It’s not uncommon for contemporary artists to take a combative stance vis-à-vis the museum. In 1969 Christo covered the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago with canvas and rope. Two years later, Daniel Buren hung a giant banner within the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum to obscure its signature spiraling space. For a show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in 2007, the Swiss-born New York-based sculptor Urs Fischer excavated a crater in the gallery’s floor. While sculpturally robust, it is uncertain if these gestures were critiques of the host institutions or simply encroachments on their buildings.
As part of a mid-career show at the New Museum, Fischer has lined the building’s entire enormous third-floor gallery with photographs of itself. The artist photographed the room’s ceiling and walls, printed the images to scale on rolls of paper, and then laminated these prints over the surfaces that they depict. Now the gallery’s twenty-foot-high white gypsum board walls are covered with photographs of those same walls, and the fluorescent lights, air diffusers, and sprinkler heads on the ceiling are covered with flat photographic facsimiles of these same elements. This painstakingly executed tromp l’eoil, called “Last Call Lascaux,” was specially conceived for this exhibit.
Much of the power of the piece lies in its subtlety. Unless one knows about the installation beforehand, he or she might walk through the gallery while traveling between the second- and fourth-floor galleries that also contain Fischer’s work, without taking note of it. Many museum visitors do just that. They stop, roam about, and grow uneasy with the relative emptiness of the space, searching in vain for more large-scale figural sculptures, or at least something continuous with what can be seen in the other galleries. Others look to the security guard for guidance, convinced they must be missing something.
The physical presence of the installation grows more powerful if you are patient. You begin to notice that the photographic prints have a dusty, purplish tint, that throws an almost redolent, cave-like cast over everything. (The ubiquity of the color calls to mind signature brand colors like Tiffany blue and Prada green, as well as the hazy tone of a blueprint.) Fine overlapping vertical seams in the photographic paper reveal a technical limitation as well as giving the walls a more personal scale. The ceiling skylight is papered over so that, even at mid-day, the room receives no natural light. The deep, slender ceiling beams, the gallery’s only strongly plastic architectural element, are similarly encased. The installation’s title, which references the prehistoric painted caves in southern France, might not be so far-fetched; the place has an earthen, airless quality.
There is one large sculpture in the room; a life-size piano and bench. While the museum would have it that these forms appear to “melt under the pressure of some invisible force,” they seem to have been comically, stylishly deformed. Painted bright lavender, the piano and bench occupy the center of the polished concrete floor, punctuating the pervasive purple hue. Museum-goers tend to congregate around the melting piano, comforted by a figural sculpture with straightforward associations. Fischer has shaped a welcoming, interior vignette in the inhospitably-scaled white-cube gallery.
Unlike the caves at Lascaux, there are no clans of hunters and herds of bison here. There is no action on these walls. In the photographic prints, which have an astounding clarity, one can identify scuffs, scratches, nail heads, and shadows from the original gallery walls. The hyperreal detail of the surfaces only emphasizes their essential emptiness, the absence of hanging artworks. The prints are installed slightly off-kilter, so that small wall-mounted elements like fire alarms, light switches, and exit signs are visible against the photographs of themselves. These elements, legal and operational necessities that architects take great pains to locate discretely or hide altogether, are strangely doubled and made more visible. In papering the walls, both the architecture of the museum (devoid of traditional detail and ornament), and the enterprise of the museum (to display art), appear to be exhausted. It is as if there were nothing here to begin with.
While clever, the installation does not fully exploit the potential grandeur of emptiness the way other artists have done in the past. In 1958, Yves Klein emptied the vitrines and walls of Galerie Iris Clert in Paris, hung floor-length blue curtains at its street entrance, and guided visitors inside to the empty interior. This brash presentation, “Le Vid” (in English “The Void”), achieved a level of drama greater than any conventional physical artworks inside might have. The black and white photographs of the event, which have a palpable austerity and tactility, are incidental to Klein’’s performance, which is the real work of art. It is true that Fischer’s piece has an altogether different sensibility, but despite its obsessive execution and ambitious scale, the installation does not call attention to itself theatrically. It is comparatively uneventful, or at the very least, a work presented with sober detachment. The installation rests uneasily between a knowing playfulness and flat-out contempt, making it difficult to pin down the tone of “Last Call Lascaux.’
Missing here is the stringent spirit of critique that has made related work by other artists successful. The photographer Louise Lawler often depicts artworks as they are installed within museums and private collections, a strategy which offers an organic commentary about the production and consumption of art. Predating Lawler is Mel Bochner’s “Measurement Room” (1969), which calibrates a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art with dimensions to create a habitable construction drawing. These markings distill the gallery’s interior to a kit of anonymous architectural parts (walls, framed openings, ceilings) that might be reproduced anywhere. There is a distinctive authorial voice at play, impish and alert, with little reverence for the museum. Fischer’s voice, though similarly mischievous, is unassertive. The photographs seem to have been taken, printed, and installed systematically, by a disembodied agent without a particular point of view. One scans the installation looking for a more complex position, but it appears that this brand of highly conceptual linguistic commentary, a strategy shared by Bocher and Fischer, may have run its course historically.
Fischer’s most powerful work is figural, as in the pieces on the fourth floor gallery; giant aluminum casts taken from lumps of clay shaped within his fist. They make visible something invisible, monumental something insignificant. Their shrewd, multivalent scale simultaneously evokes the hand of the artist, the body of the viewer, and the architecture of the gallery. These pieces do what sculpture and architecture do best; leveraging tactile, physical presence to heighten perceptions of body and place, as in the work of Rachel Whiteread. A contemporary of Fischer’s, she has depicted the interiors of rooms by casting their insides in plaster. Her pieces are powerful both sculpturally and architecturally because they are strongly figural but can also be inhabited — imaginatively — by the viewer. At their heart is a highly elemental and poetic premise — the construction of empty space.
Fischer’s 2007 gallery excavation, “Void,” upends artistic and architectural notions of creation, presence, perspective, and ground. Both physically and conventionally, it ruptures the space of the gallery. In contrast, the installation at the New Museum quiets its own sculptural potential. Despite an assured execution and perceptual subtleties, it is more like a methodical description of an interior space, an elaborate three-dimensional document, than a work of sculpture. When Fischer laminates the interior walls of the third floor gallery with images of themselves, he extinguishes the unique plastic, liminal effects of sculptural and architectural form and, along with it, the potential for more resonant, evocative associations. What if Fischer had constructed an alternate architecture within the gallery? What if he had filled the space with sculptures whose forms confounded the museum’s architecture with their own spatial logic? The current installation does little more than represent the existing gallery; it shows us only what is already there.
URS FISCHER “LAST CALL LASCAUX”
NEW MUSEUM, NEW YORK
October 21 – February 7