Richard Artschwager once wrote that art's most powerful conventions are stasis, separation and silence (R. Artschwager, texts and interviews, Dusseldorf, 2003, p. 14). All his best paintings, including Dining Room from 1971, are characterized by these concerns. They are studies in what happens when an artwork becomes itself its own subject, when it looks at its own components-in this case imagery and support-in unexpected ways. Doing so, Artschwager clearly and consciously places himself in the great tradition of Jasper Johns.
An Artschwager painting often feels haunted, because of the distance the artist puts between his chosen image and its usual associations. This dislocation of the image is like separating a spirit from its physical body. The imagery in Dining Room comes from the real estate section of the New York Times. Originally meant to sell not only real estate, but also prescribed notions of good taste, refinement and class, it is a coded emblem of the good life or the American dream, an emblem that subsequently Artschwager turns into something else.
After penciling a grid over his appropriated image, he then copies each square onto a board made from Celotex, a coarse material derived from sugarcane fiber. The rough surface breaks up the image and makes it hazier, as if pixels have been removed. As he works, he also narrows the palette to a cold grisaille. A critic once described the effect as a "mask of synthetic aloofness" (J. Russel, 'Richard Artschwager,' New York Times, July 22, 1979, p. D27).
Celotex conjures up myriad associations, which are very different than those evoked by the images found on pages of the New York Times real estate section. It is used predominantly in low budget home building. Dipped in asphalt it provides low cost structural support to inexpensive houses. Printed on with generic patterns, it is used as decorative interior paneling, particularly in mobile homes. Celotex comes from a world apart from the chandeliers, place settings and wood paneled walls depicted in Dining Room. As a material, it interests Artschwager precisely because it is considered to connote tastelessness, unrefinement and kitsch.
By removing both things--the image and its Celotex support--from their usual contexts and combining them into something else--his painting--Artschwager neutralizes each, as if he had mixed acid with base. This alchemy produces the desired effect of stasis, silence and separation. In his essay accompanying the artist's retrospective at the Whitney, Richard Armstrong writes:
"The neutrality of touch, coloration, and imagery in most of Artschwager's work is conscious but not intended as cynical. Despite the enigmatic social meaning of such imagery Artschwager meant to avoid expressions of anxiety and alienation. He hoped instead to elevate for contemplation all variety of depicted things, once again to situate art outside boundaries, especially those of appropriateness, taste [and] convention" (R. Armstrong, Richard Artschwager, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, 1988, p. 26).
The goal is nothing less than freedom. Dining Room is a fresh start, a jolt of dislocations meant to open up a clear space for the viewer to consider things often taken for granted, such as appropriateness, taste and convention. It encourages close investigation, unbiased examination and intimate reflection. To Artschwager, the barriers to free thinking and clear seeing are preconceptions, careless looking (not seeing) and thoughtless complacence. Dining Room is the artistic equivalent of opening the windows in springtime to fresh air.