John M Armleder at the Swiss Institute, New York

by Michael Klein

October 2012

Swiss-born and raised, John M. Armleder has gained international recognition for a decisively personal and wholly remarkable body of work and performances that stretch across all artistic boundaries. In 1969 he founded, along with two other artists, the Ecart group, a collaboration that included a gallery, publishing house and a bookstore.

In his own work, he called into question definitions of style, function and purpose. He is a positivist seeing art as a life force and a process in which the artist presents an array of conclusions not always linked by style but more by action. Through a variety of materials from abstract paintings to neon wall pieces, wallpaper patterns, prints and room-size installations, Armleder is experimenting with the language of art-making that is at once familiar yet made up of many different expressions and phrases. Among those expressions is his take on furniture as sculpture.

Armleder’s work transcends traditional notions of art made for the gallery space. John M. Armleder: Selected Furniture Sculptures 1979-2012 at the Swiss Institute, showcases the artists tactful incorporation of art and reality. There is a seamless shift as art inflitrates daily life, and daily life is fused with art. The composite, Painting with Coat Hanger, 1984 is a perfect example of this partnership, as a painted canvas is combined with a wooden hanger. One element of the work functions as sign of art, while the other part of the work as sign of use. It is a perfect modern trope as it is the union of two disparate elements into a single iconic form that can pose as a painting and/or pose as a sculpture much like a reversible jacket or tie. The visual clashing of disparate parts into composed arrangements hints not only at the unspoken character of a piece but also the ironic way in which they exist combined first in his mind, and then in the world.

Furniture sculpture, the show’s focal point, expands on this trope; it is in fact a tableau whether it is a single chair or a cohesion of different elements into a single setting. In Armleder’s mind these are not situations involving figures, they are instead arrangements using two and three-dimensional materials to create and formulate a live experience. The Readymade expanded to be many “mades” organized to function simultaneously. Marcel Duchamp may have designated the single Readymade as a proposition about art, but Armleder takes the concept of the Readymade a step further by applying it to scenarios of contemporary life. Each tableau works as an assemblage within a context of contemporary furnishing, decor and design. They can appear and disappear depending on circumstance in a gallery or museum context. They are “on display” in a more domestic setting. They are “part of the furniture” and it is this mobility that is one of the key elements of Armleder’s ideology and the great quality of his work.

This kind of art-making continues to experiment with the subject material of art begun in the seventies. The list of artists is quite long but a few examples of this international enterprise include the Americans Richard Artschwager, Scott Burton and Robert Therrian; the German Stephen Wewerka, and the Canadian Ken Lum. All of these artists employ a distinctly unique method in their approach. Some use found materials, some build, others reconstruct, but together they share a common belief in furniture as an elemental material the way sculptors might consider stone or bronze. Artschwager’s clever conundrums of cabinets and are quite separate from Lum’s minimal inspired arrangements of sofas or beds. Armleder is neither a puzzle maker nor a minimalist. He, in fact, creates silent tableaux that have within their construct a mystery, humor and a life connected to the everyday.

Looking at Armleder’s installations there is something that harkens back to the surrealist poetic ideal defined by the write Comte de Lautreaumont; “as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of an umbrella and a sewing machine.” This is a seemingly innocent conjunction of two unrelated objects, yet in Armleder’s hands there is no schism between objects, no odd or awkward pairing. Instead they work together, hand in hand, a coupling bound by proximity and aesthetic appeal.

Beginning with a chair from 1979, the show at the Swiss Institute traces furniture ideas over three decades. Untitled FS 20 1980-81, for example, offers a long refractory table turned on its side and its surface painted as if it were a Malevich; a perfect agitprop for a private collection. Numbers are more apt than proper titles for this series, mimicking the notion of a musical opus which in varied settings and surroundings can make it sound so distinctly different. So too can the furniture sculpture appear different when positioned or placed in a new situation, be it a private house or a public gallery.

The artistic approach of positing furniture as sculpture continues the experimentation of the late sixties and seventies, when all subject material was questioned and evaluated. Similar to Armleder, Dan Flavin employed non-traditional art materials in his minimalist installations, using store bought fluorescent bulbs and fixtures in order to form sculptures that could seemingly be re-created. But art-making requires a separate set of processes, more than just accumulating materials. Armleder is less concerned with the quality of the object and its inherent content than its ability to be morphed into a unique statement in which the whole is larger than its contingent parts. It is subtle incursion into the world. Imagine a room where a tableau is combined with ordinary furnishings. It is the ghost in the room, a shift in perspective when one recognizes the room’s contents and then realizes that something is oddly out of place or off kilter.

John M Armleder: Selected Furniture Sculptures 1979-2012
13 September–28 October, 2012
Swiss Institute
New York