Essay

Richard Artschwager, Triptych III

By Marin Sarvé-Tarr, May 2019

Richard Artschwager, Triptych III, 1967; formica on wood, dimensions variable; collection SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis and anonymous donors

Across three expansive panels, Triptych III pairs a luxurious caramel pattern with the flat, shiny Formica surface of common lunch counters. Artschwager adopted Formica in 1962 to give his work both a sculptural presence and the marbled effect of many abstract expressionist paintings. In 1965 he famously recounted: “Formica, the great ugly material, the horror of the age. . . . It was a picture of a piece of wood. If you take that and make something out of it, then you have an object. But it’s a picture of something at the same time.”

This work combines the religious connotations of the triptych with the Formica laminate of our everyday surroundings to upend conventions of art and furniture, much like the artist’s early sculptures that experiment with both replicating and obscuring their underlying materials. Artschwager periodically revisited the three-panel format after a 1960 commission from the Catholic Church to build portable altars for ships, making at least four other triptychs over the course of his career. Some have abstract Formica surfaces, while others incorporate explicit imagery. Suspended on the wall but jutting into the viewer’s space, all of these works blur the lines between painting, sculpture, and furniture. As the artist wrote, “Sculpture is for the touch, painting is for the eye. I wanted to make a sculpture for the eye and a painting for the touch.”

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Cite as: Marin Sarvé-Tarr, “Richard Artschwager, Triptych III,” May 2019.


San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, https://www.sfmoma.org/essay/richard-artschwager-triptych-iii/

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Marin Sarvé-Tarr

Marin Sarvé-Tarr

Marin Sarvé-Tarr is Fisher Collection Curatorial Fellow at SFMOMA.
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