Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers are delighted to present an exhibition of work by the American artist Richard Artschwager. The artist’s first solo show at the London gallery will focus on a recent series of portraits, displayed alongside the sculpture Exclamation Point (Orange), 2012. The exhibition provides an introduction to Artschwager’s use of mediums, including sculpture and painting, through which the artist challenges assumptions about perception and the aesthetic, material and spatial experience of art.
Artschwager’s work is typically characterized by playful and provocative slippages between different media, conflating the visual world of images, which can be apprehended but not physically grasped, and the tactile world of objects. This dynamic relationship between pictorial representation and sculptural practices in the artist’s work is evident in his paintings, which provide the focus of the exhibition. While his sculptures are defined as much by coloration and their painterly elements as they are by their forms and materials, Artschwager’s paintings rely on texture and surface to acquire meaning. For over 40 years, Richard Artschwager has been applying the traditional media including charcoals, acrylics, pastels and paints, to Celotex, a rigid compound board formed from pressed fibres and generally used in construction. Although it has a smooth side, Artschwager executes the image on the texture’s reverse, exploiting the rough surface as an active participant that is essential to the work’s imagery, expression and meaning, as it kind of animates the pictorial surface. Artschwager borders the portraits with partly heavy, wooden or mirrored frames, propelling his paintings further into the three-dimensional realm.
The basis of his work is the use of photographs and newspaper images enlarged to the size of easel paintings (as in Generation IV, 2003), but also he constructs the imagery from memory. The magnification of the photographs, combined with the highly textured surfaces, cause the images to appear grainy and blurred, a hallmark of his style, yet retain a heavy, sculptural quality. The grisaille techniques deployed in portraits such as Was me, (2008) and Sixty + (2008) also work to invoke a photorealist aesthetic, prompting a non-subjective, and more object-like way of approaching the painting and the figure depicted.
Artschwager uses the form of portraiture to explore the human condition. The disconcerting perspectives and scales deployed in these compositions give the work a dissonance and internal disorientation that implies the limited nature of human understanding and the impossibility of gaining a full grasp on reality. In Self Portrait with Green Background , (2009) the figure seems energized by the rich green background, a colour of renewal, yet a sense of melancholy pervades the image, the face appearing empty and grey. The haziness of the image functions as a mask, a means by which to maintain distance, and infuses the grisaille paintings with ambiguity.
Richard Artschwager was born in 1923 in Washington D.C. He first studied chemistry, biology, and mathematics at Cornell University, and then informal art studies under Amedée Ozenfant. In the early 1950s he became involved in cabinet-making, producing simple pieces of custom made furniture. After a ruinous workshop fire at the end of the decade, he began making sculpture using leftover industrial materials, then followed with paintings, drawings, site-specific installation, and photographic-based work. His first exhibition took place at the Art Directions Gallery, New York in 1959. His work has been the subject of many important surveys, including the Centre Pompidou, Paris (1984); Deutsche Guggenheim, New York (1966); Kunstmuseum Winterthur in Switzerland (2003), and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2012). It is also represented in many museum collections worldwide, including the Tate in London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; Museum Ludwig Cologne; and Fondation Cartier, Paris.