EYEWITNESS: Reflections on Richard Artschwager’s “Untitled,” 1971

In the fall of 1970, I showed up at Richard Artschwager’s shop on Canal Street in New York City for my first day of work. I was joining a team of artists, including John Torreano, who had been hired to complete a limited-edition object. Upon my arrival Richard gave me a broom and asked me to sweep up. I was glad to do it and glad to have the job. I swept sawdust and shavings into a pile, got a dustpan, and put the bulk of the refuse into a trash barrel. I had started to gather the small amount left on the floor when Richard said, “No, leave it. That will tell us where to put the next batch.”

Richard Artschwager, “Untitled,” 1971. Private collection. Photo credit: Michael Torlen.

In the late 1960s Richard was making art alongside furniture in the shop on Canal Street. He had fully equipped his workshop with a crosscut saw, table saw, router, drill press, power sander, planer, and worktables. My job, in addition to sweeping the floor, was to use the router to cut dovetails for the assembly of dressers, end tables, and chests of drawers.

The last art project Richard completed before moving his studio upstate was “Untitled” (1971), a box with five drawers designed and manufactured by the artist and published in an edition of 50 by Castelli Graphics and MultiplesInc. By the time I joined the shop, “Untitled”had been designed, a prototype had been made, and the cutting and assembly process had begun. One of my tasks was to cut dovetail pieces for these drawers. While doing so, I considered some aesthetic questions surrounding Artschwager’s work and recorded my reflections in journal entries. This essay is based upon my notes.

Artschwager’s art is genre bending and paradoxical. Throughout his career he has created enigmatic objects, objects questioning the very genres they inhabit; he has navigated drawing, painting, and sculpture, crossing over and stretching the customary boundaries defining art. His years as a furniture designer/maker informed his sculpture. He used the materials and methods from furniture production and assembly, as well as all the iterations (perceptual, real, and faux) these materials and methods suggested to his imagination. He cut and assembled rational, angular, minimal objects; covered three-dimensional objects with Formica in elegant camouflage; manufactured non-utilitarian objects that looked utilitarian; and created illusionistic and literal mirror images, visual riddles that played with the viewer’s expectations.

“Untitled” is an edition of 50 boxes, each box measuring 11 1/2 by 14 3/4 by 13 1/2 inches. Each white oak box has a white Formica top and five drawers of equal size and shape, each with identical brass handles of the sort found on library card catalogue drawers. Every drawer contains a different material: Formica, glass, mirror, and rubberized horsehair.

Although similar in appearance to other chests, boxes, and file cabinets, “Untitled”is neither a small chest nor an enlarged miniature; its references are mixed. It is well crafted, solid, rational, and of a size designed for the viewer. The handles fit the fingers. It is easy to examine, in private, without the self-consciousness of the miniature or the spectacle of the gigantic. It suggests knowledge and a world “contained,” and the drawers invite inspection.

Human beings are inhabiting creatures and we want to know what’s inside. But first encounters with unfamiliar chests of drawers are usually cautious. We never know what we will find. This is one of the suspense principles, the balanced relationship between expectation and the unforeseen. The first encounter with“Untitled”can be unsettling. Is it a storage unit for materials; or is it minimal sculpture, or furniture, or a model of some sort? How does one experience this work? If we open its drawers, are we moving away from or towards the center?

To answer these questions the box locates the viewer, much like the painter locates the viewer by using perspective. In order to truly “see” the piecethe viewer must be in proximity to the piece, closer than arm’s length, and able to open and examine the insides of the drawers.
Upon doing so, viewers discover that “Untitled”encompasses a series of polarities: open and closed, inside and outside, top and bottom, full and empty, light and dark. These polarities are built into the geometry of the box, conferring coherence. Examining them, followingcontingent steps from one place to the next, the viewer proceeds logically, like Ariadne’s thread, and gains insight into the ordering system at the heart of “Untitled”and at the core of Richard Artschwager’s artistic project.

The five drawers are ready-made hollows presenting an implicit order. As part of a chest of drawers they form a narrative with beginnings and endings; top drawers are first, bottom drawers last. They are sequential and linear, in both arrangement and function, and parallel to each other, separating contents as sharply as thought and logic separate positive and negative. Top drawers are the most convenient. Bottom drawers usually contain less often used items. Psychologically, bottom drawers are the most secretive, a place for hiding and keeping.

1. Formica

“Untitled” is reconfigured when the viewer opens the first drawer and discovers a sheet of white Formica lining the shallow drawer’s bottom, a replicated image echoing the top of the box, which is also covered with white Formica. If the Formica top was earlier dismissed, this encounter with the first drawer reframes it. The drawer appears to present a repetition, establishing a relationship between outside and inside.

