Richard Artschwager claimed that he set out “to make art that has no boundaries” (R. Artschwager quoted in Richard Artschwager, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1988, p. 13). His technique transcends the traditional distinctions between painting, drawing and sculpture, as well as abstraction and figuration, residing somewhere between the boundaries of Pop, Minimalism and Photo-Realism. Artschwager disregards the boundary between fine art and the quotidian objects and places that are often overlooked by selecting source images from newspapers and found photographs. Purposefully selecting a range of images—architecture, interior scenes, landscapes, portraits and abstractions—the artist renders each meticulously in grey tones on Celotex, a course material often used in construction and home decoration, and surrounds the finished work with his signature frame. Once the image is severed from its original context and elevated to the status of fine art, the viewer gains the critical distance needed to understand how an image is both constructed and has the power to reinforce and reflect aspects of society. Created in the heated political climate of 1960s America, Washington Monument is a particularly poignant example of how Artschwager’s technique of creating critical distance by blurring the traditional boundaries of art history, drives viewers to understand how supposedly innocuous images reflect and shape the power structures of society.
Celotex, made from compressed dried sugarcane fibers, is the ideal material for the artist to employ as its coarse surface is reminiscent of both a magnified version of paper and the weave of a canvas. The artist explains, "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.). On a purely formal basis, Celotex allows the artist to treat his subjects in a manner that quotes aspects of drawing and painting, without being purely identifiable with any of these methods. Furthermore, the source image is a photograph of a monumental sculpture, which speaks to the tension between the intimate and the monumental in a similar way that Celotex channels both the intimacy of drawing and the grandeur of painting. While the Washington Monument can become familiar and intimate when reproduced on a personal post-card or captured in a photograph archived in the family photo album, it is a grand monument imbued with the symbolic weight of history that towers over the individual.
The artist creates a tension between the grandeur of the Washington Monument and the quotidian connotations of the Celotex. The material is used predominantly in low budget home building and as decorative interior paneling, particularly in mobile homes. This mass-produced material juxtaposes with the symbolic power of the Washington Monument. Furthermore, the rough-hewn, unyielding texture produces a grainy, destabilized image, contrasting sharply with traditional depictions of the monument that prize clarity and crispness. Rendered in neutralized grayscale tones, the artist’s interpretation of the monument becomes “an eerie, ghostly presence, as though a memorial to–or of–a lost, dead civilization” (S. Stich, MADE IN U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, the '50s and '60s, New York, 1987, p. 43). In 1960s America, the moral foundation on which the physical structure of the Washington Monument was constructed upon could no longer remain stable and fixed. In the midst of the Civil Rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War by young Americans, Artschwager understood that the symbols of America—whether the lush domestic interiors of suburban homes or the monuments of the Nation’s capital—inhabited a moral grey zone and developed an artistic practice that spoke to this.
Just as a new generation of Americans sought to break with what they saw as a restrictive society, Artschwager understood that a new visual language was needed to speak about his contemporary moment. Inhabiting the tantalizing intersection of different mediums and movements, Artschwager’s works unravel the barriers of art historical tradition to reposition the often overlooked images that make up daily life in a manner that allows the viewer to reflect on the implicit power that they hold.