You’re a 36-year-old artist who has cut through museum interior walls, built alpine chalets stuffed with loaves of bread, and dug an eight-foot-deep hole in the floor of your New York gallery. Now you’ve been given an entire museum to work with. What should you do? Burn the place down?
This was the challenge for Urs Fischer, the Swiss-born, New York–based artist who has aligned himself with the bad boy/enfant terrible/provocateur lineage of contemporary art. A photograph of Fischer on the catalog cover advertises his “transgressive” stance: It shows the artist lying in bed (sleeping it off, presumably), tattooed from wrist to shoulder, cradling a Chihuahua whose eyes have been digitally replaced with his own.
But isn’t this a replay of something we’ve seen a hundred times before? The bread house was enjoyable (or is that because I’m third-generation Swiss-American?). But the crater in Gavin Brown’s floor felt like one of those bratty, overfunded gestures—a domesticated punk critique of both Land Art and the gallery system. The holes-in-the-drywall at the Whitney Biennial and the Kunsthaus Zürich weren’t exactly Gordon Matta-Clark, bankruptcy-era anarchitecture. Does Fischer really deserve a full-museum show?
Needless to say, he didn’t burn down the museum. Instead, the exhibition explores the medium that Fischer studied in school, which has recently become his strong suit: photography.
In a favorable sense, Fischer’s show at the New Museum might be read as an exegesis on photography, building from works he made for the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 2007 and in collaboration with Brown last year at Tony Shafrazi. Both involved photographic wallpaper. In New York, Fischer had the previous show at the gallery photographed—artworks, security guards, everything. The works of other artists were hung on top of the paper to create a conceptual trompe l’oeil effect in which painting, photography, and art history were collapsed.
Fischer repeats the same method with Last Call Lascaux (2009) on the third floor at the New Museum. The entire gallery—everything but the floor and the elevator doors—was photographed, scanned, and made into wallpaper, which has been pasted a few inches off its original location. Air ducts, fire alarms, and exit signs are shadowed by photographic versions. You can even see reproductions of the scuffs and dirt marks on the door leading to the stairwell.
The trick, however, is that the wallpaper isn’t white, like the original gallery walls. Instead, it moves from purplish brown to yellowish rust up near the light fixtures. What you’re seeing is the color emitted by the fluorescent lights and reflected by the white walls, which isn’t visible to the human eye. It’s an exercise that nicely extends the ’90s obsession with fact and fiction in photography. Except Fischer had to go and muck it up with a few party-joke sculptures that distract from the installation: a fake tongue poking out of the wall at timed intervals; a croissant dangling from the ceiling; a sagging grand piano cast in silicon, then aluminum, and painted lavender.
Photography’s relationship to sculpture is taken up on the second floor, where images of banal objects—a pear, a sausage, a sneaker, a loaf of bread, lipstick, a CD case, a motorcycle helmet—each photographed hundreds of times from multiple angles, have been silk-screened onto mirrored, rectangular steel boxes. The works play with ideas of scale—most of the objects are far larger than lifesize—and flatness. For instance, a cardboard stand-up of the singer Ashanti reveals itself to be a photograph of a photograph only when you walk around the box and see the brown cardboard on the sides.
Even the sculptures on the third floor—huge aluminum casts of pieces of clay Fischer squeezed in his hand and then blew up to monumental scale—might be seen as analogues to 19th-century “photosculpture,” a kind of early computer imaging in which photographs of objects or people taken from multiple angles were put into a matrix, then made into a sculptural mold. But Fischer’s sculptures also look like attempts to resurrect romantic, expressive sentimentalism: Big, heroic sculpture replete with the artist’s touch—even his fingerprints, enlarged about 50 times.
In the end, Fischer’s show is really neither here nor there, not a blockbuster. To trot out the charge often leveled at the New Museum’s design, it feels like three gallery shows stacked on top of one another.
Fischer’s strength is in making one big work at a time. But he’s still running on influences. Like Damien Hirst, he’s besotted with Jeff Koons (ergo the giant teddy-bear street lamp that echoes Koons’s Puppy, or, in this show, the mirrored boxes). The flaccid lamppost on the third floor is a redux of Martin Kippenberger’s Street Lamp for Drunks. The tongue poking out of the wall is stamped with Maurizio Cattelan’s impishness. And a collaboration with Georg Herold in which a cucumber and carrot are inserted like bulbs into light fixtures pays homage to Dieter Roth, a Fischer hero who also worked with perishables.
The party that really has something to answer for is the New Museum. Inaugurated as an upstart venture with aims to realign the art world’s chi (or at least disintegrate a bit of its ossified power), 30 years later, it is following the standard template: anointing white, male, European artists in an attempt to build a reciprocally beneficial art history. And, more importantly, doing the reciprocity thing with benefactors like Dakis Joannou, a major Fischer collector and museum trustee who is also showing his collection at the New Museum (curated by Koons, to close the circle) next February.
For Fischer’s heroes, like Koons & Co., the extended boom market was the perfect foil for making slippery, court-jester critiques. Billionaire sponsorship was just part of the discourse. But what Fischer and his minions can do with a camera, computer, and scanner outstrips his attempts to emulate those artists. He needs some new models. But so does the New Museum. Or maybe, now that they’re both in their thirties, it’s time to shrug off their influences and break some new ground.