Maggie Dougherty joined Gagosian, New York, in 2013. Working with director Bob Monk, she has coordinated various exhibitions and projects related to the work of Richard Artschwager and Ed Ruscha, including Richard Artschwager: Primary Sources.
Bob Monk has been a director at Gagosian, New York, for over twenty years, working closely with Ed Ruscha and Richard Artschwager. He has curated numerous Gagosian exhibitions, including the multivenue Ed Ruscha: Books & Co., and worked with the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, on the production of the artwork it commissioned from Artschwager for the museum’s elevator interiors.
As the starting point for many paintings, Richard Artschwager referenced found images. He also rendered works from careful observations of the world around him, or directly from his imagination, and in many instances he combined the three kinds of invention. The referents he used most often came in the form of reproductions cheaply printed in newspapers and magazines, images consumed by many yet meticulously examined by few. Using a methodical Renaissance drawing technique, Artschwager would begin most paintings by drafting a grid over his source image and then sketching it box by box onto an enlarged gridded surface.1 Rather than traditional canvas, Artschwager’s support of choice was Celotex, an antiquated fire-retardant building material made of sugarcane. He admired the insulation material’s variegated texture and characteristic patterns, which functioned to abstract his appropriated imagery. Muddled brushstrokes rendered forms without precise boundaries on the uneven surface, and the technique mimicked the blurred appearance of newsprint’s halftone-dot images on an enlarged scale. Artschwager’s engagement with his reference materials was not simply a form of documentation—in fact, documentation may have been somewhat incidental. He was more compelled by the objectivity that the neutral-toned format of newsprint seemed to provide.2
As viewers, we find it almost impossible to ignore the content and context of what we see. It is human inclination to search for narrative meaning in images. This tension between Artschwager’s objective approach to picture making and a viewer’s reading lends his work a unique vitality. To take a deep dive into the history and stories connected to his source materials can open up a world of connections and meanings beyond what we see. Does this probing elevate our experience of the work? Evaluation of such minutiae tends to push the work beyond the artist’s intent. Given Artschwager’s voracious imagination and diverse intellectual curiosities, however, it seems fitting (at least in this case) to engage in an exercise of extrapolation.
To begin our exploration, let’s consider the iconic Arizona (2002). This haunting work borrows its composition from a well-known photograph of the bombing of the battleship USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Although the attack occurred during the artist’s lifetime, just short of his eighteenth birthday, he did not paint this traumatic scene until over half a century later. Rather than going to a vintage news source, he used an image reproduced in an issue of the New York Times published in 2002, in an article drawing parallels between the lack of military preparedness at Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, sixty years later.3 In both cases, the leaders of the US nation, first President Franklin D. Roosevelt and later President George W. Bush, had to respond to the loss of many American lives, faced polarized climates in domestic politics, and chose to catapult the United States into large-scale wars overseas. These historical parallels lend the painting an undeniable portentous quality.
Although Artschwager saw combat as a US soldier during World War II, and later experienced the tragedy of 9/11 along with the rest of the American public, his image does not seem charged with the emotions or opinions of its maker. Instead, the sinking ship is rendered on the artist’s signature textured support in an almost impressionistic manner. Up close, it is easy to get lost in the complexity of the painted surface, on which the image is barely recognizable. Take a step back and the faint silhouette of the ship starts to appear as a shadow or a ghost, becoming clearer only with distance, like history itself.
A decade earlier, Artschwager painted another military scene, altering his source imagery more overtly. Tank (1991) shows an M-1 tank driving toward us through a hazy landscape. A soldier looks out from the turret and a witnessing figure stands in the foreground. Artschwager fills this equivocal context with formal dynamism. One of the largest of the artist’s paintings, Tank is over ten feet wide, and its imposing size enhances the drama of the scene. A single yellow headlight shines at the composition’s center, serving as an unexpected visual focal point. A matrix of bold, protruding orthogonal lines fractures the picture plane, creating both a physical boundary and a conceptual distance between viewer and subject. The decorative thus subdues the primacy of the figurative, calling attention to the work’s surface and tactility. The imagery comes from a documentary photograph, but its narrative is abstracted: meaning is derived from the observer, not declared by the observed.
