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Daniel Spoerri - Biography and Legacy

Swiss Artist, Writer and Sculptor

Born: March 27, 1930 - Galati, Romania

Biography of Daniel Spoerri


Daniel Spoerri was born Daniel Isaac Feinstein on March 27, 1930 in Galati, Romania on the banks of the Danube. His mother was Lydia Spoerri, a Swiss citizen living in Romania. His father, Isaac Feinstein was a Romanian Jew who converted to Christianity. He was a respected leader at the Norwegian Mission for Israel in Galati, and preached actively for the conversion of Jews to Christianity. As a result, young Spoerri was raised as a German-speaking Lutheran. He grew up in a country that witnessed the gradual rise to power of the Nazi party and its alliance with Nazi Germany.

Starting in 1940, Romanian Jewish people suffered persecution. Despite his conversion, Isaac was not spared and in June 1941, during the Lasi pogroms, he got arrested and taken away. Over the course of summer, his family did not hear anything from him. Persecutions against Jews were part of daily life then in Romania and the Spoerri children had to wear the yellow star on their clothing. The terrible news of Isaac's death arrived at the end of 1941 when Daniel was just 11. His mother struggled to obtain a death certificate, and as a foreigner, she needed to prove her widowhood to be able to apply for passports for herself and her children. In 1942, she finally managed to get her six kids out of Romania. She declared to them years later: "the death of your beloved father made possible your salvation, my dear children." The family travelled to Lydia's home country of Switzerland where her brother Theophile Spoerri welcomed them all in his house. Theophile adopted Daniel and his five siblings, and the Feinstein family decided to go by their mother's maiden name, Spoerri. This early episode shaped the artist's vision of life and death, and his sense of belonging and identity as well. He would later state, "Everyone has something that drives them through life. Being without a native land is the engine of my own."

Growing up in Zurich, Daniel found his way to art through dance and theater. His uncle was a Professor of Literature and Rector at the University of Zurich and had a strong influence on his early love of poetry and literature. Between 1943 and 1948, as the young boy studied at the School of Business in Basel, he met the Swiss avant-garde artist Eva Aeppli while working in a bookstore. In 1949, he decided to study classical dance, and went back to Zurich to attend the Zurich Theater Dance School. There, he began to socialize with the Swiss artistic circle, meeting sculptor Jean Tinguely, Meret Oppenheim, and Dieter Roth who would all remain long-time friends. In a café one day, he happened to meet Max Turpis, a top Swiss dancer and professor who recognized Spoerri's talent and encouraged him to pursue his career in the performing arts. With the recommendation of his friend, Spoerri went to Paris in 1952 to study classical dance.

Early Training and Work

In 1954, after two years in the Parisian art community, Spoerri came back to Switzerland. He worked as a professional dancer for the State Company of Opera in Bern through 1957. Again, he developed friendships with Swiss avant-garde artists such as Bernhard Luginbühl and André Thomkins. In 1955, as his interest in theater grew, he decided to produce and direct the first production in German of The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco, in which Ionesco famously used recycled verbal elements to convey the emptiness of life. This idea of reusing existing materials would prove to be important in the Spoerri's own artistic practice. As Art Historian John G. Hatch writes, theater has always provided "meaningful parallels for understanding Spoerri's work, as well as supplying possible influences."

After The Bald Soprano, Spoerri worked on other plays, participating in productions of Pablo Picasso's farcical play Desire Caught by the Tail, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and Ionesco's The Lesson, all staged in Bern. In 1957, he obtained a two-year contract as assistant of the director of the Landestheater Theater in Darmstadt, Germany. After moving there, he met Vera Mertz, daughter of well-known theater set designer Franz Merz. The two fell in love and promptly married.

While in Germany, Spoerri discovered another interest: concrete poetry. The burgeoning movement, which had started simultaneously in Brazil and Europe, consisted of turning poems into visual and physical entities. Spoerri met writer and director Claus Bremer who was one of its German promoters, and American expatriate Emmett Williams; the three would collaborate under the name of the "Darmstadt Circle" to publish MATERIAL, a journal of concrete poetry and figurative art. The first issue was also the first international anthology of the form. Spoerri served as a leader in the publication and made contributions himself. They published a total of four issues between 1957 and 1959. In the context of the magazine, Spoerri gave space to many important artists and writers of the time. With Bremer, he also created a form of experimental theater, sometimes described as "dynamic theater" or "autotheater," which aimed to turn spectators into active participants, an idea he would link later to visual art. During these active years, Spoerri turned gradually away from dance.

Mature Period

At the end of 1959, Spoerri and Vera moved to Paris where the artist reconnected with the city he had loved while studying dance. The couple lived in a tiny room at the hotel Carcassonne, the famous room 13 that the artist, years later, would recreate in a life-size bronze sculpture. Paris was (re-)becoming an important international artistic center at the time, its population eager to move forward from the post war years. The ideas of evolution and progress were very much in the air and in fact, earlier in 1955, an important exhibition at the Galerie Denise Rene had introduced Kinetic Art to the city hungry for fresh movement.

