It makes you think

It makes you think

Gayford, Martin


hat is the nastiest material in the world? There is, of course, a wide choice. Some might plump, for example, for that artificial stone with which deranged owners of brick-built Victorian terraced houses sometimes ruin their facades; others would perhaps favour the plastic that imitation leather trousers are made from, or nylon as employed for sheets. But the American artist Richard Artschwager is in no doubt that the answer is Formica. He called it the `the great ugly material, horror of the age, and since the early 1960s he has felt strangely drawn towards the stuff- as can be seen from a number of exhibits in this retrospective. Artschwager was a late starter. torn in 1923, which makes him a contemporary in English terms of Lucian Freud, he did not get going until he was in his forties – that is, until the 1960s. Before that he had studied under the French painter Amedee Ozenfant, exponent of a chastely geometric style dubbed Purism, and had then worked for years as a maker of high-quality furniture (so Artschwager is one avant-garde artist who cannot be accused of having no manual skills).

Then one day, he became tired of nice materials. ‘I was sick of looking at all this beautiful wood’, he recalled, `We had marvellous materials in our shop – gorgeous woods, the very best. But you look at acres of this stuff, and you don’t react to it any more . . . so I got hold of a scrap of Formica – something called bleached walnut. I worked differently because it looked as if wood had passed through it, as if the thing only half existed. It was all in black and white. There was no colour at all, and it was very hard and shiny, so that it was a picture of a piece of wood.’

This attraction to a material that most people of taste would regard as merely utilitarian if not actively unpleasant was a sign that Artschwager was an artist, not a craftsman. An artist, Walter Sickert remarked, is one who can take a stone and out of it wring pure attar of roses. That is, an artist is someone who can look at something the rest of us find boring, downright nasty or fail to notice at all – and turn it into something of interest and perhaps beauty.

What Artschwager made the pieces of Formica into was furniture, but furniture of an extremely paradoxical kind. A typical example is `Table with Pink Tablecloth’ (1964) which isn’t a table, and doesn’t have a pink tablecloth on it. It is a rectangular solid, covered in Formica – pink where the cloth would be, brown for the legs and exposed portion of the surface, black for the voids below and between the structure of the table. So it is not a table – you couldn’t possibly sit at it. Nor is it even a sculpture of a table (strange idea), because it doesn’t follow the structure of a real item for eating off. If anything it is, as Artschwager has pointed out, more like a three-dimensional picture of a table. Each side is a very simple, diagrammatic image of the side of a table, the top being an actual-size simulacrum of the surface of a pink tablecloth. In other words, using an everyday material, Artschwager has transformed this reproduction of a mundane item into something strange and thought-provoking.

Artschwager doesn’t quite blend into any of the prevalent schools of 1960s New York art. The straightforward geometrical form of `Table with Pink Tablecloth’ resembles that used by minimalist artists such as Donald Judd, whose career consisted of an exploration of the sculptural possibilities of the rectangular box (of which there are more than you might think). The subject matter, however, and the cheap-and-cheery diner colours put one more in mind of a Pop artist such as Claes Oldenburg.

Oldenburg’s work also often comprises a metamorphosis of household items, making the hard – toilets and telephones for example – soft; soft items such as food hard; and small ones gigantically big. Artschwager goes further and redesigns them altogether. `Book III (Laocoon)’ from 1981 is another wood-grain Formica job, this time with a plastic seat and two chrome handles. It looks like a cross between a lectern, a prie-dieu and a bit of gym equipment. But it actually isn’t anything. Although it seems to be functional, it is impossible to use, so perfectly useless. Is it then a work of art? Presumably.

One begins to see that Artschwager, rather than being a painter, craftsman or sculptor, is in fact also – that loosely employed term – a conceptual artist. At any rate, a good deal of the point of his work is to make you think. It comes in many forms. I have dwelt on the furniture, because it is Artschwager’s best-known and most immediately intriguing work. But there are also paintings – monochrome, based on photographs and executed on another nasty material, a kind of reconstituted paper called Celotex. These, because painting is a familiar idiom, ought to be Artschwager’s most straightforward pieces; actually they are his most mysterious and puzzling works. Then there are little, drug-capsuleshaped black patches he calls Ups’, made of horse-hair and other materials, which he sticks here and there. These are an attempt to make a work of art as close to not existing as possible. Smuggled out into the real world, they are a sort of secret sign that an artist has passed this way. In an art gallery, where you would expect to find art, they are less effective and harder to notice – so much so that I bumped my head quite painfully on one three-dimensional Blp dangling from the ceiling of the Serpentine.

This is another in the admirable series of exhibitions at the Serpentine devoted to artists who might be called recent American classics. It has also included Dan Flavin this summer and Brice Marden last autumn. Artschwager is the most difficult of the three, but this is still highly recommended to anyone interested in the art of the 1960s. But watch your head, and for goodness sake think before you sit down.

Copyright Spectator Dec 29, 2001

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