As with Arizona, the source image for Tank was clipped from the New York Times. The headline of the story it accompanied, from May 21, 1990, emphatically reads “Army and Air Force Fix Sights On the Changing Face of War.” The article details the waning Soviet threats to the United States during the tail end of the Cold War. At the time, the US Army was reducing the size of its heavy armored-combat units in Europe and creating a more versatile “fast reaction force” able to deploy quickly anywhere in the world. One might assume that the tank in the photo shows American troops in battle, but the newspaper’s caption tells us that it was actually engaged in a military exercise in West Germany in 1987.4 What the viewer sees, then, is the illusion of war (or the “face of war,” as the headline reads) rather than a moment in military history. What you see is not what you think you see—the eyes betray the mind. Removed from its context, the image of the tank, with all the symbolic associations that accompany it, takes on its own visual potency, rife with ambiguity. In addition to using his grid method to transpose this picture into painting, Artschwager made extra effort to study his eponymous subject, drawing many sketches of tanks and even taking Polaroids of a toy tank.
Even when Artschwager was painting people, his newsprint references allowed him to maintain an emotional distance. Such is the case with Timothy McVeigh, the allusive protagonist of two of Artschwager’s most unnerving pictures. McVeigh is best known by his epithet “The Oklahoma City Bomber.” In April of 1995, he was responsible for detonating a truck packed with explosives in front of the Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 civilians. Until the attack of 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing was the most devastating terrorist attack in US history. Unlike the airplane hijackers of 2001, the culprits in Oklahoma City were not a foreign threat but came from within.
In the group portrait Natural Selection (1995), McVeigh stands with his basic-training platoon in Fort Benning, Georgia. All wear military fatigues, and McVeigh’s face is blank and serious, so that he recedes into the anonymity of the crowd. Not yet infamous—an enemy to his country deemed worthy of the death sentence—McVeigh appears in Natural Selection as a dutiful soldier. Only with knowledge of the abhorrent act he would commit after the source photograph for this painting was taken does the sinister context of this otherwise banal group portrait come to light. Although working in the same year as the Oklahoma City bombing, Artschwager presented his subject in a remote, objective manner similar to his treatment of Arizona, created a half century after the event depicted.
Painted a year after Natural Selection, Untitled is another portrait of McVeigh. Artschwager once again used his oblique grisaille style, but this time he showed McVeigh’s sunken eyes and austere expression close up, suggesting a disquieting emotional disengagement on his subject’s part. Artschwager extracted his source image from another New York Times story, this one headlined “A Life of Solitude and Obsession” and written by Robert D. McFadden.5 Published on May 4, 1995, as the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing was still in progress, this psychologically probing profile of McVeigh chronicles his life up until the bombing. McFadden states no position on McVeigh, but his negative opinion is clear. Neither Natural Selection nor Untitled, on the other hand, reveals the artist’s attitude toward his controversial subject. Neither contains any overt visual clues about McVeigh’s history (other than his military service). The titles of the paintings are similarly ambiguous: they do not identify McVeigh, or even hint at the context of the Oklahoma City bombing. Instead, the artist provides the elusive title Natural Selection for the viewer’s gestation. By referencing the language of Charles Darwin, Artschwager likens McVeigh more to a specimen, controlled by the laws of evolution, than a man responsible for his own choices. Seeing him through a scientifically objective lens, one might rationalize his motivation as the direct result of his environment. This is certainly one interpretive option: to view McVeigh not only as a ruthless killer but more complexly as a victim of circumstance.
Natural Selection and Untitled invite viewers to contemplate the artifice of social constructs that justifies or makes allowances for certain behavior. Why do we reward the man who kills viciously in war but punish him for the same act in the name of his personal convictions? Unlike the extensive New York Times profile of McVeigh, Artschwager’s paintings do not aim to answer any of these hard questions. They instead remain apolitical and nonpedantic, receptive of diverse and even controversial interpretations.
Along with the famous and infamous subjects Artschwager captured in portraits, his group scenes of unidentifiable faces are just as poignant and multifaceted. One such work, Night Watch (1999), portrays a throng of captive Jews interned at Drancy, near Paris, during World War II. Under the Vichy government, Drancy served as a holding pen from which approximately 76,000 Jews were sent to Nazi extermination camps, notably Auschwitz. The artist’s title sets the atmosphere, as men, women, and children stand close together in the uncertainty of the night, awaiting their unforeseeable future. To add another layer of intrigue, we must also consider the unavoidable allusion to the masterpiece of Dutch painting that bears the same title, Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642). But where that work depicts promenading militia men bathed in dramatic light, Artschwager’s subjects are painted in unassuming tones of gray. Dramatic irony is the driving source of the tension in this picture: the unidentified victims await a tragic fate, but cannot fully apprehend either the Holocaust itself or the monumental influence it would have in shaping the world for succeeding generations. Yet the viewer, with historical prudence, knows how this catastrophic tale ends.
