I gridded it off like 1 to 24, thinking that should work out right.

Yau: Again, there is this domestic side.

Artschwager: Well, it’s what’s underfoot, and that which is on hand.

Yau: Tables, chairs, Lefrak City, and interiors.

Richard Artschwager: Well the other thing that I did was put in perspective; I was looking for things that were out of fashion and I would put those to work because they were forbidden.

Yau: There’s one thing I wanted to ask you about perspective. One artist that I know you like is George Tooker, and I wondered if you’d ever met him.

Artschwager: As you know, I have this beautiful little painting in the bedroom in New York.

Yau: And you also have drawings by Tooker. Which artists did you know in the early days?

Artschwager: Roy Lichtenstein was one of my first artist friends.

Aschheim: And also, Gerhard Richter you met early, right? In Germany?

Artschwager: Oh, yeah, yeah. We were right about at the same stage, and the work was even a bit similar, and I dunno, we might have even traded. Nice to find somebody in Europe who was on a similar track, and we were both taken by one another’s work. You know, there was a buddy.

Aschheim: When I saw you in 2006 at moma’s [Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R.] Broida Collection show, I asked you about Richter, you said you met him in the 1970s and still see him occasionally. You both used photographs that you had found, with a special kind of treatment, surface texture, both obscuring details and revealing subjectivity.

Artschwager: Yeah. I had come to New York, and I went to the classifieds because I needed a job. I had saved some money, but somehow it got spent very quickly. So there was an ad for a person who had to have a car, and a 2-lens reflex camera, and the job turned out to be…I’ll describe it. Ok, you get an assignment of several addresses, I think as many as ten addresses. I learned what exhaustion is.

Yau: Was this like the babies that you photographed for the diaper service?

Artschwager: The company offered a 5×7 photo portrait for five dollars or something like that. That was real money then. It brought in enough people so that the idea is that you don’t take one photograph, you shoot a whole roll, and then they can pick, and you’ve got ‘em by the short hairs [laughs], and in some cases they wanted all of them, or maybe three or four they absolutely had to have, so that made it worthwhile. I got paid, you know, it was real money, but I saw what the company was getting, and how little I was getting by taking these pictures, so I thought, I’m gonna save copies, and these were pretty good sized, but I got them enlarged a little bit more, and I had a book I could show to people, and I sold them off the street to housewives, and I found a very good market with the more affluent Puerto Ricans. Once you’ve taken the pictures, you got ‘em. And I could speak Spanish.

Yau: Also the whole thing with using photographs in your work in the ’60s was a big influence on Malcolm Morley.

Artschwager: Oh yeah. He had been doing abstractions, abstract landscapes. He took the cue, which was fine, there’s plenty of room. And that’s pretty much it.

Yau: Let’s go back to the recent show. Some of the paintings took their inspiration from people like Vuillard. Like in the painting which has a clock and two people. You can see that grandfather clock in a Vuillard painting. And then there’s the obvious reference to Morandi, but bigger than a Morandi.

Artschwager: Well, Morandi was a god for me--the power of small things. He reached other people too. At that time I could’ve bought one. But we all regret not having bought at that time when we could’ve. But Morandi could make a still life of…anything. Everything is important, nothing is unimportant. It was a reminder to me—check out everything.

Aschheim: He’s also a painter who flattens forms.

Artschwager: The event that hit everybody was…Jasper Johns. Jasper Johns taking numbers and having the numbers not be just numbers. At the same time that it’s a number it could be a thing. . Everybody owes Jasper Johns for that… including myself. [Laughs]

Aschheim: You made the exclamation point into a three-dimensional sculpture. But in your new paintings, there’s something interesting with the tablecloths, the way they’re folded, and they’re starting to almost stand up. You get this feeling that the tablecloth is unfolding. And you did them in charcoal?

Artschwager: Well, certainly I started them in charcoal. I learned that from my mom who was a painter. She’d start blocking it in with charcoal. And then you start in with a bigger brush, you know, and some wash.

Yau: And drawing is a big part of what you do. You’ve done all different kinds of drawings. From the very linear ones, such as the series “Basket Table Door Window Mirror Rug” (1974), that are all line, to very tonal works such as the landscapes that you did, where you put a table cloth over the objects, and you made this kind of landscape, but it’s something else, too. Those are beautiful.

Artschwager: It’s trying to keep it from being boring. But sticking with the depiction.

