Art review: Urs Fischer’s grand gestures come up short at MOCA


Urs Fischer is an artist of the big gesture. It’s a mixed blessing.

Emblematic is a monumental outdoor sculpture in his newly opened, 16-year survey exhibition, which is divided between the Museum of Contemporary Art‘s two downtown L.A. buildings.

The monolith of cast aluminum, one of a series made over the last seven years, rises 45 feet above a parking lot. Its shape is chunky and abstract, the color a light-absorbent gray against a bright blue sky.



Move in for a closer look, and soon it’s apparent that the form has been blown up from a small lump of casually manipulated clay. The ridges of a thumbprint, now gargantuan, stare you in the face. The sculpture aggrandizes “the hand of the artist,” while simultaneously lampooning it.

Glory meets guffaw. The clash plants an enormous question mark at the museum’s front door.

In a world increasingly defined by virtual realities and digital imaging, is the creative mastery of hand manufacture merely a quaint artistic throwback — nostalgia for a lost cultural past? Is this sculpture a memorial? Given today’s ubiquitous special effects wizardry, shouldn’t art clasp technology to its bosom?

Fischer’s unnamed piece is subtitled “Big Clay.” The overtones of commercial power — think Big Oil or Big Pharma — are hard to miss. A multinational art market’s roaring authority is injected into the mix.

Of course, art market dominance is already plain enough in the exhibition’s checklist. (Jessica Morgan of London’s Tate Modern was guest curator.) Hardly anything comes from a museum or other public collection. The survey’s 46 works are, instead, almost exclusively borrowed from galleries and anonymous private collectors.

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Wall Street aside, however, Fischer’s art is not too big to fail. Nothing about “Untitled (Big Clay #7),” conceived in 2008 and fabricated for the MOCA show, opens an avenue onto something that hasn’t already been chewed over by countless artists for a generation or more. The sculpture’s fatal problem is that its big gesture is mostly hollow.

From one angle, its general contour recalls a Mannerist masterpiece by Giambologna — the highly skilled, trans-European 16th century artist who became a virtual prisoner of the Medici banking dynasty in Florence, Italy. Giambologna was an action-sculptor. Carving marble, he dramatized heroic allegories of his powerful patrons — mighty Samson bringing down the jawbone of an ass to slay a taunting Philistine, or muscle-head Hercules vanquishing a freakish centaur.

Inside MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary, Fischer’s 20-foot copy of Giambologna’s most famous sculpture, “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” towers over a rear gallery. Cast in wax, it’s now a giant candle. The sculpture burns brightly as it slowly melts, devouring itself.

Giambologna’s original image of a battle of the sexes is transformed into a colossal knickknack — not unlike Jeff Koons’ life-size, 1988 gilded-porcelain statue of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee. And the candle’s flickering symbolism for life’s transience is evidently borrowed from Robert Gober’s memorializing wax candle-sculptures of the last 25 years.

In fact, you can go through Fischer’s show, most of which is at MOCA’s Grand Avenue building, checking off a long list of popular sources.

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There’s the famous dust affixed to Marcel Duchamp’s “The Large Glass,” here exploded in photographic enlargements of floor sweepings that Fischer mounted to sheets of mirror-polished aluminum; Bruce Nauman’s metal casts of severed limbs; René Magritte’s fruit-obscured portraits; Robert Therrien’s nightmare-twisted beds; Martin Kippenberger’s drunken lamppost; Chris Burden’s physical excavations of museum architecture; the psycho-sexual world of Grimm’s fairy tales mined by Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, and more. Fischer riffs on all of them.

Artists do (and should) scavenge other art for what they need, but it matters what they do with it. Snark is not enough.

Take Fischer’s chest-high box made of mirrors, which is open at the top to reveal a smelly, inch-deep pool of coffee, orange juice and cigarette butts puddled at the bottom. Titled “Heartburn” and intentionally sloppy, it mocks rigorous, Donald Judd-style geometric sculptures. But it isn’t much more than a cocktail party quip about the hyper-refined perfectionism of 1960s art — Minimalism as a romantic ruin.

Fischer makes a fetish of decay, the survey’s leitmotif. Nowhere is the theme of disintegration more wince-inducing than in several sculptures of skeletons.

One reclines on a modern sofa, marrying Édouard Manet’s “Olympia,” a confrontational image of a recumbent courtesan, to a suburban couch potato apparently done in by the banality of TV. Another, charred and blackened, clings to a mock-up of the famous Luxor Obelisk in Paris’ Place de la Concorde — civilization’s scorched bones merged with a gaunt fashion victim, I suppose.


The skeletons are like corny department store windows at Halloween. An aesthetics of retail product display has been instrumental in art for a century, at least since Duchamp put his face on an empty bottle of perfume and called it “Belle Haleine (Beautiful Breath).” Fischer uses it a lot.

One room is filled with two dozen shiny, shin-high boxes, their flat planes sporting digitized photos of objects — a camera, a honey jar, breath mints (Belle Haleine!), a chess piece, etc. Shown here under fluorescent lighting, as if in a big-box warehouse store, they’re updated Warhol Brillo boxes. Digital images on mirror-glass substitute for old-fashioned paints silk-screened onto wood.

The Zurich-born artist, 39, is young but prolific. (The show’s fat catalog records nearly 300 works). He has lived all over — including, briefly, Los Angeles — and now resides in New York. His art’s youthful nihilism is unyielding, but just two works embody it in inventive ways.

In one, the wood gallery flooring at Grand Avenue is covered, wall to wall, in a punkish skin of matte black vinyl. Weirdly, it sucks all the visual energy from the rooms — the art museum as nominal black hole.

At the Geffen, a 26,000-square-foot building overflows with crude sculptures crafted from 300 tons of unfired clay. They were made on-site by more than 1,500 Angelenos, mostly kids and hobbyists, during a weeks-long pre-show free-for-all.

Clay is global art’s oldest material. This vast, goofy, already crumbling museum ensemble — Color Me Mine on steroids — is effectively poised for the dumpster at show’s end. The clutter converts the museum into a raucous playground for disposable imagination.

These two big gestures work. Mostly, though, Fischer’s art is just banal. He seems to toil with a notebook in one hand and, in the other, a copy of “On the Museum’s Ruins,” the influential 1980 essay by critic Douglas Crimp, which conflated the modern museum with the ancient mausoleum.

Fischer is like the stratified art market’s snobbish version of populist Thomas Kinkade, erstwhile “Painter of Light,” who cranked out egalitarian mass-culture clichés of aesthetic escape. Instead of that innocuous false utopia, pretty much all we get at MOCA is an equally bland dystopia, which is its own kind of theatrical evasion.

In the end, it’s not much of a trade.

Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave. and 152 N. Central Ave., (213) 656-6222, through Aug. 19. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.


Urs Fischer

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave. and 152 N. Central Ave., L.A.

When: Through Aug. 19. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays

Info: (213) 656-6222,