New York City
A photograph on the cover of the thick volume published in conjunction with Urs Fischer’s current exhibition at the New Museum1 shows the floridly tattooed Swiss artist sleeping, a small dog cradled in his arms. The dog is awake, but, unnervingly, it has been Photoshopped with human (Fischer’s?) eyes. Who or what is watching, and what kind of strange sights does the watcher see? In the exhibition, titled “Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty,” the artist devises many subtle ways of throwing a viewer off balance. He offers a balm to those who have been disappointed with the New Museum’s digs on the Bowery, effectively dispelling the odd claustrophobia and awkwardness of the structure’s interior spaces in floor-size installations replete with visual subterfuge. Fischer’s intervention on the third floor is especially radical—not as violent, inarguably, as the giant hole he once dug into the foundations of his New York gallery (You, 2007, at Gavin Brown’s enterprise), but equally transformative.
Some critics consider Fischer’s work to be hermetic, or that of an art-world insider, but I would argue on the contrary that his practice is sociable, reaching into the history of art without succumbing to academicism, while pleasing a crowd. Clever resonances—Kippenbergian irreverence, Koonsian schlock and shape-shifting as relentless as Polke’s—do nothing to lessen Fischer’s originality. Moreover, you don’t have to recognize his hyperawareness of art past and present to enjoy the show. Watch people jump and gasp, then laugh, when startled by Noisette (2009), the human-looking tongue that darts out of a hole in the wall when a sensor detects their approach, or observe them wandering with manifest delight through a field of mirrored boxes screenprinted with blown-up, mundane objects, into whose universe they are insinuated by reflection. If neither Warhol nor Minimalism is uppermost in visitors’ minds, nor even the mirrored boxes’ unsettling implications, it hardly matters. Fischer effectively straddles worlds without detracting from the integrity of his pursuit.
Containing just four works (all 2009), the museum’s third floor is discreetly dominated by the slyest of them, Last Call Lascaux, a huge digital photograph of the walls and ceiling of the room, exact and to scale, which has been attached to those selfsame walls and ceiling. Well, not exactly: the ceiling was lowered for the occasion and papered with the image of the now hidden ceiling, and the dropped ceiling fitted with new lighting that mimics the system above. The walls, meanwhile, are completely sheathed in giant shadowy images of themselves after removal of the previous exhibition, complete with scratches and other imperfections. The visitor, stepping into this doppelgänger of a room, is optically bathed in a purplish meltdown of process colors, which modulate almost imperceptibly, so that some areas are more yellow, and others more magenta. (The wallpaper is actually a photograph of fluorescent light reflected off the walls in colors the human eye normally does not perceive.) The result is a subtly living, breathing space, an effect only enhanced by the tongue piece, which operates at head level from within the longest wall. One is reminded of the arm corridor in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, in the sense that the space seems sentient, and of Robert Gober, who has often bestowed on rooms a creepy double life.
And of Fischer himself, who has replicated gallery walls before, most memorably in a 2008 exhibition at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York (a collaboration with Gavin Brown). In that show, the gallery was wallpapered with the image of an entire prior exhibition, from the works on the walls to the guards; then a new show was mounted over the wallpaper and patrolled by the same guards. While there are probably many readings of the show’s title, “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?,” I was reminded of Johns’s obsessive, career-long self-reflexiveness (down to the concept of the Watchman, a metaphor of detached artistic awareness, which he famously described in his 1964 sketchbooks). Like Johns, Fischer is apt to recycle and recontextualize his own imagery, cite art history, and deploy doubling and reflection. Such practices are very much at play in the New Museum show.
At the center of the third-floor gallery is a drooping grand piano (2009) cast in aluminum and painted a matte lavender; the color is chromatically related to that of the walls. The sculpture is cartoonish, a gaudy ghost of a piano too worn-out to play, like an exhausted prop from a 1930s Max Fleischer animation. (The piano, with its Dalí-esque melting posture, is echoed on the second floor by a pair of turquoise water spouts, and on the fourth by a pink streetlamp.) Finally, a preserved croissant is suspended from a monofilament; a preserved blue butterfly has lighted upon it (Cumpadre, 2009).2 The butterfly on the croissant is reminiscent of the (live) colored parakeets that pecked at the masonry loaves comprising the house of bread installed by Fischer in New York (at Gavin Brown’s enterprise) and Milan (at Fondazione Trussardi) in 2004-05.
The fourth floor is presided over by a conclave of five hulking sculptures approximately 10 to 18 feet tall. Four of them originated as single handfuls of clay that the artist squeezed into these lumpy shapes; the enormously scaled-up pieces retain the imprint of fingers and palms, an amusing take on the “handmade” (though they are cast aluminum). Those four (2006-08), resting on the floor, bear as titles pseudonyms used by Stéphane Mallarmé (Zizi, Miss Satin, Ix and, like the show itself, Marguerite de Ponty). Their bulges and indentations resemble folds of flesh, and their overall postures are humanlike, though they are fully abstract. The fifth and largest of the group, actually the shape of the inside of a squeezed handful of clay,3 is enigmatically titled David, the Proprietor (2008-09); it has been hung from the ceiling so that a tail-like appendage at the bottom dangles a few inches above the floor.