Yau: You like depiction.

Artschwager: Well, I could say I trust it. It’s always gonna be a depiction anyway.

Yau: But I mean you trusted it at a time, 1962, where there was a kind of distrust of depiction.

Artschwager: Depiction was verboten. I had learned that by then—things that are unthinkable, check ‘em out. That’s the chief way for finding originality if originality is the target, then that’s one way, and probably necessary. Perspective, and the stuff that was absolutely verboten. But then I didn’t grow up in the art world, I mean my mother did painting, but I grew up in the scientific world. Science isn’t based on belief. Science is discovery, uncovering what’s there, it isn’t even invention, except in rare cases, like the physicists who really opened up…

Yau: What’s this painting, here dated ’62

Editor’s note: on the wall above the couch in ny living room.

Artschwager: It’s an early painting, period.

Yau: Well, you change very quickly, Richard.

Artschwager: Well, I have tried to use the theme, which is the plowed field, forest, and sky, or something like that, and the shape. It’s exactly the way I visualized it. This part, up there, I had a pan, one of those glass pans, and a thin mix of that color I guess, a paper towel rolled up, crunched up, maybe it would’ve taken two towels, and then dipped into the paint, and then unroll it. I’ve done that in other paintings. None of the others has come out quite as good as that, image-wise, and, it does everything, or it’s one of those things that is working for you.

Aschheim: It also has that “blp” shape.

Artschwager: Right. [laughs] But the “blp” was an organized search for the cheapest, most accessible piece of art possible—where I defined what I was gonna do.

Yau: The “blp”?

Artschwager: And that came out, the perfect size was a loaf of bread.

Aschheim: It’s as close as you’ve come to a logo.

Artschwager: It’s got that flexibility, yeah. It can do that. And then there was also a size that, the logo, would allow me to do the environmental thing.

Aschheim: It’s enigmatic. I remember seeing it and thinking, “What is this? What am I supposed to do with this?” Because it really didn’t fit in to any category that I had previously had. Didn’t you do that at uc Davis?

Artschwager: Yes, I was teaching at Davis in the late ’60s—those guys set a good example—with William T. Wiley, Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Wayne Thiebaud and others…. I was trying to see the minimum number of brushstrokes or lines to make something that is recognizable as a cat. I think I got it down to seven or eight, and, in the process of making these black marks; there were works that traveled with that. Take one of those marks and put it somewhere…take a felt marker on a newspaper…black dots blocking out somebody’s eyes; somehow the black dot traveled, as a thing unto itself, not round but elongated. It turned into a “blp”, and there it was.

Aschheim: So in the new paintings shown at Gagosian you’re making a mixture of, is it acrylic medium and powdered charcoal?

Artschwager: Well, I would take something, there’s something I would grind. I’d take powdered pigment, black, and that was ferrous. Ferric would be completely oxidized, and ferrous would have the magnetic properties, and that’s the one that got used. It was delicate, but I was able to make it less delicate, and when a thin suspension of that was dumped over the image, and you rocked it back and forth, this would dry out, but it would dry out first on the irregular surface. And the peaks would pick up the pigment first, and would stay there. And then on down, so that you got a gradation of peaks and valleys, a depiction of the paper, where if you enlarged it a whole lot, it really would be a rocky mountain landscape, it would have that kind of complexity, but still having a structure, a structure slipping into texture.

Yau: Oh, that makes sense.

Aschheim: And there’s a relationship to Seurat, I think, the way that he used the ridges and grooves of the paper. You get those smoky areas with the pigment wash over this new hand made paper, an improved version of Celotex.. The Celotex you previously used was prefabricated with a stamped pattern, right? But now you have someone make paper by hand out of bagasse, a sugar cane fiber, which is then mounted to a sound deadening board?

Artschwager: Yes. The Celotex was not being made the same way and it was not serving my needs anymore. You know, how does Celotex happen? That would be the next thing. So grinding that stuff up, or getting the fiber, that was easy enough. Wherever they were making sugar, there was a lot of leftover fiber with a range of coarseness that would give me a full vocabulary, and I got two 55-gallon drums shipped to me. Then you could make your paper with a mixture of very fine fibers and coarse fibers, and, with a screen, you
got your paper.

Aschheim: Because the new paper looks different to me than the Celotex. It has more variety, it is less flat and mechanical; it doesn’t have the repetitive pattern. It’s more varied in the different areas, in how it holds the paint.

