“Formica Touched It Off”
On the Death of Richard Artschwager
it Pop Art? Minimalism? Or perhaps Conceptual art? Richard
Artschwager’s work cannot be pigeonholed. His sculptures look like
furniture, or paintings, and his paintings look like sculptures. He
vehemently rejected any categorization. “That makes me surly,” he said
succinctly in an interview with ArtMag. The large retrospective of the
artist’s work at the Whitney Museum in New York had just ended when
Richard Artschwager died in New York at the age of 89.
Artschwager’s works are included in the Deutsche Bank Collection. A
selection was shown in the 2003 exhibition Up and Down/ Back and
Forth at the Deutsche Guggenheim. Aside from works on paper,
sculptures were on view at the show. One was a man-high cross. The
sacred symbol was not executed out of walnut wood, as the surface
suggests at first glance. Instead, Artschwager used one of his favorite
materials, Formica, industrially produced laminated panels, whose
surface often looks like wood. “It was Formica that touched it off.
Formica, the great, ugly material, the horror of the age.” Artschwager
knew the material well, having worked as a furniture maker in the
1950s. For him, Formica was the ideal material for distorting artworks
and puzzling viewers, as it can imitate any material. The trivial
substance drives the aura out of an artwork.
born in 1923 in Washington, the son of a German botanist and a
Ukrainian hobby painter. He studied biology and registered for military
service in Europe in 1942. At the end of the war, he took part in the
liberation of Kassel. Between 1968 and 1992, he would participate in
the documenta in that city five times. After finishing his art studies,
Artschwager first worked as a furniture maker, building transportable
ships’ altars, among other things. This gave him the initial impetus to
design wall objects made of wood and Formica.
important instrument of confusion are Artschwager’s “Blps” – two- or
three-dimensional forms reminiscent of capsules. Emerging in his work
in the early seventies like an absurd logo, they can be found in his
paintings, on walls of exhibition rooms, and on factory chimneys. For
his most recent Whitney exhibition, Artschwager installed the “Blps”
along the High Line, the aerial greenway on the west side of Manhattan.
Like almost all of his works, these black or white “capsules” have only
one function: to sharpen our perception of the world and the things
around us. With Artschwager’s passing, the art world has lost a great
maverick who was also an “artist for artists,” inspiring generations
The large retrospective mounted at the Whitney Museum will be on view at the Haus der Kunst in Munich starting in October.