As a soldier in the US military, Artschwager had experienced the horror of World War II firsthand. The image for his painting comes from a much later source, though, a New York Times article published in 1997, “French Church Issues Apology to Jews on War.” The article, by Roger Cohen, reports an admission of responsibility by the Roman Catholic Church for French collaboration in the Holocaust. On the occasion of this public apology, Archbishop Olivier de Berranger of St.-Denis delivered a speech from the infamous Drancy in which he stated, “No society, no individual, can be at peace with himself if his past is repressed or dishonest. The time has come for the church to submit its own history . . . to a critical reading.”6 Until 1995, France had never officially conceded culpability for sending Jews to death camps. The archbishop’s statement came right before the fifty-seventh anniversary of a Vichy-regime declaration, on October 3, 1940, that set forth over 160 anti-Semitic laws. This decree paved the way for Jewish internment, resulting in the death of a quarter of France’s Jewish population. The archbishop’s speech was likewise given in apprehension of the trial of Maurice Papon, the first senior official of the Vichy government to stand trial for Holocaust crimes. At the age of eighty-seven, he was charged and convicted for the death of 1,560 Jews.7
Consideration of the subject matter of Night Watch in the context of a news story affirms its persisting relevance. Over fifty years after the end of World War II, a Holocaust-related story made the front page of the New York Times. As in many of Artschwager’s paintings sourced from the news, the atrocities portrayed are offset by an undercurrent of compassion.
Painted in a style radically divergent from that of Night Watch, a chaotic procession of bodies, barely legible as such, populates the surface of Excursion (2002). The melding forms, rendered with expressionistic strokes, could read as a group engaged in a leisure activity, a communal stroll or some kind of procession. Artschwager has chosen a strategy of obfuscation rather than illustration. Loose, gestural markings infuse the scene with surreal elements from the artist’s imagination and transform the source image into something uniquely his own. The approach makes it hard to identify Excursion as a tragic scene of a population in exile: it is based on a photograph of the exodus of Arab citizens from a village near Haifa during the first few months of Israel’s formation, in 1948.8 The previous year, the United Nations had set forth a resolution to divide the land of Palestine and establish the Jewish state. Soon thereafter, soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces penetrated the region and bloody conflict ensued, eventually generating the expulsion of over 70,000 Palestinian Arabs from Lydda (the Israeli Lod) and Ramle (Ramla). Their march of departure was part of what is today known as the Nakba, Arabic for “disaster” or “catastrophe.”9
Although Artschwager’s source image illustrates a specific historical moment of Arabs vacating their homes, the anonymous marching group in Excursion could stand in for any community in exile. Once again for Artschwager, the work alludes to historical patterns of repetition. Just as the Holocaust imprisoned and massacred generations of European Jews, so did Zionism expel Arab citizens living in Palestine in 1948. As an American soldier in Europe during World War II, born to a Prussian-Protestant father and a Ukrainian-Jewish mother, Artschwager had a family lineage and personal history intimately tied to historical narratives of conflicting cultures and agendas. Despite his psychic and temporal distance from the scene he depicted, Excursion lives in the liminal space between his own story and a universal trope of conquest and suffering.10
News images are familiar, a visual idiom we see every day, yet they most often portray momentous events removed from our personal lives. This tension between the banal and the bewildering gives life to the artworks inspired by Artschwager’s primary sources. Unlike many politically engaged artists of his time, Artschwager did not push an agenda or use art as a means of critique. Instead the work resolutely holds a mirror up to the world.
Artschwager also took inspiration from his immediate surroundings. Using his imagination and his expert draftsmanship, he transformed elements he extracted from quotidian environments into a world of fantastic narratives. In the mid-1970s, he began making drawings of six everyday objects in his studio and home—a door, a window, a basket, a mirror, a rug, and a table—that he then combined in a multitude of configurations. Continuing with this motif, and using grounds of Celotex and Formica, he created strange, beautiful landscapes using these images.
The work of historical European artists served as a great source of inspiration for Artschwager as well. In particular, he appropriated the dramatic compositions of Tintoretto and the domestic scenes of Édouard Vuillard, riffing on the masters with his own conceptual spin. In the case of Tintoretto’s “The Rescue of the Body of St. Mark” (1969), he mimicked the architectural setting and one-point perspective of Tintoretto’s mammoth masterpiece of the 1560s, in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. In place of Tintoretto’s dramatically posed subjects, however, Artschwager inserted oblique geometric shapes, with the one exception of St. Mark’s gestural hand. With this conceit he focused the emotional intensity on a single figurative element. The Artschwager work thus functions as a sort of visual treatise, deconstructing the formal elements that make Tintoretto’s painting a “successful” masterwork.
