Richard Artschwager is known and embraced for his clever and often humorous attacks on the conventions of art. In Sailors, which dates from 1966, Artschwager continues in this vein of provocation with a recreation of a photograph of a group of World War II sailors. The recreation is composed of four panels, each panel framed independently from the next, as if four sovereign works of art were united to achieve a complete vision. Meanwhile, the crowd of sailors is visually broken by the frames: bodies are cropped, faces partially hidden. No matter how hard we strain our necks, we cannot gain visionary insight into what lies behind those frames.
Artschwager has discussed frames as an essential visual element in his work: "In art, as in life, there are things to look at; some are trying to attract our attention harder than others, but this is always changing" (R. Artschwager, quoted in D. Schwartz, ed., Richard Artschwager: Texts and Interviews, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Düsseldorf, 2003, p. 37). In Sailors, Artschwager has dramatically challenged the intended function of a frame as we understand it in the accepted canon of art. As something that traditionally serves to enclose the pictorial plane, here it interrupts it; as something that serves as a "window to the world," here it blocks our vision. By placing the frame directly in the viewer's line of vision, he not only draws attention to it; he redefines it.
In his depiction of the sailors, Artschwager slightly distorts their faces, transforming them into something of caricatures. The effect lends a humorous undertone to the painting--an undertone for which Artschwager is well-known-and attempts to paint the sailors as innocuous. As viewers we become so engaged with their masks of comedy that we forget the potentially sinister tasks the sailors have agreed to take on as soldiers of war. In reality, many soldiers themselves are not fully unaware of the violent activity in which they will engage; their earnest disposition as they depart for battle starkly contrasts the austerity and resignation they carry with them upon their return. It is a harsh and often unspoken realty that Artschwager manages to illustrate with both humor and potency.
Artschwager's proclivity to incorporate found photographs into his oeuvre began after he stumbled upon an old photograph of people on a beach. It occurred to him that "[t]hey would live their lives and they would be dead someday. I thought it would be good to paint them as they were, without satire, and made a fairly large canvas, gridding off the photo and following it pretty closely. It was a romantic idea, rooted in lonely voyeurism" (R. Artschwager quoted in Artschwager, Richard, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1988, p. 18). He recreated the scenes in these photographs using Celotex, a textured medium whose uneven ridges disrupt what would normally be a smooth finish and disperse both the visual and contextual certainties that the viewer might have.