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Urs Fischer - Biography and Legacy

Swiss Sculptor, Photographer, Installation, and Conceptual Artist

Movements and Styles: Installation Art, Conceptual Art, Environmental Art

Born: May 2nd, 1973 - Zurich, Switzerland

Urs Fischer Timeline

"People seem to fear art. Art has always been a word for this thing that can't be rationalized; when you see or hear something that you struggle to explain. But that's its strength, of course, that's what the word 'art' is for."

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Biography of Urs Fischer

Childhood

Urs Fischer was born in Zurich in 1973 to doctor parents. He has an older sister named Andrea who went on to become a journalist. During his youth, Fischer's parents were often worried as he neglected to do his homework in school and opted out of attending university, enrolling in a technical skills college instead. His father spent his free time rebuilding their 160-year-old house. He taught his son a lot about Swiss carpentry and craftsmanship. Fischer would go on to use these skills in his career as an artist.

Education and Early Training

Fischer studied Art and Design at the Schule für Gestaltung in Zurich, a general arts-and-crafts academy. Although he did find some passion for photography, he still found that something was missing. During this time, he met Scipio Schneider, a graphic designer with whom he would continue to work over the course of his career. After two years in the photography course he quit school, recalling later in an interview with The New Yorker, "they wanted me to take tests and to write stuff, and I didn't see why I had to do this." He moved to Amsterdam to visit friends in 1993 when he was nineteen. Amsterdam, unlike Zurich, was a lively center for contemporary art. It was in Amsterdam where he learned to speak English and got a grant to study art in a small school run by Dutch artists.

Many of the works he produced during this time were thrown away or demolished. However, two survived: a small wooden sculpture of a partly clenched fist, and three mass-produced chairs altered to suggest the positions of the people sitting in them.

Fischer's first solo show was in 1996 at a gallery in Zurich. The gallery director Eva Presenhuber had wanted him to take part in a group show but he refused, commenting that he "didn't like the other works she was showing and that he was suspicious of showing in a gallery." Presenhuber was very intrigued by the work, commenting that Fischer's work "was very strange. Hand-made sculpture, at a time when art was mostly conceptual, or appropriation - it looked like something I knew, but I didn't know it in that way." Which was true, as the artist eschewed the title of Conceptual artist, stating that his sculpture did not start with ideas, but with the materials he used and how he shaped them. When asked how he chose his objects, he has said, "It's not about our culture now. It's just objects I choose. I like that they are not very interesting things - or they are. It depends on your level of attention. And I don't care about big or small. I'm interested in collisions of things, and how objects relate to each other."

Presenhuber offered him a solo show, and although he was hesitant as he was working and making good money building film sets, he agreed. He showed a series of works; an apple and pear screwed together, two chairs that appeared to be copulating, and a collapsing cinderblock wall built on a bed of rotting fruits and vegetables. A year later when Presenhuber became a partner of a larger gallery, he was one of her main artists.

In 1998 Fischer married his Swiss girlfriend and within a year moved to London. His marriage would end amicably five years later.

Mature Period

Fischer burst onto the international art scene following his work in the mid-nineties. He moved between London, Berlin, and New York between 2000 and 2004, showing with galleries like Sadie Coles HQ in London, Gavin Brown's Enterprise in New York, Hamburger Bahnhoff in Berlin, and both the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and the Modern Institute in Glasgow. Many European collectors and galleries took interest in his work from the 2000s onward, selling his work through agents at auction.

Fischer settled in Manhattan in 2004 with his then partner Cassandra MacLeod, commuting to his studio each day. He tried "to have a normal family life and not to work during the weekend." The couple had a daughter a few years later named Loti. In 2007, after moving into a new studio in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, he spent time remodelling the large warehouse space with skylights, a large kitchen and dining area, and office spaces for his technicians and team. With many large-scale, ambitious bodies of work, Fischer began using technicians to assist him craft his sculptures and help him work out the best way to realize projects. Along with his assistants he continues to work with his old friend from Zurich, Scipio Schneider, as well as others who help with digitally altering works and advising Fischer along the process. The majority of the assistants are of Swiss or European decent - the multi-cultural backgrounds of his team something he actively seeks out when looking for help.

In 2007, Fischer showed at the Venice Biennale with Ugo Rondinone and exhibited his ground-breaking work You at Gavin Brown's Enterprise to critical acclaim. In 2009 Fischer had his first large-scale solo presentation in the United States, at New York's New Museum which exhibited his work over all four floors of the museum. The exhibition featured a series of immersive installations including reflective boxes with images of cityscapes, food, and pop culture. There were large aluminium sculptures scaled up from small hand-held clay blobs where one could see the enlarged fingerprints and marks from Fischer's hands. The show also featured a retrospective look at his early works.

