A Short History of the blp

To the extent that the blp epitomizes Richard Artschwager’s art, it also stands firmly on its own, an independent phenomenon, a little to the left of the artist’s painting and sculpture, on whatever ground it finds itself located by whomever has chosen to place it there. Stenciled or stuck anywhere by anyone, these lozenge-shaped marks create a juncture of ever-changing coordinates, admitting asides from such disparate realms as typography, poetry, music, even radar, as they gather their own context round them.1 The following is a brief account—according to the artist, archival documents, and anterior association—of the blp.2

The blp was born in the winter of 1967-1968, while Artschwager was teaching a term at the University of California at Davis. It arose out of a combination of graphic impulses, perhaps the result of the artist being cut off from the routines of his New York studio:

At Davis I know I did two things: I graffiti-ed into magazines with a felt tip, blacking out eyes, etc. in somewhat the manner of Duchamp’s mustache on the Mona Lisa. Then I was also working in notebooks as usual and therein tried to pick apart my painting to see if I could take it somewhere else. There were dashes, Y-shapes and hooks, with pen or pencil. So out of this I decided to bring the elements into the space by making them bigger and more substantive…3

The blps, evolved as a lozenge, “more effective than a dot,” were first shown as painted wooden cut-outs grouped in clusters at the university gallery. The original idea was to arrange them into illusional figures, which would disintegrate into abstraction upon approach.4 This proved dissatisfying and Artschwager promptly began winnowing. Switching to singles, he found himself moving out of the gallery space, putting blps in the hallway, onto the ceiling, and so on.

Thus liberated, the blps fueled Artschwager’s trip back to New York in the spring of 1968 in his Studebaker Lark with “a bushel basket of blps” in the trunk. By the time he got to Detroit, he had used up the last blp. In the course of the journey, it seems the blp had changed character, from a diverting pastime outside the studio, into an aggressive means of establishing identity and controlling space. In June, Artschwager made his debut at the Galerie Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf, not with “signature” paintings and sculptures, but with blps, covering the interior, including the windows, in a blight of black spots.

Back in New York, Richard Bellamy included the blps in one of his serial abstraction shows, “From Arp to Artschwager III” and parleyed for their inclusion in the 1968 Whitney Annual devoted to contemporary sculpture. Installed throughout the museum’s stairwells, galleries, elevators, and offices, the blps, now made of wood, hair, and plastic, were collectively titled 100 LOCATIONS. Cheap, nonretinal, unruly and invasive, they were singled out by a critic as “[p]erhaps the most significant contribution to the entire Annual.”5 (Artschwager remembers Eva Hesse’s compliment during the installation: “I used to think you were really dumb.”) Indeed as blps actively broke with conventions of consumption and containability, they were confluent with a range of conceptual strategies from, say, Dan Flavin’s fluorescent sculptures, which fill the air with ephemeral, industrial radiance, to Vito Acconci’s guerrilla-style “blink” photographs, snapped in the streets at each bat of the eye.6 Artschwager himself refers to them in “environmental” terms, revealing in his notes that the genesis of the hair blps stemmed from a desire to “make one which doesn’t look like a keypunch hole in space, but like a soft spot in the diamond hardness of the air.” Perhaps less evident is how the blps might relate to sound and film.

In a 1968 lecture at Milton College, which began with the query, “What does it feel like to look?” Artschwager said, “Seeing is confined to what is in front of us, and to an area shaped something like a Zeppelin or blimp. Or…a cinemascope screen with all four corners lopped off.” Accordingly, the blp becomes a miniature movie screen, a portable field of vision. It is also filled with motion, as Artschwager originally opted for the lozenge over the dot for its streamlined zip. The soft edges of the hair blps actually enhance this effect with a blurriness that signifies movement in photography. The cinematic potential of the blp is presented in Artschwager’s project for Sonsbeek 1971 with a series of blps located throughout the nearby city of Utrecht.7 A publication devoted entirely to blps documents the various sites, from flower stands to fields (where blps perch on little sticks), with full-page photographs that read like a film montage of a day in the utopian life of a blp.8 In one sequence a blp on the back of a car travels down a street, growing tinier in the distance. Adding another ambient layer, or soundtrack, is a record tucked in the book’s back cover. One side plays the continuous ticking of a windup clock; the other the pinging sound of the same when muffled.

