BY Louise Neri in Interviews | 04 APR 02
Featured in
Issue 66

How things get done

In conversation with Richard Artschwager

BY Louise Neri in Interviews | 04 APR 02

Richard Artschwager grew up in Washington DC and New Mexico. He was a soldier in Europe during World War II, and studied art in 1949-50 with the French Purist Amédée Ozenfant. His artistic yearnings were sidetracked by years of work as a cabinetmaker and then as a furniture manufacturer. A fire in 1958 was disastrous for his business but fortunate for his art, which he began to make with left-over industrial materials. He had his first exhibition at Art Directions Gallery, New York, in 1959.

This conversation took place in Artschwager's studio in upstate New York during the tour of his European exhibition 'Up and Across', which opened at the Neues Museum in Nuremberg in September 2001, before travelling to the Serpentine Gallery, London, and MAK Vienna during 2002.

Louise Neri: What is the significance of 'Up and Across' for you?

Richard Artschwager: I was looking for the acknowledgement that some kind of sequentiality exists in what I have made, that it all comes out of a single attitude, not a dozen or so schizophrenic personae, fabricated or otherwise. At the same time, I don't want a retrospective for all the reasons that people don't want retrospectives - time enough for that when I'm dead. Or like Satchel Paige, not to look back because something might be gaining on me.

LN: How did you reconcile these contradictory desires?

RA: I didn't expect any such thing to happen ... that was just a personality profile! What interests me is the path itself, how things get done - by thinking, by accident, by serendipity. But nobody wants to do that. Rather it's The Show, how things play together. Each of the three curators had a different version of the narrative, like Kurosawa's Rashomon. So for the most part I just participated physically, putting this one a bit lower, that one further from the door, getting up on a ladder to install a comma: the old man showing that he's not ready for a wheelchair just yet!

LN: To fulfil your desire for 'sequentiality', were there specific works that you wanted to include in the show?

RA: Well, to begin with, yes. Really early on, I offered something to the curator, Lisa Corrin, and she responded that she thought it wasn't very good art and asked me why I wanted it in the show. I only realized later, after I had given a slide lecture at the first venue in Nuremberg, that the lecture was the right vehicle for such a narrative, rather than the exhibition itself.

LN: But let's continue with how you imagined the show, as opposed to what actually ended up being included.

RA: I wanted to begin with a portrait of my father, an oil painting I made in 1947.

LN: And then?

RA: I have to begin with the following anecdote: around 1960 there was a children's cartoon programme, the kind that adults watch. It was hosted by a pretend policeman who told stories about himself. I was struck by one story concerning his young son, who was playing around in the garage, the garage being the place where you put things that may come in handy, like a stack of plywood. The policeman described how the boy would take one piece and nail another piece onto the first one, and then take a third piece and nail it onto the second and so on, with great determination.

I figured that this was for me. I made a connection between this cartoon and Braque's assemblages, in which he planted disparate elements on top of each other, rather than the smaller roof-shingle elements that give credibility to what we call Cubism. Braque tended to use ovals set diagonally, then draw other pieces more into the horizontal or into the vertical. The sunburst effect that this produced thinned out around the sides; the principal activity was always up and down.

So I nailed my own bunch of boards together - I made several works like this, plywood offcuts joined into stacks, fans and baffles - also thinking about Jasper Johns' Flag, where the object creates its own space without the autonomy of the image being lost. I called it Portrait Zero (1960).

LN: Where is Portrait Zero now?

RA: I still have it. Then comes Gorilla (1961-2), which begins with a target, a masonite form of the humanoid variety that I knew from my days in military service. You can also find this form under an office desk. But I didn't buy these particular forms; I made them, two dozen of them, and then I spaced them off with pieces of plywood inserted in between and perpendicular to the forms. Then I built this free-standing structure into a dolly, so it's a true convenience. It announces that it can be viewed from any direction; if you look at it side-on, a figure emerges in the spaces between the masonite forms, but if you turn it 90 degrees, only the basic profile of the masonite form can be seen.

LN: Where did you go from there?

RA: To Table with Pink Tablecloth (1964), a table with not two but four identical pairs of views. So this work is firmly anchored in two worlds at the same time - the world of images, which can be apprehended but not physically grasped, and the world of objects, which is the space that we ourselves occupy.

LN: So these were your formative works?

RA: Yes. After them it gets less interesting for me. Much of what follows is simply an elaboration on the fact that a picture is supported by an armature as a physical fact. It does not proclaim its presence, but it's there. You can see it.

LN: Why are you so interested in the relation between picture and support?

RA: I think we mean something different by 'support'. I say that whatever drives a picture is part of the picture. A picture is an object, generally speaking, which generates an image. You can 'get' the image, yet you can't get into it. But the fact that you can touch it gives it credibility.

LN: Is this last point a prerequisite in your attempt to define art for yourself?

RA: Prerequisite? Unavoidable. I was taught to look under stones, in dusty corners, at what is directly in front of me - that's the hard part. What is art? Coming from my background, je-ne-sais-quoi is not very much in evidence. I tried for a couple of years as a teenager, but with no success. I'm lost to metaphysics.

