Richard Artschwager could be considered a bit of a late creative bloomer. The American artist was born in 1923, and, after a youth spent in the heat of New Mexico, he pursued degrees in chemistry, mathematics, biology, and physics, while becoming one of many young men called to fight for their country during the second World War. He dabbled in carpentry, furniture design and abstract painting, but it wasn’t until the 1965 that he was given his first solo show at the age of 42. Now, a new retrospective at the Whitney shows the breadth of Artschwager’s oeuvre, and also marks his return to the museum which hosted a mid-career show back in 1988.
In a lovely recent profile in New York Magazine, Rachel Wolff visits with the now-89-year-old Artschwager, who reflects on his transition from a life led in the field of science to an existence immersed in the humanities.
‘"The first thing I needed was the definition of art," he says. "And I came on that right away: Art is useless-looking, its activity or production to no purpose, certainly not to make a living. I would wake up at night and think, What the hell have I gotten myself into? You don’t want to do that! But you gotta do something, and with art, there’s freedom—which is actually very seldom practiced by artists. We’ve got this and this and this," he says, gesturing to his five senses, "and that’s it! And it’s enough just to use them. Or to play with them."
Curator Jennifer Gross describes Artschwager’s work as "confounding," bridging a variety of mediums that dabbled in Conceptualism, Minimalism, and Pop Art, but with a unique style that ultimately defies classification. He exploited the decidedly man-made materials of Formica and melamine laminates in striking, geometric sculptures, but displayed a soft touch with with acrylic on canvas and Celotex fiberboard. Over 150 pieces will be on display, and the show will actually extend beyond the Whitney’s walls; a special collaboration will see a series of Artschwager’s signature blps—large, black or white pill-shaped marks made on various public sites—installed along the High Line.