Artschwager: Well that would be inevitable. So that you have a spread of coarse and fine, and, besides, they improved the Celotex and ruined it for me. There was somebody I was talking to about this that said, “I can make that.” He was this very serious dude.

Yau: Kenneth Polinskie, the excellent papermaker, right?

Artschwager: Yeah.

Aschheim: I feel like you got a huge variety of effects and textures, and even space, compared to some of the previous ones. It seems more painterly and more flexible spatially.

Artschwager: It was work getting there. Certainly not a disagreeable task. Frustration is self-generated. It takes however long it takes.

Richard Artschwager, "Parson's Table" (2007). Formica on wood, 30 1/8 × 43 1/2 × 52 inches. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

Aschheim: One thing that’s interesting to me is that the surface is almost really interrupting the image, it’s almost fighting the image. You really have to try to form the image, and there’s this interesting feeling of resistance, to being able to really identify the image.

Artschwager: But there’s nothing to look at. So it’s borderline, and I think I can say that’s intentional. It works.

Aschheim: Yeah, you feel your mind trying to form something, and it’s slipping away. It eludes you.

Artschwager: Well, teasing is useful [laughs]. There is a limit where it’s just a pain.

Aschheim: The other thing that’s interesting is putting the Formica-like laminate in, because in a way, when you started showing the Formica pieces they were so odd as sculptures. You know people didn’t know quite what to do with them. And now you have that in the painting, so it’s almost the same feeling of a shock. It’s surprising to me, you know. Did you cut the laminate out yourself?

Artschwager: I’ve got somebody who likes to do that, not only likes to do it, but does it well. So I’ll take whatever shape he has, I’ll just lay that onto the picture and trace around it, or make a hole.

Yau: Right, and then put it in.

Artschwager: Painting is something that leads itself. It is for the critic or historian to give it a framework. But art, art happens when somebody is looking. Well, looking for a necktie. Well, that’s not it. An enclosure that contains it is “useless looking.” Art is not an object; it is an event.

Aschheim: Do you have any advice for young artists?

Artschwager: Yeah. Watch for accidents. And make a note of them somehow or you might forget. Because the accidents don’t come that often or sometimes not at all. What I am talking about is looking for originality. And above all one doesn’t want to be “school of.” For an artist that is the kiss of death.

Yau: You were associated Pop Art at the beginning.

Artschwager: The expression Pop Art is grossly misleading; there is nothing popular about it. Context is a useful thing to pay attention to. Cubism is another one that is misleading, that period has nothing to do with cubes. If you think of shingles you get a better idea. Cubist painting is imagery that is generated at the surface where the pretend space or depth is around two inches. This is the space generated by brushstrokes. If you combine that with imagery where the space might be a mile, then you have two very contrary things going on at the same time, which is okay.

Yau : You have made painting tactile and sculpture pictorial, which are formal concerns that have nothing to do with these styles.

I know that you spent a lot of your youth in the Southwest, and that there are works inspired by that landscape, as well as by memories of it. Could you talk a little about that? What do you like about the Southwest?

Artschwager: The emptiness, the high mesa, where there is a lot more ground than there is growth, and the plants at decent intervals, not to have a gelatinous mass of green. I would like to go back there and stay there. I like that climate. I like those contrasts. And a really blue sky, not this… I think I would go somewhere between Las Cruces and Santa Fe. I would leave Santa Fe to the tourists…But you have a range of mountains, east of Las Cruces, and they go pretty high, 9000 feet and there are foothills, which are ornamental, but small enough in scale that you can walk. And even if you only have two hours you can do that. There is a little mountain, probably volcanic in origin, you’ve got these Rocky Mountains, then between the high mesa and the volcanic mountain, that’s about the prettiest place in the world.

Aschheim: Now you seem to be done with this body of work, the paintings?

Artschwager: I really think so. That’s why I need to get out into the Southwest. I have to do something. I’ve got to open the door. I am looking vaguely toward landscape.

Richard Artschwager, “Lunch for two” (2007). Acrylic, charcoal, hand-made fiber and formica on soundboard, 51 1/2 × 75 1/2 inches. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Richard Artschwager, “Parson’s Table” (“2007). Formica on wood, 30 1/8 × 43 1/2 × 52 inches. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

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