Urs Fischer’s Magnficient Vanitas for Peter Brant

Urs Fischer art installation at Peter Brant Foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The New York-based Swiss artist Urs Fischer had an exhibition at the New Museum last winter  that many critics panned. The show had some intriguing sculptures, such as a mysteriously gravity-defying (magnetically) hovering cake, giant aluminum boulders, a melting piano and a pair of warped pink crutches. One gallery contained mirror-surfaced chrome boxes silkscreened on each of their sides with a photo of an object – a book, a ladder, a building  viewed from four directions and from above. The display suggested an image world of simulacra replacing tangible reality – a reasonably interesting if not novel idea, but so extravagantly expressed as to bury any philosophical weight in a glut of commodified glitz. No one seemed to notice that the walls and ceiling of an “empty” gallery in the museum were papered over with a photomural of the space when it was vacant. Like the jumbled exhibition as a whole, that attempt to rattle our epistemological foundations failed.

The Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, CT. (Jason Edward Kaufman © 2010)

Not so the artist’s exhibition at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, CT. Peter Brant, a newsprint magnate and art magazine publisher (interviewed here), commissioned Fischer to create a work for the converted two-story stone barn that houses the nonprofit’s changing shows. Fischer produced a complex vanitas about art, collecting, and life powerful enough to shake up and entertain not only visitors, but his patron, as well.

Urs Fischer's installation at the Brant Foundation. At center, a sculpture of a grave pit descends into the collector's library. (Jason Edward Kaufman © 2010)

The work consists of two rooms wallpapered with photomurals of interiors in the collector’s house across the street. These full-scale images show Warhols, Cindy Shermans, Lichtensteins and other works from his collection, along with furniture, bookcases, animal-head trophies and the rest of his possessions. Within both rooms Fischer added a life-size wax effigy of the collector, one seated and one standing, each with wicks in the head lit and slowly melting away the figure.

Wax effigy of Peter Brant by Urs Fischer. (Jason Edward Kaufman © 2010)

To drive home the point, Fischer installed a cast-metal grave pit in the upper level of the foundation, and the below-ground part of the sculpture descends through the floor and hangs  like a grim chandelier in the splendor of Brant’s library replica below. The incongruous black form portends that the collector and his riches are as good as six feet under. Sic transit gloria mundi, Mr. Brant.

Fischer doesn’t spare himself and the entire art-making enterprise from this cautionary tale. A narrow passageway leads to a doll-house sized replica of the very gallery space in which the commission is installed. The idea is that the collector’s foundation is itself one of his vainglorious possessions. And lest the visitor leave with the impression that the artist considers his own and other artists’ efforts free of the mortal coils that ring his patron, Fischer turn an entire gallery into a massive pit dug through the cement floor into the earth: the gallery as grave.

Urs Fischer's excavated gallery. (Jason Edward Kaufman © 2010)

Fischer jokingly titles the work Oscar the Grouch, evoking a Muppet character from the children’s television show Sesame Street who lives in a garbage can and loves trash. But this masterly artwork, though amusing, is no laughing matter. It is a magnificent portrait of Brant, an eloquent critique of the art world’s embrace of the superficial and material, and a compelling expression of the inescapable fleetingness of life, even for the wealthy!

Experience it before it closes in Spring 2011. To schedule a visit email thebrantfoundation@gmail.com.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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    Gary Tinterow’s Contemporary Art Agenda for the Metropolitan Museum

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