Sculpture and Designed Things Part I: Andre, Artschwager, and Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Installation of Gallery 297b at the Art Institute of Chicago with works by Richard Artschwager, Carl Andre, Agnes Martin, and Frank Stella in view. Photo by the author, August 2013
Installation of Gallery 297b at the Art Institute of Chicago with works by Richard Artschwager, Carl Andre, Agnes Martin, and Frank Stella in view. Photo by the author, August 2013

I think I may be having a bit of a Richard Artschwager revelation. For all of my interest in sculpture, especially postwar sculpture, I have to admit that I have never given his work a lot of attention. The timing of this personal Artschwager-awakening, while caused by an seemingly odd confluence of encounters, is not totally unexpected considering that many seem to be having their own Artschwager-moments. Just days before his passing in February of this year, a large-scale retrospective, the first in decades, closed at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This exhibition, Richard Artschwager! opened at UCLA’s Hammer museum this summer, and largely in response to this more recent manifestation of the exhibition, Artschwager has been appearing, specter-like, in my digital life over the past few weeks. There have been countless tweets, news features, and blog posts including: compendiums of Artschwager-isms, fantastic photographs of his blps installed around Los Angeles and a fun video piece produced by the Los Angeles Nomadic Division (see below).

Richard Artschwager, blp, 2012. Installation view on the High Line, New York. Presented by High Line Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Austin Kennedy. Courtesy Friends of the High Line.

The blps have been my main point of contact with Artschwager’s work. “Born” in California in 1967 these flat, lozenge-shaped marks have appeared in countless locations, private and public, indoors and outdoors, over the past four decades as a means to elicit close and considered looking. They were installed all over around the High Line and New York during the Whitney installation, are currently placed around Los Angeles as a part of the Hammer exhibition, and even appeared in the Kunsthalle Bern during the infamous exhibition, When Attitudes Become Form, in 1969.

Alternate view of Gallery 297b at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photograph by the author, August 2013.

My revelation, though coinciding with all of the recent Artschwager media exposure, occurred due to a much more immediate and material encounter with his work. This past week, I stood in the rather sparse gallery dedicated to seemingly minimalist works at the Art Institute of Chicago with students from the 20th century art survey class I am teaching this summer. The works populating this small, airy space, overlooking the Chicago skyline and Millennium Park, make for an odd group. Hanging on the three walls of the space are Agnes Martin’s Untitled #12 (1977), Frank Stella’s De la nada vida a la nada muerte (1965), and Brice Marden’s Rodeo (1971). Occupying the center of the space, engaged in a curious, quiet, if serious dialogue are Carl Andre’s Steel-Aluminum Plain (1969) and Artschwager’s Table with Pink Tablecloth (1964). The installation provides a good teaching opportunity in that these works all share simple, geometric forms and grid patterns, their makers frequently are associated with Minimalism of the 1960s, and yet in form and intent actually have very different points to make about abstraction, materials, and process.

Returning to my initial admission of Artschwager ambivalence, though I have walked by Table with Pink Tablecloth countless times and had discussions with hundreds of students in its midst, my attention and analyses almost always focuses on the Andre. I spend a lot of my time in Gallery 297b reading Andre’s assertions about not disguising materials, feeling the difference of aluminum or steel under one’s feet. I read excerpts from the 1970 interview with Phyllis Tuchman (Artforum 8, June 1970) where he states:
“So you can be in the middle of a sculpture and not see it at all – which is perfectly alright…I don’t like works of art which are terribly conspicuous. I like works of art which are invisible if you’re not looking for them.”

IMG_0908Odd then that I never give too much thought to the inconspicuous thing staring at me and my students as we stand in the middle of Andre’s horizontal, thin sculpture; to the ugly, dumb thing just sitting there mute in the same space, the table to Andre’s carpet. Installed in this particular of group of works, one might not even notice the trompe l’oeil of the pink, black, and cream formica mimicking the look of a table and tablecloth, choosing instead to see its formal design as nothing more than another minimalist exploration of triangles and rectangles. And yet during our class discussion this past week, our conversation turned to the differences between the simple sculptural objects populating the gallery and the things that populate and decorate our homes. How was Andre’s checkerboard collection of tiles different from the kitchen floor of one of my student’s new apartment that he pulled up on his smartphone (the resemblance was uncanny…)? Another student, no doubt caught up in the exhilaration that comes with the realization of actually being allowed to stand on an Andre, inquired if they could also touch the Artschwager, eliciting a stern, disapproving look from the saintly security guard keeping watch.

For Artschwager the dividing line was simple: “Art is useless; furniture is useful. This statement is a large enough ‘basket’ to contain the issue… useless says it all.”¹ Table with Pink Tablecloth does not function as a table. Its placement in a gallery of a museum certainly designates it as a particular type of thing, but it does has little to no actual use value. As a big, smooth cube, there is no place to tuck under chairs and it sits far lower to the ground than any table not made to occupy a child’s nursery. I thought about Artschwager and this work for the rest of the day, questioning what was the distinction between sculpture and domestic thing, between fine art object and a piece of furniture. I do not think I have have come up with any concrete answers, but this post is the first of a three-part series that will examine sculpture’s, in particular minimalist sculpture’s, relationship to furniture and designed domestic objects. Part II will look more closely at the formal characteristics of Table with PInk Tablecloth, looking at Artschwager’s choice of formica as sculptural material in the postwar period. Part III will consider Artschwager’s position within art history, comparing his creation of “furniture” to works by Scott Burton and Donald Judd, who himself has posthumously been in the news recently for the renovation and opening of his loft living space in New York, filled with his custom self-made furniture.

Until then, enjoy the blps…


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