Richard Artschwager: Shut Up and Look (2012)

I was introduced to the full monty of Richard his retrospective at the Whitney in the fall of 2012. I was faintly familiar with his work but not acutely so. It was a revelation, and in one fell swoop - I got religion. It was far easier to believe that this was a group show rather than the work of one phenomenally eccentric, eclectic and open-minded artist who at that time at age 88 was still producing work of great originality. He was there that night looking physically frail in a wheel chair but with the liveliest eyes and a fully engaged presence.

Shortly after that I saw a screening of the documentary of his life and work, Shut Up and Look, which is also wide and embracing - like Artschwager, himself, who opens himself up graciously to speak about his life, his family, his influences, his process, personal philosophy and lets us visit his studio, his home and even re-visit some of the meaning-ful places from his past like an apartment in Vienna whre he lived during the occupation working as an intelligence officer. All of these fascinating episodes are interspersed with interviews with his friends, gallerists, curators and colleagues. Richard Armstrong (Guggenheim), Agnes Gund (MOMA), artists Malcom Morley and John Torreano, among many others who help to fill out the picture of the man who was an artist’s artist. Better known among his peers than to the general public.

We learn much which helps illuminate the often runic nature of his art. The humorous and satirical formica and wood furniture-ish pieces were a natural outgrowth of his early work as a furniture maker and co-founder of Workbench. It was a fire in his workshop which ended the furniture making and started the art making. A serendipitous event, for sure. He describes the BLPS series, which coincided with graffiti art, as stealth pieces which were more about the trip than the final product. They were rarely documented. He describes them as Easter eggs. Meant to be hunted and found. And they could be found in many unexpected places including ceilings and corners (one of his favorite art locations).

When he discovered Celotex a rough industrial material on which he began drawing and painting it took him in an entirely new direction which integrated the surface of the material as an equal element in the final work. During this phase he began using color in unusual ways. The use of industrial horsehair first inspired bas relief images which eventually became abstract sculptural pieces of a strange and whimsical nature.

This is a wonderfully candid portrait of an enigmatic and optimistic artist who seemed to have genuinely found joy in all that he saw and did and suffered no regrets. He pursued his art wherever it took him and followed his own dictum: “If you are School of ... you are dead. The only chance you have of not drowning is to be an original”. It seemed that the universe conspired for him. He died in February of 2013 after having been fully appreciated by the art world and the rest of us. And now you can know with some certainty that when you see something that resembles art in a high place - especially a corner - it is probably an Artschwager. And he’s looking back at you with a grin.

Belle McIntyre 

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