Fur­ni­ture-maker em­braced art


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 three­d­i­men­sional 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, in­clud- ing 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.


Richard Artschwa­ger, pho­tographed in April 1997 in his Brook­lyn stu­dio, turned his ap­pren­tice­ship as a cab­i­net­maker into a dis­tinc­tive ap­proach to mak­ing sculp­tures and paint­ings that defy easy cat­e­go­riza­tion. Artschwa­ger was born in the District.

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