Sprüth Magers’ Richard Artschwager exhibit, “New Mexico,” on display until June 30 at the gallery’s location in Berlin (where the businesses began reopening late last month), features an assortment of pastel drawings that take viewers on a tour across the plains of the state where the artist spent his adolescence. Artschwager lived in and around New York City for most of his career and made these drawings in the decade before his death, in 2013. All landscapes except one still life—bowl of apples (2007), a pit stop, perhaps – the works are a low-key and rarely seen coda of his adventurous and challenging production, which has spanned painting, furniture design, and sculpture and rubbed shoulders with the realms of minimalism, concept art and pop.
Throughout his work, Artschwager has favored the tactile, and these drawings, despite the light and airy qualities of their imagery, are no exception. We feel the weight of his hand in the application of the pastel, which he made in deliberate marks that he left alone in some places and that he rubbed to create the effects of misty sfumato in others, such as ocher and emerald fields in Bushes with blue sky (2011), where the sporadic blur evokes the optical distortions of heat. The coarse paper that supports the designs is just as active in the making of the images as the hand does, the fibers breaking up the marks and giving the clear New Mexico air an irregular texture. In this way, the paper is reminiscent of Celotex, the compressed, industrial fiberboard that Artschwager began using as a painting medium in the 1960s, and whose pockmarked surface interfered with his images, giving them a certain strangeness. About Celotex, he once explained, “You could say it is large scale, large format paper with a coarse tooth, looking like newsprint under magnification.
But while certain qualities of the New Mexico designs are reminiscent of Artschwager’s other works, there are also differences, especially in terms of color. The drawings venture into a more complete palette than that to which one is accustomed with the works of Artschwager, which, although sometimes marked by touches of color, are often dominated by neutrals – the grays of his acrylic paintings which transpose black and white photographs, for example, or the faux wood tones of Formica that he incorporated into his most iconic sculptures. The palette here, on the other hand, goes through greens, grays, golds and cerulean, and even plunges into a deep and sullen ultramarine in the depiction of a night sky in Reflection (2010), a drawing on velvet. Artschwager generally used the colors of pastels in an unmodulated form, although he occasionally laid them on gray or brown tones that disrupt or intensify the hues.
One wall displays a sequence of six drawings composed of stacked horizontal fields of color that suggest receding plains, some with grids of planted shrubs. These works have a panoramic quality, making the group’s experience almost filmic, an effect reinforced by the grain of the paper.
Back home, I pulled out my copy of Agnes Martin’s collected writings to see what one of New Mexico’s most famous Modernist residents (and Grid supporters) might have said about the qualities of this landscape. I landed on a text from 1972 (based on notes for a lecture), in which Martin shares insight regarding the plains:
I used to paint mountains here in New Mexico and thought
my mountains looked like anthills
I saw the plains come out of New Mexico and I thought
the plain had it
just the plane
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When I draw horizontals
you see this big plane and you have certain feelings like
you stretch over the plane
Although influenced by the plains of New Mexico, Martin did not seek to represent them. She wanted to distill their qualities, as evidenced by her passage from “flat” to “plan”, from geography to geometry, in the passage above. “Anything can be painted without representation,” she says a few lines down the page.
While Martin courted a sense of transcendence to the outer limits of painting, Artschwager reveled in the messy and contaminated spaces between categories. In the aforementioned sequence of horizontally structured drawings, he immediately depicted the New Mexico landscape, collapsed and abstracted that space and walked into the film. Unlike Martin, Artschwager did not make works “without representation”, but rather showed that representation was permeable to many other ways of seeing. This kind of fluidity, never forced but simply given in these drawings, carries its own kind of transcendence.