Friday, September 14, 2012

Richard Artschwager: Organ of Cause and Effect III

Organ of Cause and Effect III (1986)
Richard Artschwager

I keep wanting to call this work "Origin of Cause and Effect," though not intentionally, merely some sort of Freudian slip on my part, I assume. Still, there's humor, playfulness, in Artschwager's art, so perhaps he intended some pun or other, and the word "organ" certainly lends itself to punning in ways mentionable and unmentionable.

This piece is in the Whitney Museum. I found it while trying to see what would be shown in the upcoming Artschwager Exhibition. Those images aren't generally available yet, but this piece is in the permanent collection.

Curious as to what critics have said about this artwork, I found Vivien Raynor's NYT article, "ART; 31 Artists Take a Decade's Measure" (January 21, 1990), a report on "The 80's in Review" exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art:
There is no missing the show's piece de resistance. Richard Artschwager's sculpture "Organ of Cause and Effect III" is an organ in all respects save the ability to produce sound and, hanging opposite the entrance, it hits the visitor first thing. The 11-foot-high piece is made of formica and wood, and it consists of five cream-colored pipes, each of which has a brown vent at the bottom. The artist may be taking liberties by placing a shelf, also cream, that supports three brown house-like objects, below the pipes, and setting the keyboard below that. Splendid in its hideousness and well-made to boot, the work seems to say that cleanliness is next to emptiness rather than godliness.

Mr. Artschwager's work implies an acceptance of life as it is . . .
That's mostly rather descriptive -- though unlike Raynor, I think the cream-colored shelf with the three brown objects is the keyboard, the lower portion more likely the foot pedals -- but the passage does offer a couple of interpretive remarks at the end, namely, that "cleanliness is next to emptiness rather than godliness . . . [in] an acceptance of life as it is." Perhaps Raynor takes the organ's silence (of which she does not speak) as indicative of a godless universe, but I'm not persuaded that this implies accepting life as it is. Artschwager's art evinces a playful irony -- or perhaps an ironic playfulness? -- that warps Platonic concepts and in doing so recreates the world according to other forms. That would also seem to bring a creator 'god' back into the world, or a quasi-Platonic demiurge, at least. Artschwager is having fun, but irony can be a moral stance redirecting one's gaze to what ought to be by distancing one critically from what is. The silence of this organ, anyway, makes a deep impression, for it's emphatically remarked upon by Michael Kilian, writing "Formica Seldom Is So Profound" two years earlier for the Chicago Tribune (February 25, 1988):
Stand before the Formica and acrylic on wood two-dimensional pyramid of pipes of his 1986 "Organ of Cause and Effect III." Hear the silence. See the silence.
There's an austere silence about much of Artschwager's sculptures, but the silence is more notable coming from this organ. Is it really silent, though? It plays strains of cause and effect, I infer, or so the title implies.

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