Over the course of their 33-year collaboration, Peter Fischli and David Weiss served as the art world’s premier Philosopher-Kings of Comedy. (Filmmaker John Waters once likened them to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, though he didn’t specify who was who.) The duo worked with equal dexterity across sculpture, film, moving image, photography, and installation, but unlike so many of their contemporaries, who relied on references to connect to their audience, Fischli and Weiss burrowed into the world of common things, weaving their own visual vocabulary from the stuff of ordinary life. From there they tackled headier questions — of labor and hierarchies, production and boredom, of art and its uses, of reality and how we create it — capsizing the powers that be even as they immersed themselves in the banalities of being.
The two met in the late 1970s just as punk music invaded Zurich’s young art community, wagging a middle finger at convention and bucking stiff, stuffy bourgeois culture with its DIY aesthetics. Although it was clear from the start that they shared this sensibility, Fischli later recalled that what he and Weiss discovered in each other at that time was a conversation, always engaging and seemingly endless. “Dialogue was the basis of our work together,” he explained in a recent interview about their partnership, which ended too soon when Weiss died of cancer in 2012. Currently on view at the Guggenheim is “How to Work Better,” a magnificent retrospective of the dynamic duo curated by Nancy Spector and Nat Trotman in collaboration with Fischli. Brimming with the inimitable wit and energy of these two artists, this exhibition is — no joke — nothing short of sublime.
One of Fischli and Weiss’s many formidable achievements is how canny the work is. It’s always legible — you’ll “get it” — but don’t be surprised when its weight shifts, its gravity growing in spite of its silliness. Take “Sausage Series” (1979), ten photographs of dramatic scenarios cheekily constructed out of food and other household odds and ends. In one image, titled Fashion Show, sliced deli meats double as couture garments for stylish sausages parading down a catwalk; in another, Titanic, shards of Styrofoam become the glacier that sank the infamous ocean liner. Playful and absurd, these photos upend a sense of scale and seriousness, a strategy the artists continued in “Suddenly This Overview” (1981—), a series of around six hundred small-scale sculptural tableaux handmade in clay — anti-monuments, as it were, to historical events great and small. There’s Jesus Walks on Water, the Fishes Are Amazed; Mr. and Mrs. Einstein Shortly After the Conception of Their Son, the Genius Albert; Waiting for the Elevator; The First Cigarette; and Mick Jagger and Brian Jones Going Home Satisfied After Composing “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” In this, the artists’ pseudo-encyclopedia, one can hardly tell the trivial from the extraordinary — and that’s in fact the point.
Fischli and Weiss often used a goofball humor to deliver their own brand of cultural criticism, and capital-A-Art certainly wasn’t spared their jabs. Witness their 1981 film The Least Resistance, in which the artists ventured through Los Angeles costumed as Rat and Bear, alter egos that would recur throughout their career. Rat and Bear aren’t the cuddly, Disney types; they’re sad-sack and a little grubby. At the start of The Least Resistance, the two are on a mission to find their rightful place in the art world and take advantage of all it has to offer: “Action! Culture! Money!” rhapsodizes Rat. Inevitably, their path becomes muddled, their focus distracted. Rat has an aesthetic existential crisis, one that leads him to reassess Keats. “Beauty is not always true, and truth is not always beautiful,” he realizes, adding a woeful “unfortunately.” Apparently, sometimes an artistic “epiphany” turns out to be nothing more than a withering cliché.
The artists recognized that order can be a force as random as chaos. To prove this, they painstakingly designed systems destined to fail, which in turn redefined failure as the result of a certain mastery. In their mesmerizing film The Way Things Go (1987), we watch a long, elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption built of garbage bags, tires, tables, chairs, bottles, and other unremarkable objects. Propelled by a series of actions and reactions both physical and chemical, their funky invention lurches along for thirty minutes, producing a great mess — and an even greater sense of delight. In the photographic series “Equilibres” (1984—’86), the artists playfully defy gravity, balancing household items to create precarious weirdo sculptures they then capture with a camera. For example: In Quiet Afternoon (1985), a zucchini is perched atop a carrot stuck through the handle of a cheese grater that’s standing on its end. Most of these sculptures only held together long enough to be photographed, but their eventual collapse isn’t something we’re privy to. As documented, they appear solid, assured — an accomplished swipe at impossibility.
Installed along the uppermost curve of the Guggenheim’s ramp are the artists’ polyurethane installations, a series they began in 1991. To foreground the particular conditions of artistic labor, they meticulously re-created all manner of studio materials, carving out of the polymer foam near-exact replicas of the “not art” that goes into making art: paint buckets, brushes, and rollers, tools, tires, plastic cups and soda cans, cigarette boxes and butts, candy wrappers, slabs of drywall, and other junk. What better way to best Duchamp’s tired old readymades than to compose entire installations of eerie handmades? One might think of these disorderly displays as Trojan horses sent into the art world, concealing a double-edged sword: Is this mess a vision of art’s future — evidence of its process and potential — or a sign of its undoing?
It must be said that here at the Guggenheim, these installations feel as melancholy as they do mutinous, not in the least because one of the final sculptures on view is a lonely-looking pair of paint-spattered loafers. Although the artists have used this motif before, it’s difficult not to read the presence of these empty shoes as stand-ins — as incantations, of a kind — for Weiss. After all, considering the astonishing body of work that he and Fischli created together, who else could possibly fill them?
‘Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better’
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue
Through April 27