Since the 1960s, Richard Artschwager has developed an idiosyncratic and influential body of work that confounds accepted categories such as painting and sculpture, abstraction and representation, high and low. One of Artschwager's signature paintings on Celotex that incorporate photographic imagery into a sculptural construction is Double Portrait, a formative work from 1964. Straddling elements of Pop, Minimalism and Photo-Realism, Artschwagers work defies these labels, and succeeds in his avowed ambition to make art that has no boundaries (R. Artschwager quoted in Artschwager, Richard, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1988, p. 18).
Renowned for his employment of unconventional materials, Artschwager began using Celotex in 1962, when, during a visit to Chicago he saw a Franz Kline painting on the roughly textured surface of fibreboard, and was impressed how it compounded the force of his painterly gesture. Upon returning to New York, Artschwager researched similar materials, and embraced Celotex, a material made of compressed dried sugarcane fibers. Its coarse texture acts as a magnified version of paper or the grain of canvas to create interesting modulations of paint as it catches the uneven ridges of the surface. As Artschwager has described, For me it has been sometimes a useful art material in that it liberates drawing from the hand-held and allows it to move into a space more commonly occupied by (canvas) paintings. It keeps the intimacy because of its paper-like characteristics, but allows it to operate at a greater physical, thereby mental, distance because of its magnified coarseness (R. Artschwager, A Note on Celotex, Connections: Richard Artschwager, Boston, 1992, n.p.). In addition to providing this conceptual foundation, Artschwager's choice of medium intentionally draws on a non-art realm, as Celotex is commonly used in inexpensive house construction, thereby challenging and expanding the notion of what can comprise a painting.
Upon the rippled surface of Celotex, Artschwager used thin washes of black paint to render an image that is clearly drawn from a family snapshot, transforming it into a slightly out-of-focus sepia-toned image that evokes the realm of personal memory. Double Portrait is part of his important series of photo-based works from the 60s that depict various figures, usually derived from found sources. Applying a grid to the photograph to enlarge it on to the surface of his painting, Artschwager has treated the entire surface in an even, almost deadpan manner, which emphasises the commonplace nature of the images that he has chosen. In this way, Artschwager has explored the tension between the photograph and the modernist grid, a theme which his friends Chuck Close and Malcolm Morley also took up in different ways in the late 60s.
Double Portrait is somewhat exceptional among Artschwagers early works on Celotex in that it represents his friend Al Ordover and his wife Sondra. Although Ordover had casually discussed commissioning a work from his friend, Artschwager decided to surprise him and Ordover was unaware that Artschwager was working on this picture until he came across the painting in the exhibition, The Photographic Image at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. While the image is adapted from a snapshot of this particular couple, it in effect stands as a generic family snapshot, the kind of photograph that fills numerous family albums with happy memories of celebrations, family get-togethers and vacations. The uneven ridges of the Celotex refract the image across the surface, so that it shifts slightly with the play of light and with the viewers movement, both echoing and playing with the shifting nature of memory and the relationship to these frozen moments from the past. In addition, Artschwager intentionally preserves the arbitrary character of the composition of such images, rendering them with an even hand in his depiction of not only the smiling couple, but also the restaurant and waiters who incidentally fill in the background.
This apparent arbitrariness is further enhanced by the metallic frame of the picture which also reinforces a sense of the shifting nature of the present in his work. Artschwager's chamfered metal frames are an integral part of the work, that intentionally blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture, at once separating the image from the surrounding space, while also integrating it through their reflective surfaces.