Swiss duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss began collaborating in 1979 (Weiss died in 2012), imbuing varied works—almost all concerned with the banality of the artists' everyday lives—with their trademark wit, both casual and absurd. The Guggenheim Museum opens "Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better" on February 5 (through Apr. 27), a retrospective presentation bringing together over 300 sculptures, photographs, videos and installations. Here, we take a look back at Carter Ratcliff's January 1987 review of Fischli/Weiss's first New York solo at Sonnabend Gallery.
In December 1981 the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss exhibited 180 small clay sculptures at a gallery in Zurich. The name of the show was "Plötzlich diese Übersicht" or, in F&W's translation, "Suddenly it all makes sense." The German version became the title of a book which dedicates a page to each of the miniature works in that sprawling display. One flips from "Modern Development," mass housing in the form of clay blocks plunked down on a scrabbled field of clay, to "Popular opposites: front and back," which demonstrates those concepts and their relationship with an astonishingly dopey sculpture of a man in a rowboat. The pointed bow is the front, the flat stern the back. What is it that suddenly—"plötzlich"—makes itself clear in the art of Fischli and Weiss? Linkups between shapes and meanings. Yet F&W are not didacticists bent on giving us lessons in the protocols of cognition. Their art in in their attitude toward their subject matter.
Half a dozen pieces from "Plötzlich diese Übersicht" found places in Kynaston McShine's "International Survey" that reopened the Museum of Modern Art in 1984. It's a Small, Small World (English in the original) shows a ring of tiny people skipping around a tiny globe that does, undeniably, comprise a small world. Fischli and Weiss sometimes inspire a sudden conviction that things are precisely as they seem. For their recent show at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, the artists abandoned the miniature for the medium-sized and even the fairly large. The tallest of three vases shown together in one room at the gallery is nearly six feet high. "Plötzlich diese Übersicht" made the large small; these objects reverse the tactic.
See them as urns, not vases, and these objects still look giganticized. But not monumental. Made of lightweight papier-maché-covered polyurethane, then splashed with gaudy, brooding color and glossily varnished, the vases feel fragile to the eye. They can be easily tilted and lowered to the ground on their sides, if one wishes to view the elaborate multicolored painterly surface that covers their interiors as well as exteriors. Their size is awkward and their scale odd; they do not make palpable the concept of "the vase" so much as embody some early, tentative version of that concept.
Though it's over three feet long, F&W's Animal would look awfully small beside the hippo it resembles; somewhat unformed, it is an embryo of monumental presence. A powerful tropism draws the artists' attention always toward origins, yet they do not primitivize. The deliberately childish style of the "Plötzlich diese Übersicht" pieces isn't charmingly childlike in the least, not even superficially. It has the desperate silliness that, for some, follows the realization that origins are unrecoverable. The here and now being what it is, we live in hapless ignorance of the primal then and there, the beginning. Fischli and Weiss are comedians of loss. They build their jokes from our moment's standard images and habits of feeling and thought, the cultural accumulation that looks like detritus to eyes wide open to the doubleness of history: the burden of events generates an interest in unencumbered beginnings, yet the burden permits the imagination only to go forward, never back to the beginning.
Two floor-hugging polyurethane sculptures that were at the Sonnabend show—Factory and Unfurnished Apartment—play with utopian dreams of primary form. The closed, blocky shapes of Factory recall European and American geometrics, de Stijl and Minimalism, about equally. So does Unfurnished Apartment, a labyrinthine form with no roof. Gazing down, you can follow the paths linking one claustrophobic room to the next. This sculpture feels implosive. It looks like a model apartment under pressure from the crowded, impoverished urban actuality in which utopian visions of redemptive geometries can hardly be remembered.
With Factory and Unfurnished Apartment Fischli and Weiss give alienation and dehumanizing reductivism the same offhand treatment they give to the themes of absolute beginning or ultimate meaning. Their Monument (a strange figurative concoction not shown in the main rooms of the gallery, but on view in the back) is small, only six feet high. With its slapdash modeling and haphazardly applied color scheme, it looks disposable or even, thanks to a porous polyurethane surface, vaguely edible, like stale meringue. The major image of this stubby column is the automobile tire, stacked in layers. Near the bottom and at the middle, tires give way to creatures, human and animal, marching in a ring. Everything goes in circles here, including the relation of form to content. Each dictates the other with equal authority. This is a monument to our present. Self-contained by its self-evident meanings, it goes nowhere, save to the present's next moment.
Fischli and Weiss filled one corner of the gallery with photographs of household objects—shoes, vegetables and so on—precariously arranged. Triumphant Carrot shows a cheese grater, two forks and three carrots cantilevered into positions from which they support a fourth carrot in an absurdly heroic pose. Presumably this architecture collapsed soon after being photographed. F&W's present, in which it all makes sense, in which there is a place for everything and everything is in that place, lasts only an instant. I assume the artists gave their photographs names only after looking at them—image and caption demanded each other, like form and content in Monument. Or the verbal and the visual seem to have made those mutual demands, and in meeting them, another moment receives its crystallization. Then the moment passes. The carrot is still triumphant. Neither the image nor its interpretation have changed. But the relationship between image and interpretation, having suddenly made sense, sinks into the numb obviousness with which artists endowed it—surely deliberately. Fischli and Weiss specialize in a kind of entropy that leaves things intact as meaning crumbles. The effect is something like that of a slow-motion neutron bomb.
They have invented a creature incapable of disillusionment, a plump insect with round wings, stubby antennae and properly buggy eyes. If he had a speech balloon over his head, he might well be echoing Archimedes: "Eureka, I have found it," though the beetle-muse has such a joyous, pop-eyed, far-reaching look on its face that the slogan should be amended to read "Eureka! I have seen it."
The art of Fischli and Weiss celebrates imagery's match-up with meaning. Because the celebration always calls the match into question, it is difficult to know in what tone the artist's voice joins with the beetle's in a "Eureka"-cry of insight. For F&W, to see a connection is to see it dissolve. Surely their voice must be glum. But remember what they're saying. No "Eureka" can utterly lack exhilaration. I think Fischli and Weiss mix happiness with their gloom. Or they feel happy only when they have cultivated a state of desolation. Masters of the glum "Eureka," they belong to that refined and paradoxical crew called melancholiacs.