But what will the next drawer be like? This initial repetition suggests all the other drawers may be the same, with Formica bottoms. That would “make sense,” but if the next drawer’s bottom is Formica, there will be no need for the viewer to see the other drawers. She will then assume they are all alike.

2. Void

The second drawer is bottomless. This absence contrasts sharply with the smooth, white Formica top drawer. The viewer now is engaged in two perceptual experiences—looking through, and looking at. Looking through the drawer, the viewer sees the handles of the three remaining drawers; looking at, only a frame is visible. The second drawer creates apprehension. It reverses the sensation of looking inside the box. Recollections and repetition produce a family of riddles. What is the rationale for this box? Or are we seeing an “empty” work?  

3. Glass

The transparent glass bottom of the third drawer, invisible at first, repeats the illusion of the second drawer. The viewer, standing within arm’s reach, opens and closes drawers, sees through the glass a symmetrical repetition of the two top and two bottom drawers, and wonders, “Is this another bottomless drawer?” This uncertainty is eliminated when the viewer touches the glass.

The glass drawer also adds another visual element to the box’s interior—light. The glass surface refracts and reflects, gathering ambient light from the environment and bouncing it off the surface. Looking through the glass opening, like looking through the bottomless void drawer, the viewer sees the outside of the box, where the bright, symmetrical handles remain, broken only with a gesture.

4. Mirror

The mirrored surface inside the fourth drawer visually increases the size of the box by creating an illusion of six rather than five drawers. The illusion and the reflection distinguish the mirrored drawer from the other drawers and invite the possibility of opening and closing the drawers at different distances from the face of the box, increasing the visual riddle.

If the viewer looks directly into the mirrored drawer, the content shifts yet again as the viewer’s face appears. “Untitled” is also a portrait machine. Up to this point, some would argue, “Untitled”has been rather impersonal and distant, even minimal and rational. But it is now personal. The reflection is the viewer’s reflection and the attention changes from looking at and through the box to looking at one’s own face.

The mirrored surface also expands the box’s visual frame of reference by reflecting not only the viewer, but also the ceiling above, as well as by blocking the view of the remaining drawer below. The mirrored bottom is a substitute, a mediator; the illusions seen in the mirrored drawer replace the actual, and yet the coherence of the box is never compromised.

5. Rubberized Horsehair

The fifth and bottom drawer reverses our expectations again. It is the only drawer that is physically full. It rests in contrast to the reflective and repetitive cohort preceding it, curbing and mediating the viewer’s past experiences and introducing more surprise. It shocks us with a reentry into the sculptural and the tactile. The drawer is loaded, overflowing, packed full with dense black rubberized horsehair. The viewer has to re-focus to see the last drawer. The instinct to reach out and touch the material is unavoidable.

The abrupt physical sensation upon seeing the overflowing container of the bottom drawer can be traced to the physiology of visual perception. The drawers preceding the fifth have created an illusionistic experience. The eye has adjusted to distance, to illusions of space and reflection, and to focusing alternately on the field around and through the drawers. The final drawer abruptly pushes the viewer back to the physical, measurable, non-illusionistic, tactile space within arm’s reach. The narcissism of the mirrored surface’s visual expansion is thus thwarted with two strokes of a hand. Closing drawer four and opening drawer five erases distance and illusion, reclaiming the physical presence of material and surface.

“Untitled”provides an insight into Artschwager’s materials and methods, and his exploration of perception, illusion, and tactile and sculptural space—and it does so using an oak box with five drawers. The five drawers are like a five-step visual scale. Each step moves the observer from one polarity to another, from light to dark, open and closed, outside and inside. Composed of ordinary materials—oak, brass handles, Formica, glass, mirror, and rubberized horsehair—“Untitled” invites viewers to construct meaning using their own temporal experience.

Once the viewer examines “Untitled,” the content is carried around in his or her memory. Just as with all remembered experience, memory is never wholly apart from, never wholly inclusive of, always someplace in between. “Untitled”exists someplace in between the container and the contained, someplace in between furniture and sculpture, someplace in between the utilitarian and the esthetic, someplace in between the static and the interactive.

“Untitled”is a hermetic system of thought, deciphered by following a series of steps, much like Ariadne’s thread. As simple and straightforward as were Richard’s floor sweeping instructions to me on my first day at his shop, they gave me an insight into his mind and his complex art. When he asked me to leave a small pile of sawdust on the floor of his shop to indicate where the next pile of sawdust should go, he was telling me that, for him, actions always pose questions about further actions. It can be said that all of Artschwager’s work—in any of its formats—serves as a set of instructions for the viewer, a tool for seeing.

At the Whitney Museum’s recent opening of the retrospective RichardArtschwager!, I spoke with the artist about “Untitled.” I suggested that the multiple could be considered a pivotal work in Artschwager’s career because it contained the material and conceptual seeds of that which interested him. He added, “And what mystified me.”

Contributor

Michael Torlen

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