If Utrecht was an idyllic departure into a panoramic blp Sensurround, blps were more generally experienced by the public as incidental stop-motion, doubletakes, if they were seen at all. Simultaneous to the official installation at the Whitney in 1968, Artschwager (helped by friends Gary Bauer and John Torreano) located blps around Manhattan. The cadre worked under cover of darkness, spray-painting blps outside the major museums as well as at less distinguished locales. A blp on a wall of graffiti suggests a comparative study. Like graffiti, blps are anyone’s mark. For a l978 exhibition, entitled “Detective Show,” held at Gorman Park in Queens, organizer/artist John Fekner informed the absent Artschwager, “Your piece was executed by a couple of fifteen-year-old girls with my supervision of course.” For even at its most surreptitious and streetwise, the blp must be correct, making it ultimately unsuited to expressive defiance and public defacement. Its true precincts are visibility and memory. Like a pointer that indicates “look here,” the blp calls attention to its surroundings which, no matter how raucous or sedate, seamy or banal, suddenly find themselves the subject of a second glance, and possibly even worth remembering.

At the same time Artschwager was working the galleries and streets plying relatively small blps, he was also envisioning more ambitious venues. Photographic maquettes proposed monumental blps on the sides of brutalist bunkers in Hamburg, on a nineteenth-century row house on Wells Street in Chicago, and in the Telegraph Hill district in San Francisco. A forty-foot tall white blp was painted on a black smokestack of the Turtle Bay Steam Plant, located in Lower Manhattan. This was an inside job, arranged for by the artist with a Con Edison employee “long since retired.” After some twenty years of humming quietly above the F.D.R. Drive, the blp recently disappeared from the spot.

According to Artschwager the first blps came out of drawings that were about painting. Closely scrutinized, there is something of the blp (along with “hooks” and “ys”) slipping around, paramecium-like, in the pools of black-and-white acrylic medium that ride and rise over the irregular celotex surfaces of Artschwager’s photographic imagery. One might even come to think of blps as Artschwager’s Benday dot—mechanical reproduction’s least common denominator that had gained such high visibility within the work of his Pop peers. Inasmuch as the blps managed to encapsulate the essence of Artschwager’s painting, they also may have precipitated a crisis. A 1968 notebook entry determining to quash such qualms reads, “Doing both is best way to say Fuck You Clement Greenberg.” Any real dilemma is startlingly enclosed in TINTORETTO’S RESCUE OF THE BODY OF SAINT MARK (l969), a long view down a barrel vault where a fragmentary icon of the Renaissance painting (St. Mark’s hand) floats alongside Artschwager’s own blps.

Boundaries exist to be trespassed, exceeded, blurred in Artschwager’s art. The painting, sculpture, multiples, blps are all contiguous upon one another, working in concert to make art seemingly ordinary enough to pass into everyday experience. A function of the punctuation pieces that first appeared in 1966 was to frame space in the same way an Exclamation Point or Quotation Marks frames speech.9 Similar attempts to disrupt patterns of seeing and reading occurred throughout the sixties as exemplified by the contemporary renaissance of concrete poetry, and the publication of Notations (1968), a collection edited by John Cage of new music notation which ranged from erratic angles, to creepy drips to simple language. (“Bloop. Blip./Bloop. Zeep,” Ken Friedman’s composition begins.10) But while Artschwager’s punctuation pieces performed a rhetoric of seeing using familiar grammar, turning their surroundings into floating concrete poems, if you will, the blps eschewed all references to reading by marking a site for just plain “useless” looking. For Artschwager, this is one of the blps’ most important features:

First the blp. It is a mindless invasion of the social space by a logo-like, totally useless art element. It is small, has high visibility, relentlessly refuses to give up its uselessness. It is an instrument for useless looking. Being of small size and high visibility it converts the immediate surround over to The Useless. That is its “function.” It gets about as close to pure art as one can get.11

