Sculpture and Designed Things Part III: ‘Art is Useless’

Richard Artschwager, Table with Pink Tablecloth, 1964, Formica on Wood, Art Institute of Chicago
Richard Artschwager, Table with Pink Tablecloth, 1964, Formica on wood, Art Institute of Chicago

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.

Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #30, 1963, Oil, enamel and synthetic polymer paint on composition board with collage of printed advertisements, plastic flowers, refrigerator door, plastic replicas of 7-Up bottles, glazed and framed color reproduction, and stamped metal. Museum of Modern Art, New York
Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #30, 1963, Oil, enamel and synthetic polymer paint on composition board with collage of printed advertisements, plastic flowers, refrigerator door, plastic replicas of 7-Up bottles, glazed and framed color reproduction, and stamped metal. Museum of Modern Art, New York

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. Continue reading “Sculpture and Designed Things Part III: ‘Art is Useless’”

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Sculpture and Designed Things Part II: Artschwager and Formica

Formica Advertisement, 1955, published in Ideal Home. http://www.flickr.com/groups/midcenturyinprint/
Formica Advertisement, 1955. Courtesy of Flickr Midcentury Print group.

“This housewife is a ‘FORMICA’ kitchen enthusiast – but aren’t we all? Won’t you feel life is good when you own a kitchen where all the surfaces are jewel-bright-clean-at-a-wipe ‘FORMICA’ Laminated Plastic?”
– 
Formica Advertisement, 1953, published in Ideal Home 

Jean Baudrillard wrote that modern materials like concrete or nylon are no less true, authentic, or real than stone or cotton, and that with the passage of time the “nobility of materials” would dissipate, modifying “our sensorial relationships with materials.”1  Plastic, whether Melamine, Nylon, or Formica, may have become ubiquitous substances of our material lives, but I would argue that, at least in the case of Formica, it has yet to overcome its second-class status as a cheap, fake, or in our current age, highly unsustainable. Continue reading “Sculpture and Designed Things Part II: Artschwager and Formica”

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). Continue reading “Sculpture and Designed Things Part I: Andre, Artschwager, and Everything but the Kitchen Sink”

Sottsass, Olivetti, and the continuing lure of the Typewriter

Ettore Sottsass (Manufactured by Olivetti), Olivetti Studio 45 Typewriter, c. early 1970s, ABS plastic and other materials, Art Institute of Chicago
Ettore Sottsass (Manufactured by Olivetti), Olivetti Studio 45 Typewriter, c. early 1970s, ABS plastic and other materials, Art Institute of Chicago

The other day, while mapping out an upcoming museum visit for the class I am teaching this summer, I found myself wandering through the design and architecture galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago. I have been thinking a lot lately about the often tenuous line that separates a designed object and a sculptural thing. The current exhibition, Sharing Space: Creative Intersections in Architecture and Design, culled from the AIC’s permanent collection, seemed like a particularly apt opportunity to further consider this liminal space, since the exhibition takes as its focus the point where two disciplines, in this case architecture and design, meet. Among the numerous schematic drawings of three-dimensional things, sculptural models, and hybrid objects was an bright teal Olivetti Studio 45 typewriter designed by Italian postwar artistic polymath Ettore Sottsass. Admittedly the color is what initially grabbed my attention, but the more I stood and looked at this object the more I was struck by its overall aesthetics: the considered selection of the font on the keys perfectly complementing the simple, clean lines of its frame; the single red key balanced by the red stripe on the ribbon; the small details, like the teal ends of the knobs, aspects that go beyond mere functionality. Sitting in its well-lit vitrine, its elements casting dramatic shadows, this object, this thing made to type words on paper, possessed some serious presence. Continue reading “Sottsass, Olivetti, and the continuing lure of the Typewriter”

That Richard Serra in Grant Park…

Richard Serra, Reading Cones, 1988, Cor-Ten Steel, City of Chicago. Photo taken by author, 2013
Richard Serra, Reading Cones, 1988, Cor-Ten Steel,           City of Chicago. Photo taken by author, 2013

A “Richard Serra” has come to designate a very particular type of sculptural thing – almost always a hulking, mass of Cor-Ten steel plates of various curvature, carefully and complexly engineered, installed, and viewed. This is sculpture that can (and has) kill a person and depending on your disposition and/or feelings about Serra, can read as impressive, oppressive, or some combination of the two. Whether seen positively or negatively, however, Serra’s sculptures undeniably makes a statement. They commandeer and define Frank Gehry-designed gallery spaces, required the Museum of Modern Art to preemptively fortify the floors of their newest building, and stand up to – and harmonize with – large swaths of majestic natural landscapes.

IMG_0696This brings me to  Reading Cones, or as its known to Chicagoans, ‘oh, that Richard Serra in Grant Park…’ (or perhaps more aptly, ‘oh that – ugly/weird/adjective of choice – hunk of steel with all that graffiti on in it Grant Park that smells like pee’). I cannot recall how many times I have driven, biked, or walked by it and barely given it a second thought – and this from an avowed Serra apologist, bona-fide admirer even. The thing is, the sculpture is small. A funny statement perhaps to make about a 17 ft. tall, 32 ton metal object, but in terms of scale and its relationship to its site – a massive park surrounded by the city and its distinctive buildings – the work seems, at best out of sync, and at worst, a bit dinky, to use a proper art historical descriptor. Continue reading “That Richard Serra in Grant Park…”