A retrospective of Swiss artist John Armleder’s sculptural interpretations of domesticity, “Selected Furniture Sculptures 1979-2012,” is on view until Oct. 28 at New York’s Swiss Institute. The show catalogues the artist’s well-known series of sculptures, which combine painting and found furniture. His formally inventive pairings conjure the interiors of both the household and mind; the specificity of the objects might lead to conjecture, or at least curiosity, about the artist himself. “The least interesting thing about art is the artist,” Armleder told A.i.A., reflecting the profound yet offhand modesty of his sculptures.
Armleder’s first furniture sculpture, Untitled (FS 1, 1979), comprises a small, dingy dining chair with mustard-colored upholstery. On the chair’s back, the artist applied a partial coating of white paint and a gestural blue line reminiscent of an upside-down Nike swoosh. The piece plays two sides, suggesting both an artistic intervention, and, equally, a past-its-prime formal dining chair repurposed for lesser household duties. “It recalls the ‘living’ part of a room,” said Armleder. “The furniture sculptures refer to what happens to painting. Paintings are hung over a sofa, or between curtains, so it’s just natural, in a way.”
Preparing the earliest furniture sculptures, Armleder chose thrift-store furniture that had experienced a life of use before becoming a work of art. The artist was showing with John Gibson Gallery in New York during the early ’80s, and sometimes showed pieces at the gallerist’s private apartment, including Furniture Sculpture 60 (1984), three aquamarine-toned chairs with multicolored dots painted on the seats and backs. Of the coincidence between creating domestic pieces that were shown in a domestic setting, the artist says, “I was involved in doing these works anyhow-later on you always find out the many reasons you choose to make a certain work. The apartment where John was living had no furniture in it, so I just brought furniture back.”
For the current show, curated by Gianni Jetzer, the organization is more discursive. The show reveals Armleder’s progression with this series, positioning his thrift-store finds against work composed of more culturally evocative objects, such as Goldfish (2008), a clear orange Ludwig Vistalite drum kit on a lightbox. “Gianni had this idea of showing pieces I made in New York or America,” said Armleder. “We tried to make a selection that would tell about how the works were made, and at the same time that the pieces would make sense together.”
Several pieces feature large geometric oil- or acrylic-on-canvas paintings with paired with operable objects, such as Marshall amplifiers (Untitled, FS 245, 1990) or surfboards handmade by a Californian artisan (Furniture Sculpture 201 with Kent Senator, 1988). “When an art lover looks at the painting, it’s the same thing as when a surfer looks at the surfboard,” says Armleder. “They’re recognized as emblems of specific cultures. Someone who is innocent and free of those burdens would construct his own interpretation of what is happening in that moment.”
Another hallmark work, Untitled (FS 203), 1988, features the “spoilers” that give automobiles better aerodynamics. The highly reflective chrome structures are hung horizontally next to large acrylic paintings, and when a viewer approaches them, their reflection is inverted, as with a funhouse mirror. Distorting reflections is part of the artist’s conceptual agenda. “You look at a classical painting, and the same thing happens,” said Armelder. “It’s just the natural effect: when you look at an artwork, you become part of it, whether visually, or by the references. In a gallery, the chrome mirrors the viewer. On a moving truck, it would mirror the landscape. Not to be too psychoanalytical, but the fact that the trucker wants his truck to be a mirror is part of the significance.”
A few of the pieces in the show, including a sculpture based on a Brooks Brothers three-way dressing mirror (Furniture Sculpture 185 with Stéphane Armleder, 1988 ) and a charming sculpture of a small table affixed to the ceiling (Furniture Sculpture 18, 1980-2012), were reconstructed from memory, the originals being lost or unavailable. “In some cases, I felt some pieces from the past had lived their own life and could not be reconstructed. With the pieces we did construct, it was conceivable,” said Armleder. “I like the idea of not fetishizing the original. It also shows that the viewer is more important than the artist. The narratives of me finding these objects and all that are nice stories, but they’re not the artwork.”