Late Period

Fischer has always enjoyed being his own boss while maintaining relationships with many galleries and art dealers. He started his own publishing company Kiito-San, based in New York, where he publishes catalogues of his work and collaborates with other artists and writers to create books of their own. These books are distributed through DAP and Buchhandlung Walther Konig.

At the Venice Biennale in 2011, Fischer's wax copy of Giambologna's late sixteenth-century sculpture Rape of the Sabine Women slowly melted, drooping over itself in a mass of falling limbs over the course of the month long show. Two other candle works were shown, depicting an ordinary man wearing glasses in a sport coat who watched as the Giambologna sculpture slumped, and an office desk chair which burned a cavity into itself. These works' dimensions were humorously written as "variable." Fischer had his first solo show with the Gagosian gallery in 2012 with his Problem Painting series in which he explored popular culture and art history through portraits of fruit, nails, and cigarettes. He also showed at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy which is owned by the French businessman Francois Pinault, whose company is a major shareholder of Christie's Auction house. His show "Madame Fischer" was the first solo show by a living artist held there.

Fischer married Tara Subkoff in early 2014, however Subkoff filed for a divorced not long after the birth of their daughter, Grace George.

The Legacy of Urs Fischer

As an artist, Fischer became increasingly hard to pin down; his oeuvre beginning to form around sculptural works that were highly memorable in their use of three-dimensional objects not normally associated with art. It was also a time when European artists were rejecting the subjectivity of the Neoclassical generation by making work that intentionally invoked messiness, cynicism, and decay, turning tradition on its head. Although his work echoed similar constructions and material usage by predecessors like Gordon Matta-ClarkG and Bruce Nauman, Fischer's work has never been derivative. His contribution to the art world has been in his showcasing of material to give it a life of its own.

Fischer's ongoing legacy is both one of a critical eye towards the world and how to make light of it. His influence can be seen in contemporary artist Tatiana Blass's melting wax sculptures, which expose the interior skeletal elements of her figures, and painter Nathan Slate Joseph who used external forces of nature to weather and mar his works as a crucial part of his process. Many of Fischer's ideas surrounding interactive sculpture can be seen today in work like the One Minute Sculpture series by Erwin Wurm, as well as his hole-riddled sculptures in which he asks the audience to place themselves inside via small diagrams or as a prompt to admire the world around them, even if they look a little silly doing so.

Most Important Art

Urs Fischer Famous Art

What if the Phone Rings (2003)

What if the Phone Rings? is comprised of three life-like, hand-colored wax sculptures of nude women in traditional neoclassical poses: seated, supine, and prone. Each figure has wicks placed in one or more parts of the body, which are lit at the start of the exhibition. During the show cavities formed in the figures as they slowly grew disfigured and disappeared before the audience's eyes. The title reflects this constantly morphing artwork by suggesting that a momentary absence of attention would cause the viewer to miss out on a pivotal moment of the piece's life and inevitable disintegration.

Fischer's wax sculpture works confront the viewer with ideas surrounding death, disintegration, and decay through a poetically slow means. Tom Morton when writing about this work for Frieze, ties his use of time and material to the "impossibility of ever experiencing a work of art in a meaningfully 'final' way (how can we, if its form changes the moment we turn our backs?), it's also an affirmation that there are other forces at work in the world aside from the artist's hand, and that these, too, play a part in the art-making process." The title of the work What if the Phone Rings?, in a tongue-in cheek-way, links to this concept of the work not having a single viewing experience, suggesting that by answering the phone the viewer would be miss out on seeing the work change.

These melting candle women, originally staged in "ideal" classical forms, challenged traditional sculpture. The works, made through the process of subtraction, began as Styrofoam blocks from which the female nudes were roughly carved, hands and feet emerging from block-like pedestals, faces rough and angular. By lighting his female nudes, Fischer ignited a physical transformation, in which these naked human forms become elegant and organic fountains of wax. This change of state transformed traditional sculpture and morphed it into something more ephemeral, seen only once before being gone forever. This work, shown the same year as Fischer's first inclusion in the Venice Biennale, was a major formative moment in his career: widely exhibited on the international stage, and set a precedence for his works.
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Content compiled and written by Marley Treloar

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Marley Treloar
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 10 Jan 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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