When Artschwager clipped the “i” from “blip,” he snatched his invention from the dictionary and any direct associations with 1) a short crisp sound, 2) radar or 3) censorship in order to strengthen its purely abstract and aural impact. As much as the blp is a gestalt of vision (a blp is what it feels like to see), it also sums up the ever-critical Artschwagerian concept of “preliterate experience.”12 He once told an interviewer, a blp “is one of those things you can’t drop into a verbal conversation.”13 This notion was elaborated upon in the most recent large-scale blp installation held at the Clock Tower in 1978. Besides the usual assortment lurking around, up in the tower, and on all four faces of the clock—note that Artschwager had wired the hands of the clock to “race around (one set backward) at alarming speed, visible from the ground, but experienced in the tower only as eerie shadows”14—were a series of wall-sized blps encircling the gallery, like a blockade or a deafening tattoo. These passed through two passages of relatively unassuming wall installations: the first, a perspectival study, such as appears in the painting BUSHES (1970), of pencil lines all rushing to meet a central point on the wall that in turn establishes a rudimentary landscape beyond the phalanx of blps. The second, a representation of a piano keyboard, upon which the blps land like giant touch. In short, what wells up behind these seemingly stolid mute marks are all the unspeakable pleasures of music and pictorial illusion.

Blps continue to appear. Most recently a mirror multiple was made in the shape of one and there’s some talk of making a giant blp out of bristle. But there are also a box of blp decals and a handful of stencils in different sizes lying around the studio, just in case…


  1. “Towards the end of the Rundstedt offensive, Artschwager was in the intelligence service. For hours and days on end he sat in front of radar screens. The search object on the radar screen, a blp sound…” See Jean-Christophe Ammann’s catalogue essay for The Picture After the Last Picture (Vienna: Galerie Metropole, 1990-91), p. 16.
  2. For brevity’s sake, one omission has been the blp sculpture and objects, perhaps the most important of which is the Locations multiple of 1969, a formica box containing blps in a variety of media––hair, plastic, mirror, etc. See Richard Artschwager: Complete Multiples (New York: Brooke Alexander Editions, 1991).
  3. Correspondence with the artist, January 11, 1996. Subsequent unreferenced quotes refer to this letter.
  4. 4 This effect would have been akin to the surface play of Artschwager’s own painting on celotex, while he himself suggests as a model the work of Bart van der Leck, a Dutch artist who by the 1920s had distilled the lessons of de Stijl into an idiosyncratic proto-Op art.
  5. For this critic, Ralph Pomeroy, Artschwager’s blps seem to have presented a friendly antithesis to what he called, writing about Donald Judd in particular, the other “phenomenon revealed by the show: the startling presence of so many works that must have cost a fortune to produce.” Ralph Pomeroy, “New York: and now, Anti-Museum Art?,” Art and Artists (March, 1969), p. 59. Other artists represented in the Annual included Lee Bontecou, Eva Hesse, Ellsworth Kelly, Gary Kuehn, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg, Dennis Oppenheim, Fred Sandback, Anne Truitt. Concurrent with the review, Pomeroy included Artschwager’s blps in an exhibition he organized for the Cultural Center at the New Jersey State Art Museum in Trenton, entitled “Soft Art” (March 1 to April 14, 1969).
  6. For this reason it seems surprising that Artschwager’s blps were not included in the important survey of conceptualist art “1965-1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art,” The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (October 15, 1995 to February 4, 1996).
  7. The 1971 Sonsbeek outdoor sculpture exhibition accepted the challenge implicit to much contemporary art and offered artists the opportunity to develop projects outside the usual limits of the park, located in Arnhem. Entitled “Beyond Lawn and Order,” approximately twenty sites were designated throughout the Netherlands (June 19 to August 15, 1971).
  8. Perhaps even more cinematic were the first studies Artschwager made for the project on a series of photographs of a man walking throughout the park. The man’s trajectory, combined with the blp’s changing locations from picture-to-picture, creates a continuous flow of activity.
  9. It is interesting to note that etymologically speaking the word “punctuation” comes from “pointing,” which is also a significant feature of the blp. See essay by the author, “?,” Richard Artschwager (Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 1994).
  10. Notations, ed. John Cage (New York: Something Else Press, 1969).
  11. Artist’s statement, Art & Design, vol. 8 (May/June, 1993), p. 80.
  12. “Preliterate experiences” are those things which, quite simply, cannot be put into words, such as music and art. For further discussion of this notion as it pertains to Artschwager, see the author’s essay, “Archipelago Bop,” Archipelago (Frankfurt am Main: Portikus, 1993).
  13. D. Martin. “Art Review,” El Paso Herald Post, March 10, 1989.
  14. Grace Glueck. “Art People.” The New York Times, April 14, 1978, p. C19. This particular element of the Clock Tower installation recalls the ambient ticking of the blps for the Utrecht project.