A classical pianist, a WWII intelligence officer, a baby photographer, a furniture designer, 89-year-old Richard Artschwager only decided to focus on art after a fire in 1958 destroyed his former work and studio. By 1963, he was asked to join the Leo Castelli Gallery.
With work in paint, illustration, and sculpture, Artschwager has consistently flirted with pop, conceptualism, and minimalism—but never felt married to any certain technique or style. Shut Up and Look, a new documentary that follows Artschwager's journey through the art world and life, shows an artist who could not be easily classified. Director Maryte Kavaliauskas, who recently directed the 2003 documentary David Hockney: The Colors of Music, and producer Morning Slayter, a New York-based private art dealer, appraiser, and documentary filmmaker, worked for the last eight years, and traveled to places like Los Angeles and Vienna, to capture his essence.
The result is an earnest peek into the restless, persistent, yet childlike cognizance of the artist, the first and only documentary on Artschwager. The film corresponds with "Richard Artschwager!", Artschwager's retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art [through February 3, 2013].
Interview sat down with Slayter to talk about what makes Artschwager a timeless figure, and what it means to be an artist's artist.
CHELSEA BURCZ: How did you come to the work of Richard Artschwager?
MORNING SLAYTER: Maryte and I have both made a number of films on 20th- and 21st-century artists. Eight years ago, Maryte was having lunch with Richard's wife, Ann Artschwager, and she learned that no one had ever made a film about this important, extraordinary artist. She decided to be the first. She had recently completed her film, David Hockney: The Color of Music, and was eager to make another film about art. So she went to Los Angeles with her husband Fred Murphy, a cinematographer, and shot Richard's opening at the Gagosian Gallery and MOCA, and then followed Richard to Vienna, where he was having an opening at the Georg Kargl Gallery. When she returned, she asked me if I would like to produce the film. We started working on the project together in 2005. We had very little funding and had to depend on the availability and generosity of cameramen like Fred, my son Sebastian, and other film friends who donated their equipment to us.
When we learned that Richard was having a 50-year retrospective at the Whitney Museum in October 2012, it gave us that extra push.
BURCZ: Why wasn't there a film about Richard before this?
SLAYTER: I don't really know. I mean, he is a very private, reclusive artist, and perhaps he never felt comfortable inviting a film crew into his studio. Fortunately, Richard welcomed us into his home his studio and several of his art openings. However, he limited the amount of time we could spend filming him painting, making lithography, and drawing. Artists generally work alone, and a film crew intrudes on their private space and their creative process.
Richard is a distinguished, quirky artist whose works command hundreds of thousands of dollars yet fame seems to elude him. His eclecticism has made Artschwager tough to categorize. One of his expressions is: "If you're a ‘school of,' you're dead. The only way to keep from drowning is to be original." The director of the Gagosian Gallery, Bob Monk, referred to him as "A school of One."
BURCZ: In the film he is called him an "artist's artist." Why is that?
SLAYTER: Yes, the artist Malcolm Morley said that. Richard's contemporaries and today's younger artists have a tremendous admiration and respect for his work. I think that's because he kept changing and evolving. If you look at his art, it's not the art of an old artist; it's art that is very relatable to young, working Brooklyn-type artists.
After Richard's opening at the Whitney, I went back by myself to spend the afternoon with his retrospective. I was fascinated by the comments being made about his work, mostly by artists in their 20s and early 30s, who were from Brooklyn, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia. I was eavesdropping on their conversations and heard comments like, "He blows my mind, he's so good." One artist from RISD told me Richard was his favorite artist, his idol really—and that the retrospective was such an inspiration.
BURCZ: Being an art dealer, had you known Richard before you started working on the film?
SLAYTER: I knew his work and had been to a number of his openings, but he wasn't somebody who was immediately on my radar. When I began working on the film, my collectors were not buying his work. However, during the course of the film, I sold two of his paintings.
BURCZ: What was it like working with Richard over the years? He seems so endearing on camera, but was he always that way? There seems to be a more private part about him as well.
SLAYTER: He has a wonderful sense of humor and loves his life and his work as an artist. He's a Renaissance man with a European sensibility—not the typical artist of his generation that was hanging out at the Cedar Bar getting drunk, or walking around with paint-splattered overalls. He's definitely a gentleman and an intellectual who follows his own path.
BURCZ: How did he respond when he saw the film?
SLAYTER: When he saw the film, he was in the back row of the screening room and Maryte and I were in the front row and very nervous throughout the film because we didn't know if he would like some of the comments. When the film was over I went up to him and said, "What did you think of our film, did you like it?" Richard said, "Is the Pope Catholic? I loved it and can't thank you enough for making a film about me." That was music to my ears.
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