Urs Fischer at The New Museum

Urs Fischer, Noisette (2009), mixed media; courtesy The New Museum

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I had the bad luck of visiting The New Museum on the day Urs Fischer’s tongue went missing. Not the Swiss artist’s actual tongue, mind you, but Noisette (2009), a prosthetic tongue that (from all accounts) jutted lasciviously from a hole in the wall at regular intervals. A New Museum attendant informed me that a Fischer enthusiast had yanked Noisette from out of the wall earlier in the morning. A makeshift out-of-order label thanked visitors for their “patience and understanding.” How well the piece functions as art will remain unknown, at least to this observer. Given the overall blandness of Fischer’s slick, big-budget Neo-Dadaism—is there any other kind nowadays?—I’m not inclined to revisit the New Museum in order to watch a mechanical tongue restored to working order. Some mysteries aren’t worth unraveling.

Especially when they aren’t all that mysterious. Fischer is, after all, the art world’s latest bad boy—a sobriquet that still counts for something among contemporary tastemakers. A few years back, Fischer dug an eight-foot crater in his art dealer’s gallery. You (2007) cost his promoter, Gavin Brown, a quarter of a million dollars, but it was money well spent: The stunt helped solidify the artist’s reputation as an enfant terrible. Fischer and Brown garnered the requisite amount of notice, and the piece, such as it was, elicited huzzahs. Writing in New York, the critic Jerry Saltz described it as “an inversion machine” that “pulsated with erotic energy.” One man’s rubble is another man’s turn-on, I guess.

There’s nothing so dramatic as a bombed-out pit at the New Museum. What you get is the kind of sleek spectacle—three floors of it—favored by those who confuse clever notions for deep thought. One gallery is covered with a wallpaper facsimile of itself. The “Exit” sign, ceiling lights—even the stippled texture of painted walls—have all been photographed and transferred onto long sheets of vinyl toned a musty gray. Taken together, they are, so we’re told in the accompanying brochure, an essay in trompe l’oeil. Except that Fischer isn’t out to fool the eye: like most conceptual artists, he couldn’t care less about illusion or metaphor. He’s a literalist intent on flaunting his own cunning. “Look at me!” he shouts, even as he hires myriad paper-hangers to do the pasting and trimming.

Fischer’s art is pure stratagem; his highly engineered novelties are pulled off with soulless panache. At best, his work is about as wise as a whoopee cushion. Walk down the John S. Wotowisc stairwell, and you’ll find neon lights (of a sort anyway) assembled from carrots, cucumbers, and plastic fingers. Elsewhere, a taxidermied butterfly alights upon a levitating croissant. Both are cute: Fischer hyperinflates these trivial conceits because, well, he can. High production values unconcerned with aesthetic necessity reign. The second floor is a maze of mirrored boxes, each of which is punctuated by a large-scale photo of this or that object: a telephone booth, an éclair, a ladder, and so on. It’s a conversation piece, for sure, but once the funhouse aspect wanes, viewers are left to mull over just what all those rebounding, declamatory images might signal—other than one artist’s hubris, of course.

The only pieces that get by do so largely because of other (and better) artworks they bring to mind. Five craggy, aluminum monoliths originated as lumps of clay Fischer squeezed in his hand; they were subsequently scanned into a computer and manufactured at fifty times the size. If you were to guess that there’s a concomitant slackness in sculptural rigor and presence, you’d be right. The sculptors William Tucker and Hans Josephson work with similar forms and on a similar scale, but they do so with a profound understanding of mass, craft, texture, volume, and, not least, the primordial longings from which their art takes off and gains strength.

Tucker and Josephson are serious artists with hard-won distinctive visions. Fischer, in stark contrast, is a poseur with the means to indulge his slightest whim. What happens when his benefactors latch onto The Next Big Thing and the Fischer funding dries up will likely be a sobering experience. His true mettle as an artist will be tested. In the meantime, the rest of us have the option to pick and choose our own amusements.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 2010 issue of The New Criterion.

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