By Emily J. Weitz
Richard Artschwager was an artist’s artist, and from the scene in the Roy Lichtenstein auditorium at the Parrish Art Museum last Friday, that truth was evident. The open space was filled with renowned artists and figures in the art world looking to pay homage to a man that created because it was in his DNA to create. The event was a film screening featuring the film “Shut Up and Look,” which offered an intimate look at the man and his curious mind.
“Shut Up and Look” was directed by Martye Kavaliauskas and produced by Morning Slayter, who were present and introduced the film.
“Richard luckily got to see the film last December,” said Kavaliasuskas, “before he passed away. The phrase “Shut Up and Look” may seem a bit harsh, but it was one of Richard’s favorite phrases.”
Because Artschwager only died this past February at the age of 89, the tone of the evening was bittersweet. To some, like his friend and fellow artist John Torreano, it felt “a little bit sad.” Familiar laughs and knowing sighs were peppered throughout the film, which was made over the course of eight years as the filmmakers followed Artschwager through his otherwise private life.
Artschwager studied math and science at Cornell University before he was drafted for World War II, and after he served, he returned to Cornell to finish his degree. After graduation, he went to New York to become an artist. He studied at the studio school of the painter Amédée Ozenfant, but then decided to go into a more reliable career of furniture making. The film flashed back to images of a young man at work in his studio.
When the furniture workshop was destroyed in a fire in 1958, Artschwager returned to art, and it was never the same. He drew on his experience as a furniture maker, creating works of art that appeared useful but were completely useless, like pianos that didn’t play and chairs that you could never sit in. There was a sense of mischief to the way he worked, and that mischief was echoed in a flash of his eyes, caught on film.
Another of his most mischievous and famous pieces of art were the BLPs, monochromatic ovular shapes born in California in the late 1960s. They appeared not only in galleries, but on walls, the sides of trains, and throughout cities. The oblong shapes almost appeared like black holes, and Artschwager said he liked the fact that people could look at them for a long time.
“The hardest part of making a picture,” he said, “is seeing how long you can get someone to look at it.”
The BLPs came about around the same time that graffiti was born, and Artschwager compared them by calling his work “middle class defacement.”
At the end of the film, artists John Torreano and Malcolm Morley, who were friends of Artschwager’s and were featured in the film, came up to the podium to share stories.
“What struck me,” said Morley, “was the feeling of Richard’s integrity. His sense of sincerity is striking.”
Morley was clear that his friend’s work wasn’t always pleasing to him, but it was still important.
“When you go to a doctor,” said Morley, “and he prescribes medicine that doesn’t taste good at all, but is good for you, that’s how I feel about Richard’s work.”
Donald Sultan, one of the artists in the audience, raised his hand to recall a piece of Artschwager’s that struck him.
“It was called ‘Don’t Fight City Hall’,” said Sultan. “It consisted of a bunch of globes of light that all said ‘exit’.”
Torreano brought up another show, which was comprised of a bunch of art crates lying about, that was “classic Richard.”
“You walk in to the show,” said Torreano, “and you think it hasn’t been put up yet. And then you know, ‘Oh, it’s Richard.’”
The crowd laughed knowingly.
Morley, whose solo exhibition at the Parrish was part of the opening season of the new museum this year, credited Artschwager with inspiring much of his success.
“A long time ago, he came to visit me to see a piece of work I had done,” said Morley. “It was a large painting with little panels underneath, and he said to get rid of the big painting and keep the panels. That was the beginning of Malcolm Morley.”
The film tracked the changes in Artschwager’s life: the three wives, the war, the furniture business, and his art career.
“I never got a sense that he was frustrated with the hills and valleys,” said Torreano. “I once had an exhibition called Torreano and Friends, and I invited Richard to come play the piano. He did it, and he told me he’d never been more scared, not even in war. He went into a Bach piece. He got lost, stopped, scratched his head, and went on. It was so Richard.”