The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue

Sculpture after Artschwager

Artist and writer Ian Wallace recently remarked that we “hear a lot about ‘Artschwagerian wit,’ but there’s never been much of an attempt to define it.” We could approach Sculpture after Artschwager, a modest selection of post-war objects at David Nolan Gallery, as an attempt at such a definition.

Richard Artschwager, “Table (Drop Leaf),” 2008. Formica on wood, 30 × 22 × 44 ̋.
On View
David Nolan Gallery
September 12 – November 2, 2013
New York

The Artschwagers on display at David Nolan fittingly represent the three segments of the legendary artist’s production. These include the Formica sculptures of chairs, pianos, and other furniture, his paintings on Celotex, and lastly, his site-specific bristle and punctuation mark installations. Richard Artschwager’s arrival at avant-garde forms was in part aided by experience in practical fabrication. Trained in math and chemistry, he worked as a carpenter of properly functioning chairs beginning in 1953, around the time of the shift that brought us his now historical observations about form and content. It was this vocational experience, coupled with his earlier studies with Amédée Ozenfant—the main proponent of Purism—that no doubt influenced Artschwager’s pseudo-paintings of furniture.

What are we dealing with when we face Richard Artschwager? His contribution was nothing less than the combination of the production of a thing with its image. The best of his Formica and Celotex works maintain a composure that was aimed for but missed by much late minimal and conceptual art. All three segments of his practice were unironic endeavors, and yet few, if any, of his followers have carved out a truly witty practice without the endemic nihilism of our age of irony.

Before the rise of anti-aesthetics, Kant presaged modernist formalism in his Critique of Judgment by observing four moments: first, that the work not bleed into the realm of cognition; second, that it be reliably universal in its appeal; third, that the work be purposeless in its form, or a functionless rejection of worldly-use value (in fact the border upon which we define “high” art); and fourth, that the form invite aesthetic judgment in the first place. Duchamp’s readymades violated each of these principles, and in so doing legitimated an anti-Kantian aesthetic. Contemporary sculpture is forced to reckon with these opposing foundations, and both poles tug at our perception of post-war sculptural production.

Artschwager’s wit was wrapped up in his ability to play both sides of the Kantian coin. If we phrase the sculptures on view as after Artschwager, it helps to examine their individual relationships to the Kantian duality that he so skillfully evaded. The artists given pride of place alongside Artschwager here either reject Kant outright or play comfortably within his high formalism. None, like Artschwager, do both.

Among the straight Kantian objects are Isabel Nolan’s neon “What remains of an occasion that had not lasted” (2013), an abstract series of random enclosures; Blair Thurman’s “Spokin’ 4”” (2010), four black acrylic-on-canvas arcs installed so as to commandeer an entire gallery wall; Justin Adian’s “/” (2013), an abstract half-yellow, half-black ester foam object; and John Torreano’s “Column of Impossible Collisions” (2013). These works operate within a formalism that prizes purposelessness over concept—or that understands as its only concept the disinterested aesthetic judgment of a subject.

As for the sculptures with anti-Kantian leanings, the show features several pieces that update Duchamp’s rejections.  Adam McEwen’s “Rolldown Gate” (2012) is a carved graphite version of the steel enclosures used to close up store fronts. Sarah Lucas’s “Beer Can Penis” (2000) embraces literal reference to worldly objects, thus violating Kant’s principle of purposelessness. And while Blair Thurman also produced straight “Kantian” works, “Spook Rock Road (Gold Coast Monkey)” (1996) plays the same game as Lucas’s work by ignoring the principle of purposelessness.  They reach the observer outside the realm of pleasure, triggering a cognitive assessment of the referent’s original purpose.

Though made late in Artschwager’s life, “Table (Drop Leaf)” (2008) exemplifies his use of Formica paneling to produce a mere image of represented content. The show’s centerpiece, this work best articulates what one might call Artschwager’s “half-Kantian” position. Geometrically it is a clean rectangle. It could technically function as a table, but it looks almost too consumable to use. The self-awareness of Formica troubles the subject’s reception of pleasure. Subverting the formalism of his minimalist peers, Artschwager engaged in the witticism of creating sculptures that are pleasurable without cognition. Similar works appeal to a universal mid-century notion of useful design, yet also confront the subject with an anxiety that could be grouped within the readymade’s tradition of social discomfort.

Both Ciprian Muresan and Gavin Turk present something closer to the half-Kantian thread. Muresan’s “Dead Weight” (2013) is a mahogany depiction of a human figure set atop a rectangular stack of standard cut plywood. The figure’s Purist style might be a nod to Artschwager’s training with Ozenfant. It conjoins the Duchampian plywood with the efficient, ordered figure, modeled with a Kantian respect for the aesthetic. But radical juxtaposition of the Kantian and its negation does not equate to the sophistication of Artschwager’s synthesis. A similar problem is presented by Martin Kippenberger’s “Untitled (A Man and His Golden Arm)” (1994), which is significant primarily due to the incorporation of the work’s very own custom crate at the foot of the installed object—a reference to Artschwager’s crate works begun in the early 1990s. This particular Kippenberger is an instructive illustration of the way Artschwager’s acolytes seem to fall short. “Untitled” is yet another ironic juxtaposition that requires both cognition and meta-aesthetic awareness, whereas Artschwager’s crates were unified gestures that confounded and surpassed such ironic approaches.

Turk’s “Brillo 6” (2003) may seem like a readymade, but what appears to be a cardboard box is actually a hyperrealist surface rendering in paint on cast bronze. Of all the pieces included here, this one comes closest to Artschwager’s half-Kantian position. Elsewhere in the gallery Turk’s “Refuse” (2012) and “Flat Tyre” (2013) perform additional three-dimensional trompe-l’oeil.

This leaves us with Dan Colen and Nate Lowman. Their “Lean on Me” (2008) comprises four polished tire rims held together in a vertical configuration by straps and trucking clamps, forming a sort of Tatlinesque monumental gesture. Yet this feeble pseudo-Duchampian play essentially reads as a reductive, egotistical reference to cultural “bling.” Nor does it make any real appeal to disinterested pleasure. It’s third-rate irony through and through.

Historically, Artschwager’s forms have existed simultaneously within the interpretive frameworks of both minimalism and the anti-Kantian readymade. Yet the most significant legacy of his work is the reminder that the Kant-Duchamp binary is capable of being thread. 


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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