Artschwager’s alterations and subversions of Vuillard present a more nuanced result. Here, knowledge of Vuillard’s own practice is essential to understanding Artschwager’s meta-artistic approach. The French artist was both an avid amateur photographer and a collector of photographs.11 Like many Post-Impressionist artists of his generation in Paris, he gravitated toward the handheld camera, a cutting-edge invention introduced by Kodak in 1888, paving the way for the proliferation of personal photography. Vuillard often used his own photographs as the starting point for paintings. As snapshots often do, his paintings capture intimate moments and are tinged with nostalgia. Reenvisioning familiar domestic scenes in oil was itself an act of remembrance.
Artschwager followed in the same vein in his works inspired by Vuillard. Printed reproductions served as his reference. For Recollection (Vuillard) (2004), Artschwager gridded out a color reproduction of Vuillard’s Family Lunch (1899) for easy transposition.12 The palette and composition of the resulting work at first appear quite similar to Vuillard’s painting, but Artschwager made key alterations. Where Vuillard’s interior setting is animated by elaborately patterned walls and a crowded table setting, Artschwager’s is sparse and subdued. With the chaotic decorative elements edited out, the painting is filled with a languid stillness. Additionally, the male figure at the left end of the table does not read a newspaper, as he does in Vuillard’s original, but looks up, acknowledging his environment and the woman and infant opposite him. These subtle shifts in the figures’ comportment, and in their relations to their surroundings, lend the picture an uncanny atmosphere. In the magazine where Artschwager found the Vuillard image, the painting was overlaid with a text that reads, “Turner predicted ‘the end of art’ when photography was invented, but for the next-generation Nabi group it served as a vital aide-memoire.” This caption throws an interesting light on Artschwager’s version of the painting. As a self-proclaimed “recollection” rather than a faithful copy of his source, Artschwager’s painting demonstrates the fallacy of memory.
The impression an artwork makes on us—that which remains in our memory after the image has been registered by our eyes—is critical to consider in relation to Artschwager’s source-based paintings. Transforming his printed reference images into paint, and rendering them in his unique visual idiom, Artschwager’s pictures are liberated from the realm of documentary objectivity. Rather than capturing a fixed moment, they conflate the artist’s imagination with allusions to cyclical historical patterns that continue to repeat. The works thus resonate with enduring relevance.
1See Bonnie Clearwater, Richard Artschwager: “Painting” Then and Now, exh. cat. (North Miami: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2003), p. 15.
2Jennifer Gross, for example, writes that Artschwager’s “refusal of color confirmed an interest in painting as a surface without the distractions of emotion and representation; gray removed sensation from pictures.” Gross, Richard Artschwager!, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012), p. 9.
3Kurt M. Campbell, “Think Tank: In 1941, Too, a Wounded, Unprepared America Cast About for Blame,” New York Times, July 27, 2002.
4Michael R. Gordon, “Army and Air Force Fix Sights on the Changing Face of War,” New York Times, May 21, 1990.
5Robert D. McFadden, “A Life of Solitude and Obsessions,” New York Times, May 4, 1995.
6Archbishop Olivier de Berranger, in Roger Cohen, “French Church Issues Apology to Jews on War,” New York Times, October 1, 1997. The Drancy photograph is one of the illustrations for this article. It had been previously published in Walter Goodman, “French Role in Sending Jews to Death,” New York Times, December 7, 1994, in relation to the documentary Drancy: A Concentration Camp in Paris 1941–1944 (1994), directed by Stephen Trombley.
7Cohen, “French Church Issues Apology to Jews on War.”
8Artschwager’s source image, clipped from an unidentified newspaper, is accompanied by the caption, “Haifa, Israel, June 26, 1948. A month after the Jews proclaimed their state, Arab refugees moved, in part on foot, to Tulkarm, the West Bank.”
9See Benny Morris, “Haifa’s Arabs: Displacement and Concentration, July 1948,” Middle East Journal 42, no. 2 (Spring 1988), pp. 241–45.
10“Artschwager recognizes that the meaning of the images he culls from newspapers will change over time. . . . Even when his source is specific and timely, he aims for universality.” Clearwater, “Painting” Then and Now, p. 41.
11See Elizabeth W. Easton, ed., Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard, exh. cat. for the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), pp. 1–13.
12The magazine from which Artschwager clipped his reproduction of Family Lunch (1899; also known as The Roussel Family at Table) has not been identified.
Richard Artschwager: Primary Sources, Gagosian, 980 Madison Avenue, New York, January 16–February 23, 2019; Richard Artschwager artwork © Richard Artschwager/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photos: Rob McKeever unless otherwise noted