LN: So what's your conclusion?

RA: If I had metaphysics I could say 'magic'. Daaa. Can't do that. One foolproof, messy, ostensive way is just to declare it as all other art - y'know, I don't know much about art but I'll know an art if I see one. I'm thinking like Archie Bunker here ...

LN: You're talking about possibility, which is a boundless concept. Can you perhaps give me your definition?

RA: No, to be ostensive is the only way. So I try and take it from there, casting a wide net, salvaging any object, image or event that captures my attention.

LN: Such as?

RA: Well, at the outset, phenomena which instruct me to pay attention to them in particular ways. If I proceed on the basis of instruction, I can begin to get somewhere.

LN: Writing about your work, Peter Schjeldahl once described these phenomena as 'things that understand us', which makes me think of ergonomics.1 Your work seems to imply a kind of ergonomic logic in terms of how it puts people back into their bodies, consciously. I'm thinking of works such as Handle (1962) or Counter (1964). I'm not claiming any function for your work, but rather the proximity of the idea of functionality to your work.

RA: But you're right the first time. My work does function, well, at least initially. That fact can't be edited out. It's good sport to perch one's art on the cusp between usefulness and uselessness. It doesn't get resolved until somebody is there, present. The body is essential to my work.

LN: You talked once about the body's 'hot zones' and their implications. 2 That's what made me think about technologies that involve imaging the body in space. Ballet, for example, originates in the geometric rigours of army drill.

RA: Did you say army?

LN: Yes.

RA: I just learned something. Once a bunch of us were in close-order drill and after it was over we continued what we'd started with a dozen scripted commands. We marched in formation, moving one way, then all of a sudden switching to another in perfect unison, then reversed our course. We continued just to see how long we could keep it up without speaking and without losing the formation. It was a very intense experience, the feeling that I had become one with it.

LN: You're talking about a corpus where each individual is part of a larger innate order.

RA: Yes, like a flock of starlings.

LN: Or sardines swimming in giant, glittering spheres to fend off predators.
vRA: These are really just emulations of the business of instruction.

LN: But how would you explain the apparently aesthetic aspect of these emulations?

RA: Instruction is not so simple. Basically it's all about inventing space. For example, you could argue that spheres are inventions. I would rather suggest that so-called 'inventions' are discoveries that get fixed, rationalized and perpetuated, thus becoming inventions. In relation to your question about the sardine sphere, there are two issues here: that sardines form moving spheres and that we take note of this phenomenon.

LN: Well, we know it to be a sphere.

RA: Yes, but that's not because we took geometry in the eighth grade.

LN: Is it to do with what you call 'pre-literate vision'?

RA: 'Pre-literate' means non-edited. My only art teacher, Amédée Ozenfant, in his treatise Foundations of Modern Art, tried to ascertain where these shapes came from that he was so enamoured of.

LN: And what did he conclude?

RA: That these forms are, in fact, 'pre-forms'. They existed before anyone knew about them.

LN: In his discourses on form - 'Discovery of the Circle', 'Discovery of the Triangle' and 'Discovery of the Square' - Bruno Munari concluded, like Ozenfant, that these are innate forms, not inventions. Glenn Gould said the same about the fugue in music.

RA: Meaning what?

LN: That it's an innate proposition. Which relates back to what you were saying before about possibility. Let's say we accept that fugal form is a Baroque impulse, emerging and receding in history rather than being bound to a specific period ...

RA: Well it's true that form always begins with a something. And then if that something occurs in another place, there is slippage involved and what is created as a result develops a parallel existence to the original thing.

LN: Can you be more specific with regard to visual experience?

RA: Baroque art made us aware that as your eye travels across a visual field it blinks. These blinks are very clearly structured. Likewise, the silences and intervals in music are never random or gratuitous; they generate form. This strategy lends itself to just about anything we can do. That's more or less how I arrived at the Blp (1968), which was a kind of perfect ending. I had created a single point that was contingent and almost non-dimensional, yet highly visible in any given context.

LN: So how did you get from that point to 'Basket Table Door Window Mirror Rug', the drawing series that you began in 1974?

RA: After the 'Blps', I didn't know where to go next - so I went back into the studio. I leafed through my notebook, in which I had made some sketches, with the idea to work up a study for a painting. I flipped to a drawing of an interior, a room I had once occupied, and made a list of the six objects that were in it. I decided to take this as an instruction to make one drawing, then another, and another, and so on. The instruction endured and I 'played' those six objects like I play the piano - I guess you could say that it was some kind of fugal exercise.

LN: And did you complete this exercise?

RA: Not yet, meaning that there's really no way it can ever have an end, although I haven't done any drawings lately. They pop out sporadically. I could certainly call one up by this time tomorrow and not have duplicated anything that came before it. This artificial discourse between six objects exists, and it's both closed and open-ended. I am constantly turning it inside out, enclosing that which enclosed in the previous instance.

LN: This strategy of eversion, of making the inner outer, is another very Baroque characteristic in your work. So, moving away from the secular, can you tell me about the religious references in your work - the lecterns, the confessionals, the kneelers?

