Untitled [Box With Drawers]
New York City, USA: Multiples, Inc., 1971
34.6 x 37.5 x 29.5 cm
Edition of 50 signed, dated and numbered copies
Produced by Marian Goodman's Multiples Inc. in an edition of fifty copies, this work consists of a white oak box with a white formica top and five drawers of equal size and shape. Each drawer has a brass handle similar to the kind found on library card catalogue drawers. The drawers contain formica (mimicking the top of the cabinet), a bottomless drawer, glass, mirror, and rubberized horsehair - one of the artist's signature materials.
"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.”
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.
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 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.”"
- Michael Torlen, Brooklyn Rail