The New Museum of Contemporary Art
October 28, 2009 – February 7, 2010
“Urs is an avalanche that’s eating you,” says Massimiliano Gioni in between bites of pasta. The curator is referring to the amount of work involved in setting up Urs Fischer’s solo exhibition at the New Museum, but this statement also applies to the sheer amount of work produced by the artist since coming on the scene in the early '90s. Gioni has been a fan throughout the arc of Fischer’s career, and remarked, “He was somebody I really wanted to show in New York and thought he deserved it.”
This is the first time the museum has been dedicated to the work of a single artist since moving to its Bowery location two years ago, requiring hundreds of workers to realize the 36-year-old Swiss artist’s complicated and costly vision. Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty, which runs through Feb. 7, 2010, is the result of four years of planning and a series of last-minute changes. Gioni says, “We didn’t want to do a show like ‘Urs Fischer Takes Over Because He’s A Big Guy,’ you know? It’s more that the work justified that and can sustain [it]. Hopefully the show will confirm that.” Gioni continued, “Every artwork demands or creates the space around itself. In the case of Urs’s work, he needs physically a lot of room to breathe and mess around with.”
However, the exhibition, billed as an “introspective” that has been “choreographed” by the artist, is mostly disappointing despite Gioni’s enthusiasm. The use of Stéphane Mallarmé’s female pseudonym “Mme de Ponty”—who designed dresses and answered an advice column for the French poet’s satirical late-1800s fashion magazine La Derniere Mode—as the name of the exhibition is just one example of the inflated language used throughout the “introspective.” Fischer uses this and other Mallarmé nom de plumes for four of the five gigantic aluminum sculptures displayed on the fourth floor of the museum: “Miss Satin,” “Ix,” and “Zizi.”
The third floor features the much-discussed photographic wallpaper reproducing the gallery’s empty walls, and the heavily-advertised “Noisette” (2009), in which a pink plastic tongue darts out from a small, haphazardly ripped-open hole to shock the unsuspecting gallerygoer. Is Fischer, the ex-bouncer-cum-art brawler, now picking a fight with his audience? Or is he mocking us with an innocuous stand-in?
On the second floor is “Service à la française,” the centerpiece of the “introspective,” an installation consisting of photographs of banal items silkscreened on 12 tons of highly polished chrome steel. The objects were photographed from four angles a total of 25,000 times, which gave each an incredibly high resolution. Gioni describes it as “walking in a pinball machine.” In a nod to Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” these mirrored boxes are arranged in an irregular checkerboard pattern, with blues, reds, and yellows dominating the pack. Gioni says that “Urs wanted the object to disappear” through this repetition. But does this hyper-Warholian act obscure rather than clarify? Fischer is cryptic about his reasons for selecting the objects, claiming they were chosen at random. In an article in a recent issue of The New Yorker, Fischer said, “I like that they are not very interesting things—or they are. It depends on your level of attention.”
Like Martin Kippenberger, Fischer is obsessed with repetition and possesses a seemingly blasé approach to the commonplace. But unlike Kippenberger, Fischer seems to be more interested in concealing rather than revealing his motivations for his work. However, some predictable themes crop up involving decay and the passage of time. As expected, each of the objects is corrupted in some way: a lone sausage, bloated and bursting; an overripe pear with a jellied bottom; a Froot Loops Krispee bar, sliced open to reveal its colorful, pockmarked innards. To appeal to the absurdist pop music lover, a cardboard cutout of Ashanti is stationed in the back corner of the exhibition space. But why her, you may ask? Fischer might reply, “Why not?” This isn’t social commentary—it’s cultivated indifference. Fischer’s insouciance pervades the exhibition; it challenges viewers to find meaning in the meaningless. As always with Fischer’s work, the joke is on them.
I wanted to see what Gioni sees in Fischer’s work, but I couldn’t get past the hollowness of it; I left the museum without feeling much of anything. There was the initial wonderment of the fourth floor floating sculptures as well as the parallel reality that the third floor wallpaper creates, but that was all lost once I entered the spectacle of the second floor. In the end, I wanted to know what Fischer actually cares about—what drives him to produce costly objects that he has no real attachment to? This is the first time the artist has had enough space, time, and money to truly create his vision but it is unclear what that vision is, exactly. Gioni says, “I didn’t feel like talking to him and creating a ‘Greatest Hits of Urs Fischer,’ a mid-career survey. It was more like ‘What are you working on? What are the things you’ve been trying?” But if this is so, then what are we left with but an incoherent jumble of expensive pieces, glossed to shine? “Marguerite de Ponty” is a funhouse that has lost its ability to amuse.
KATHLEEN MASSARA is a freelance writer. She is currently an intern at Harper's.