RA: When I was 39, it became clear to me that I wasn't going to live forever. As a teenager, you can opt for absolute silence; you can have a radio and play it loud so that it drowns out any thoughts about what you did wrong yesterday. And then in your twenties you can accept that last year was a wasted year. But suddenly in your thirties you can't afford to do that any more. My thirties meant working with a lot of people, seven days a week, trying to make a damn living, which I was always bad at. And what did I get out of it? I sharpened up my Spanish. Nevertheless, these were valuable times. These were the people I lived with: I got to know them and their families - you could say that we 'broke bread' together. The impact that this had on my art was that I began to look at everything with greater awareness. The net got cast wider: suddenly everything mattered. It might seem banal now but for me it was a life-and-death situation - a B+ epiphany at least!

LN: Where did it lead you?

RA: To explore this feeling further, because I felt I had the right to be out there on my own as an absolute secular artist, looking at reality. It's like looking under every rock and seeing what you can find or trying to figure out what everybody else is doing. Michel Foucault thought about that. He maintained that we exist in a certain cultural atmosphere that is so pervasive that we don't even know what kind of air we're breathing. And yet it is very specific and identifiable, if one keeps one's eyes and ears open.

LN: It was interesting to re-read all at once so much of the material written about your work over the years. As has frequently been remarked, your work confounds attempts to place it squarely within any particular artistic paradigm.

RA: This is a common problem for artists. A certain art emerges and it is observed by professionals; subsequently, classifications appear, names appear, categories appear, then retroactive responses to those categories appear. I title most of my lectures 'Cause and Effect: Linear Time'. There is a past, a present and a future: getting the three mixed up is sloppy scholarship.

LN: Fixing the problem is also sloppy. The idea that an artist is always a product of his context is dangerous because the notion of context itself is very ill defined and unstable.

RA: For this reason I have located my art in terms of reducing all objects to the attention they demand. This gives me a good shot at innovation, to put it boldly.

LN: So after all these years and all these various strategies combining science and aesthetics, would you consider yourself to be a magister ludi?

RA: Well, I did pay a lot of attention to Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. At the time subjectivity was an unexplored territory for me. Subjectivity was European. For example, Vienna was a place where you could get acquainted with the subjective; you could listen to music ...

LN: Or you could go to a shrink, I suppose.

RA: Oh sure, you could do that! We've been transformed by the assumption that there is an unconscious, or that we don't have complete rational control over how we feel, or that what might start out as nonsense can become scary, or sensitive enough to have to tiptoe around it.

LN: You once said that art as therapy is a repulsive activity. 3

RA: The question is, ultimately, whether you can get into superstition. I learned to be superstitious from looking at art and from other artists. I'm talking about a process of looking, as embodied in the unfinished business of the School of Paris, so-called Cubism and, most certainly, Matisse's work. You look at these things and you believe that they are real. With The Red Interior you believe that you're looking into a red room and that everything in it is red. You have to keep your eyes moving over it, so as to see the whole visual field rather than focusing on one spot. This is what I am involved with, the mechanics of looking at things, but
the romance of it is that it is a lost way of looking at things.

LN: Are you saying that our vision has fundamentally changed?

RA: Yes, but I'm not talking about the apparatus, I'm talking about our being in a primarily social, as opposed to primarily physical, space. Our physical space has been eroded to the point of being endangered, it survives where there are few people and lots of space and where a person or persons can reside in pleasurable solipsism - watching, listening, not editing or throwing anything away - entering and departing this state each at their pleasure. Social space is language-bound and language is always subject-predicate, a Procrustean abridgement of the Event which, for instance, allows no excluded middle.

LN: Meaning?

RA: Just think back to that time when people lived in the country. One didn't look at red and green lights - in other words, particles - in order to cross the street but rather at the full field of vision. And so it is with Matisse. When you sweep your eyes over it, you're seeing it as it was intended to be seen. It's so simple, I can't stand it. Actually I'm tickled beyond words.

LN: So, what then?

RA: Once you've done that, you can go back to the details of this visual field. As you spend time with it, it comes slowly to life and you believe that the space it describes actually exists. Take The Piano Lesson: first you must scan it, you cannot stare at one spot to apprehend it. Matisse is the last checkpoint for me; after that the thread gets lost with the advent of Surrealism. What I am interested in doing now is picking up that lost thread.

1. Peter Schjeldahl, 'Things That Understand Us', in Richard Artschwager: New Works, Akira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo, 1989.

2. Richard Artschwager in conversation with Brooke Alexander, Richard Artschwager: The Complete Multiples, Brooke Alexander Editions, New York, 1991.

3. Richard Artschwager, interview with Wouter Kotte, for the Utrecht Project, Sonsbeek, 1971.

1. Peter Schjeldahl, 'Things That Understand Us', in Richard Artschwager: New Works, Akira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo, 1989. 2. Richard Artschwager in conversation with Brooke Alexander, Richard Artschwager: The Complete Multiples, Brooke Alexander Editions, New York, 1991. 3. Richard Artschwager, interview with Wouter Kotte, for the Utrecht Project, Sonsbeek, 1971.