Richard Artschwager is not someone commonly taught in survey art history courses or an artist with widespread name recognition – something the recent retrospective exhibition attempted to rectify. Besides his use of non-traditional materials like Formica, part of the reason for this oversight is due to Artschwager’s ability to fit or not fit into a range of artistic tendencies that emerged in the 1960s. He was and is often associated with Pop and/or Minimalism, and yet is simultaneously written off as neither. While Artschwager’s specific material choices and his exploitation of the tenuous boundary between fine art and design may seem to put him at odds within a narrow, linear history of modern art, for all of his uniqueness, his approach to art making and his focus on the space and substances of everyday life has rich parallels to those of his contemporaries.
Like Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes or Tom Wesselmann’s Still Life #30, Artschwager’s plastic table pieces emphasize surface, bright, artificial colors and materials, and objects of contemporary consumer culture. With their basic geometric forms and physical presences they also can be seen in the context of the numerous minimalist cubes fabricated in industrial materials created by Donald Judd or Tony Smith. Further, one of the more seemingly distinctive aspects of his work from the mid-1960s, his choice to create sculptures that function as functionless pieces of furniture, actually situates his work within a long and very contemporary history of sculptors creating or referencing furniture. There are of course earlier examples like Isamu Noguchi as well as those from the late twentieth century of artists experimenting with furniture design, often blurring the lines that distinguish a sculpture from an object to sleep, eat, or sit in.
Scott Burton, for example, became known for his stone benches and pieces of furniture crafted from luxurious materials like mother of pearl or marble. In an interview with Peter Schjeldahl published in the 1 June 1982 Village Voice, Burton reflected on the allure of furniture:
“[In] Washington, D.C., in the ‘50s, where my family had moved from Alabama, modern furniture just spelled modernism to me, and modernism spelled liberation. It was still avant-garde then. Furniture companies like Herman Miller, Knoll, and Dunbar meant as much to me as Picasso and de Kooning, in much the same way. I was just obsessed (86).”
Interestingly a large number of the artists who also created more utilitarian objects were at one point associated with Minimalism; perhaps taking to heart Clement Greenberg’s assessment that the ‘movement’ was “closer to furniture than to art.” Judd in particular created numerous functional pieces, especially later in his career. He described turning to furniture-making out of necessity, as a means to adequately furnish and decorate his 101 Spring Street residence in New York and his sprawling property in Marfa, Texas. In regards to the former, this aspect of his artistic activities recently gained media attention with the massive renovation and meticulous restoration of the property as it was when Judd and his family lived there – including the numerous pieces of wood furniture created by Judd specifically for the space. In his 1993 essay, “It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp,” Judd described the situation in Marfa:
“There was no furniture and none to be bought, either old, since the town had not shrunk or changed much since its beginning in 1883, or new, since the few stores sold only fake antiques or tubular kitchen furniture with plastic surfaces printed with inane geometric patterns or flowers.”
While we should take this recollection both with the understanding that Judd and Artschwager clearly had different responses to Formica, and with a grain of salt considering transportation via truck was surely an option, Judd’s need to create a particular type of furnishing speaks to his overall artistic program. As was the case with his ‘specific objects,’ Judd’s furniture was about the wholeness of visual and physical experience, about the relationship between architecture and the things that occupied it. Whether a beautiful dining table placed in front of an Ad Reinhardt painting in an airy loft space or the reflective surfaces of his metal rectangular sculptures in the West Texas landscape, Judd’s sculpted things share an intense attention to installation and the expression of the effects generated through specific materials. For Judd, however, his furniture and sculptural works, while sharing certain attributes were separate, created with different intents and purposes. Again from “It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp”:
“The configuration and the scale of art cannot be transposed into furniture and architecture. The intent of art is different from that of the latter, which much be functional.”
A Judd bench is seen differently in the market, and while more art museums are keen to highlight this aspect of his career these now mass produced options, available for purchase via the Judd Foundation, are still understood as being distinct from his fine art objects. Throughout the history of modern art, however, functionality has been the most apparent precept separating a sculpture from adesigned object, and something Artschwager likewise highlighted in discussing his own work in an interview from 2003:
“Art is useless; furniture is useful. This statement is a large enough ‘basket’ to contain the issue… useless says it all.”¹
This of course brings us back to the intent of the artist and the owner. When discussing Artschwager’s tables or one of Judd’s untitled aluminum cubes, these are things that are sculptures and yet depending on the owner, could easily be co-opted into designed things, into tables, credenzas, or benches. For Judd or Artschwager a piece of furniture had to express good design, to be functional or have some greater use , whether comfort, convenience, or the like. Judd stated that “A good chair is a good chair (“It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp”), and in that vein a good sculpture is a good sculpture, but what becomes more intriguing is when it is hard to define what either means.
1 Artschwager as quoted in Design Does Not Equal Art: Functional Objects from Donald Judd to Rachel Whiteread,New York: Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 2004), 85.