Swiss director Iwan Schumacher's new documentary, Urs Fischer, studies the intensely creative years that culminated in the New York-based artist's first U.S. solo museum show, "Marguerite de Ponty," at the New Museum in 2010. The film, which premieres tonight at the New Museum, opens with a close-up of a dashboard statuette of Elvis Presley. The potential comparison between the performer and Fischer isn't accidental: Schumacher is interested in Fischer as an artist, and as a natural-born performer who instantly captures the camera's affection.
The director combines the creation and installation of the New Museum show with documentation of shows in Australia and Rotterdam, and quotidian scenes from the artist's Brooklyn studio.
Throughout Fischer evokes a modern day Orson Welles, his comportment and charisma mirroring his larger-than-life sculptures. "Everything about him is so very physical—the way he walks, his gestures," Schumacher told A.i.A. "You can see that physicality in the work. That's what drew me to him. He's like an actor from a '40s French movie."
Fischer's day-to-day dramas occur primarily around the kitchen in his studio, where he conducts meetings with curators and chats with friends and assistants. The close, intimate feel of these domestic scenes came about because the director often worked alone, without an obtrusive crew. "At the beginning, the film wasn't financed, so I did a lot of the shooting myself," he says.
In lieu of documenting Fischer's private life, which was off-limits, Schumacher creates a humorous subplot in the form of a sweetheart relationship between Fischer and a little dog named Leila, who seems to be doing her best to capture the artist's wandering attention. In the scenes with the dog, Fischer reveals himself to be as much a gentle lover as a creative force of nature. "Those scenes give a glimpse of who Urs is as a man," says Shumacher.
A parallel subplot of man against the system casts a benevolent antagonist in the form of New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni, who seems more bemused than authentically distressed by Fischer's last minute changes to the exhibition. "Their relationship captures the interplay between the institution, which is kind of rigid, and the artist, who represents total freedom," says Schumacher.
Schumacher began documenting Fischer in 2004, focusing on singular installations-"I was documenting like an art collector, choosing specific works," laughs Schumacher-before deciding to create a feature film. Many of these one-off early documentations appear in the film, most notably a 2005 show at the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi in Milan. Here, Schumacher's camera gracefully ascends and descends on Jet Set Lady, an enormous, scaffold-like sculpture affixed with 2,000 of Fischer's drawings. Shooting from a crane, Schumacher lifts his viewer to the top of the largest sculptures for a uniquely panoptical view of the work.
One also gets a subtle sense of the interior creative process of the artist, through the director's pairings of seemingly disparate events. In one scene, Fischer is shown in his kitchen, artlessly hacking apart a giant cake and serving giant slices to his friends. Later, we see Fischer and his assistants at work, delicately applying layers of soft pink paint to The Lock (2010), a floating cake sculpture featured at the New Musuem. "I love seeing how people work," says Schumacher. "I want to capture creation as it happens. That's my system-which isn't really a system."
The film also contrasts the methodology of Fischer's handmade pieces with his manufactured works. In one scene, Fischer and an assistant are depicted carving crude skeleton forms-their quick, intuitive gestures harken to the artist as a renaissance craftsman. In another scene, Fischer is in a Chinese foundry, deliberating at length over the production of the large-scale amorphous aluminum sculptures that would subsequently form the centerpiece for the New Museum show.
"When Urs is making the work by hand, you see that it has to be done quickly and it has to function," says Schumacher. "As soon as things are out of his hands, as with the works at the foundry, you see that the process takes ages, and demands patience."
In the end, the director's fascination with Fischer's creativity and persona curtailed an earlier plan to include much talking-head analysis and commentary by art historians and curators. "It's not a very typical American film, in that sense," says Schumacher. "Usually directors go to all the big collectors and art historians and get statements saying how fantastic this guy is. I didn't want to do that. I only wanted to have people in the film who had some interaction with Urs."
Tonight Gavin Brown's Enterprise and the Swiss Institute New York host the film's invitation-only premiere.
Currently on view in the group show "Redux" at New York's Cristin Tierney Gallery (through Feb. 4) are two works by Joe Fig, both related to his 200