RICHARD ARTSCHWAGER: SHUT UP AND LOOK
is the story of Richard Artschwager, 88, a distinguished quirky American artist whose works command hundreds of thousands of dollars yet fame eludes him. His eclecticism has made Artschwager tough to categorize. He’s been called a pop artist, a conceptual artist, a minimalist, but none of those schools fit the range of his work. The artist says himself “If you are a ‘school of…,’ you’re dead. The only way to keep from drowning is to be original.”
The film provides an intimate look at this extraordinarily gifted artist as he abandoned a reclusive life style to allow our camera into his private world over the last 8 years. In that time, Richard, who has been known for his black and white work, turned to color for the first time. He is facing the challenges of getting older while still making radical changes, creating the most vibrant works of his life. He confesses that he wants to make bigger paintings, but in his heart he yearns to return to the sunlit skies and mountains of his youth in New Mexico.
The camera catches him working in his studio, playing the piano at home, music which continues in the soundtrack, walking in the canyons of New Mexico, traveling around the world to install shows and revisiting his colorful past. One day in the 1940s, his then wife shushed him during a concert in Vienna saying “Shut up and listen!” The phrase stuck with him, he explains, “since then I’ve adapted that to ‘shut up and look,’ meant politely. What it really means is, I don’t know what to say.”
The story starts with Richard installing “Blps” — monochromatic wall dots shaped like knock-wurst, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “They were born in California in 1967.” He took a carload of the Blps and placed them all around the country like Johnny Appleseed. John Torreano describes nighttime escapades in which they sprayed the Blps on urban walls and even high on a Con Ed smokestack in NYC. In Kansas City, the local media mistook the art as black power symbols. Friends and admirers, like the Guggenheim Museum’s director, Richard Armstrong, art philanthropist, Agnes Gund, artists Malcolm Morley and Joe Zucker, recall stories from Richard’s life with stunning frankness and they share the artist’s own sense of wry humor.
Artschwager was an intelligence officer in Europe during World War II, a baby photographer, a classical pianist and a furniture maker. That profession was curtailed by a fire at his downtown workshop in 1958. The fire may have been a blessing in disguise since with so much of his work destroyed, he was pushed into making fine art. We learn of Artschwager’s childhood in New Mexico in the 1930s, the son of a German father, a botanist, and a Russian Jewish mother, a painter. He grew up in a very European household and could speak German and Spanish. His family looked at the world in discerning detail which inspired his first interest in science and then in art. A girlfriend once told him he didn’t have the temperament for a scientist but might make a good artist. “Okay,” he responded, “What have I gotten myself into? It felt like falling off a cliff.”
The artist gets his inspiration from long walks in nature, with the camera following his observations there. Zucker describes him as a “walking Samuel Beckett, or a one man Off Broadway play.” He inspects plant tendrils and his own footsteps with cheerful childlike joy. This same curiosity of what’s underfoot informs an early series of black and white drawings that depict six objects in one room: a door, a mirror, a basket, a table, window, and rug. He made a hundred different versions that evoke the off-kilter Alice’s Wonderland. Richard’s artwork is very idiosyncratic, employing cheap, industrial materials like Celotex, a wall insulation made from sugar cane, that gives Richard an extremely rough texture to draw on. He also transforms wood grained Formica into high art with a keen sense of humor.
At the heart of the film, Richard travels to Vienna to install a new series of sculptures made from horsehair, used for stuffing mattresses. Richard Armstrong describes the material as “repulsive and looking like pubic hair,” and the pieces resemble alien creatures. On the other hand, the gallery owner, Georg Kargl, insists that “the work looks like it was made by a 35 year old, completely fresh.” Richard has even designed the facade of the gallery, so his work would be showcased in the launch of “The Box.” In verité footage, we watch the trial and error process of installation in the very small gallery as Richard and his present wife, Ann, wage a battle of wills. The visit to Vienna becomes a catalyst for Richard to journey through many of his memories of the years he spent in post war Vienna in Army intelligence in what he himself coins as “The Third Man in real life.” That film is interwoven with his arrival. Running throughout the film is Richard’s love and appreciation of women. His friend John Torreano and he were each married at one time to the same woman. Joe Zucker, commenting on Richard’s four marriages, says “Maybe he likes to get married.. he looks good in a suit and dances like Fred Astaire.”
the film director, studied Art History at Barnard College and upon graduation started working in the film industry as a sound recordist, producer and director. She has directed films on many artists including James Rosenquist, Joan Mitchell, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and the master print maker Ken Tyler. Her film on Herbie Hancock was shown on ARTE, the French Television Channel. She directed the award-winning 90-minute film, David Hockney: The Colors Of Music which premiered at Film Forum and was shown on PBS, as part of the American Masters Series.
the film producer, has worked as a producer, director and sound recordist on documentaries and features. She produced a documentary on the high wire walker Philippe Petit and directed political shorts at the United Nations and the White House for Danish and Swedish Television. She worked closely with artists in the making of films on Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Willem de Kooning, Georgia O’Keefe, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg, Larry Rivers, and Mark di Suvero. She is a private art dealer and appraiser with expertise in 20th and 21st century American and European art. She has lectured on art and documentary filmmaking at Drew University, New York University, Columbia University and Fashion Institute of Technology and Institute of Contemporary Photography.