Richard Artschwager, 2008. Photo: Ann Artschwager.


I FIRST MET RICHARD IN 1967, in Vermillion, South Dakota. I was teaching at the University of South Dakota at the time. We were able to enlist him as a visiting artist because he was on his way back to New York from California. The oxymoronic character of his work and the poetic way he thought and spoke about art caused for me an immediate connection. If someone like him lived in New York, I needed to move there. So in 1968 I did and have lived here ever since.

We remained friends throughout. Over these past forty plus years we shared many terrific times filled with engrossing conversations and humor. He was a completely unique person, an American artist in the best sense of what that could mean. His mother was a Russian Jew, and a painter. His father was German and a botanist. They brought with them a European intellectual tradition, which would explain Richard’s respect and understanding of philosophical traditions. He could and would often speak with authority on Kant, Heidegger, Benjamin, etc. Scientific thinking would permeate his discussion, juxtaposed with philosophical anecdotes.

Imagine the contrasts he represented. His formative years took place in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a rather isolated place in the 1930s, with spacious desert valleys and beautiful mountains. He could speak German because of his parents and Spanish because he was brought up in a Hispanic region of the country.

My favorite example of his thinking is in a piece he wrote that was originally published in 1990 in Parkett 23: Collaboration Richard Artschwager titled “Art and Reason.” His point was that due to our mobility, human beings are capable of inhabiting a separate “physical space” and a public “social” space. For him this explained the conflict between our need to be individualistic and social beings at the same time. I remember asking him to speak about this further. He said to imagine what kind of knowledge you would have if you were the only human being on earth. You would only know things through observation and experience. For example, if you ate a particular plant for food it would make you sick but if you ate the same plant when you were sick it would make you feel better. Or if you got scrapes and wounds you might imitate animals by snuggling into a pool of mud. For him this kind of experiential knowledge was what he meant by “physical” knowledge. And, if someone told you not to touch or eat a particular plant then that would be an example of “social” knowledge.

I mention this because, in spite of his intellectual capacities, he believed art took place primarily in the “physical” space of life and not so much in the social space. It was learning by doing, on your own, in the fields or in the studio that mattered for art. He had accumulated tremendous “physical” knowledge. One example of numerous ones I could tell was when we were renovating a loft space: He took a circular saw and plunged it into a sheet of 3/4 inch plywood. Then with some screws he fastened the plate of the saw to the plywood and wired the trigger so it was always on. He flipped the sheet of plywood over, exposing the blade of the saw, and placed it over a cardboard box. You turned the saw on and off by plugging and unplugging it. This served as our “on the spot” table saw from which we made all the cabinets for the space.

Though assistants fabricated a great many of Richard’s works, what makes his art succeed for me was his ability to extend his physical knowledge to the fabricators. He expected the same level of intelligence, mystery, and intimacy, as if he had personally made them. In the last few years of his life he continued to work, by himself in his studio in Hudson, New York.

I wish he was still here. I miss him.

John Torreano is an artist living in New York.

Ed Ruscha and Steven Holl’s reflections on Artschwager appear in the Summer 2013 issue of Artforum.