Richard Artschwager, eclectic artist, dies at 89


In this April 25, 1997 file photograph, Richard Artschwager is photographed in his Brooklyn, New York studio. Artschwager, an artist who turned his apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker into a distinctive approach to making sculptures and paintings that defy easy categorization, died February 9, 2013. (Clarence Williams/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
February 15, 2013

Richard Artschwager, an artist who turned his apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker into a distinctive approach to making sculptures and paintings that defy easy categorization, died Feb. 9 in Albany, N.Y. He was 89. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Mr. Artschwager was primarily known for three unique bodies of work: sculptures, paintings and installations.

His sculptures, carefully crafted from wood and often covered in a veneer of ordinary Formica, established a subtle tension between the conventional utility of furniture and the perceived uselessness of art.

His paintings, mostly limited to black acrylic applied to a cheap building material known as Celotex board, frequently were derived from photographs.

In his installations, the artist inserted small, lozenge-shaped pieces of black wood or vinyl decals into unexpected architectural places.

Mr. Artschwager came of artistic age in the 1950s, when emotion was at the core of abstract expressionist painting and sculpture. He turned instead to sense perception to make art that crossed established boundaries. Furniture was a touchstone for the development of his work.

His breakthrough work, “Handle” (1962), was crafted from a cylinder of honed and polished wood. Although three-dimensional like a sculpture, it hangs on the wall like a painting. Made of wood, like a painting’s traditional frame, it encloses only a view of the wall behind it. Meant to be grasped, as any handle would, it cannot be touched because it is a work of art.

In “Portrait I,” also from 1962, Mr. Artschwager depicted an ordinary bedroom dresser topped by a framed picture of a grinning man. The wood grain of the dresser is hand-painted, while the painted portrait is blurred and out of focus.

“Portrait II,” from 1963, accelerated Mr. Artschwager’s evolution, replacing the face in the picture with a solid plane of Formica.

Richard Ernst Artschwager was born Dec. 26, 1923, in the District. When his father contracted tuberculosis, the family moved to Las Cruces, N.M.

In 1941, he enrolled at Cornell University to study science, but he was drafted into the Army and served in Europe during World War II. During a postwar posting in Vienna, he met and married Elfriede Wejmelka, the first of his four wives. Three marriages ended in divorce.

In 1947, Mr. Artschwager returned to Cornell to finish his degree, then moved to New York City to study art. To support his growing family, he took up a variety of odd jobs, including lathe operator, baby photographer and bank clerk.

He eventually decided to design, make and sell furniture, but a fire in 1958 destroyed his inventory.

In the wake of the disaster, Mr. Artschwager began to reconsider his abandoned plan to be an artist, and he used his experience as a cabinetmaker to explore the possibilities. He was 38 when he made “Handle” and “Portrait I,” and his first significant solo exhibition came in 1965.

Mr. Artschwager’s work was shown at numerous galleries and museums in the United States and abroad. His final gallery exhibition last October at Gagosian Gallery in Rome featured five laminate sculptures of upright and grand pianos.

He lived in Hudson, N.Y. Survivors include his wife, Ann Sebring; three children; and a sister.

— Los Angeles Times