For Spoerri, this signified being in the right place at the perfect moment. He had been inspired by his earlier work for MATERIAL to create his first art project, the MAT Editions, "Multiplication d'Art Transformable" (Multiplication of Transformable Art). He had exposed this idea to Marcel Duchamp whom he met during a visit to Max Ernst's studio. Duchamp immediately supported Spoerri's concepts, which were to extend the reproducibility of sculptural objects and to place movement and changeability at the heart of an artwork. The results would be the production of objects, made inexpensively in a series that would change "optically, electrically, or through the physical intervention of the spectator, and presenting an infinite number of variations or aspects." Many significant artists agreed to participate in the project including Duchamp, Yaacov Agam, Josef Albers, Pol Bury, Heinz Mack, Roth, J.R. Soto, Tinguely, and Victor Vasarely. Spoerri's role was primary; he supervised all the operations from start to finish.

The first exhibition of the MAT Editions was held at the Galerie Edouard Loeb from November 1959 to January 1960 where Op and Kinetic artists prevailed. Spoerri explained his idea in the catalogue: "The static objective work permits only quantitative multiplication of the fixed idea present within the model [...] For the animated work, either by itself or through the intervention of the viewer-collaborator, multiplication renders justice to the infinite possibilities of transformation."

1960 would become a pivotal year for Spoerri's career. During it, he created his first tableau-piege or "snare picture," for which he would glue the remnants of an actual meal to a board to hang upon a wall. Among the earliest pieces is Kichka's breakfast (now at MoMA in New York). Although he was still married to Vera, she traveled often for work as a photographer and the couple lived a bohemian and open life. Kichka was the artist's girlfriend for a number of years and one day while waiting for visitors in his room of the Hotel Carcassonne, Spoerri became inspired by the lingering remains of a meal she had enjoyed earlier. "I pasted together the morning's breakfast, which was still there by chance," Spoerri explained. He included dishes, utensils, food, and cigarettes, mounted everything on a wood panel and affixed it to a small chair. The chair was affixed to the wall by its feet, seemingly defying gravity, along with all its contents. The snare pictures, also described as assemblage, were revolutionary in that they depicted literal fragments of reality trapped in space and time. They quickly encountered worldwide success and are considered Spoerri's trademark today.

The work also gained Spoerri inclusion into a bustling new group that had formed as an alternative to the Abstract wave that was quickly becoming a major Avant- Grade trend throughout Europe. In October 1960, in the studio of Yves Klein, he was among the first signatories of the Manifesto of the Nouveau Réalisme, coined and authored by art critic Pierre Restany. Restany stated that Nouveau Réalisme was based on a fresh perceptual approach to reality and a form of its "appropriation." Restany also declared, "The New Realists recognize their collective singularity. Nouveau Réalisme = new perceptual approaches of the real." Spoerri signed the Manifesto with his two names, "Daniel Spoerri-Feinstein." Other close friends of his were involved such as Arman, François Dufrêne, Raymond Hains, Yves Klein, Martial Raysse, Jean Tinguely, and Jacques Villeglé, all close friends. The first exhibition as a collective group was the Festival d'art d'avant-garde where Spoerri exhibited his snare-pictures. He would go on to show with this group for several years as a very active member.

During these years, Spoerri began to use performance and audience participation in his practice of making snare-pictures. As John G. Hatch explained, "the selection of the moment of when to adhere the objects tends to be arbitrary, where Spoerri will, over the course of a meal with friends, for example, "simply decide to stop and take the table away."

In 1962, he participated with Tinguely, Rauschenberg, Niki de Saint Phalle, Per Olof Ultvedt, and Martial Raysse, in Dylaby, a special exhibition organized at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The Museum was transformed into an immersive labyrinth that spanned seven rooms. The artists filled the galleries with physical obstacles, and visitors had to move over raised platforms, climb structures, and false stairways. Visitors were also provided with BB guns that they could fire anytime. In one of the rooms, Spoerri contributed, chairs, mannequins, and pedestals that were affixed to the wall to create an illusion that the gallery was flipped ninety degrees. In another room that was totally dark, he scattered objects that coated in different materials to create different textures for the visitors.

In 1962, he published the famous book Topographie Anecdotée du Hasard (Anecdoted Topography of Chance). Extending his snare-picture practice, the book contained detailed descriptions of 80 objects, which were lying on a table in Hotel Carcassone room on October 17, 1961 at 3:47PM. The artist carefully inventoried each object and recorded the memories and associations related to each. Spoerri wanted to make fun of the art market fluctuations with the book but the publication aroused interest in his friends who wanted to contribute too. Hence, Robert Filliou, Emmett Williams, and Dieter Roth's associations, memories, and anecdotes were added alongside Roland Topor's sketches of each object. It became a documentation of an intellectual generation, sprinkled with their personal anecdotes. Art critic Peter Frank has called the book, a "quasi-autobiographical tour de force".

Food became increasingly important to Spoerri. As early as 1961, he declared items of food to be works of art with the rubber stamp "Attention. Oeuvre d'art" at the Galerie Koepcke in Copenhagen. In 1963, he organized the famous Repas Hongrois during an exhibition at the gallery J in Paris. He cooked and served meals to critics each night of the show and they were invited to glue their own table assemblages and put them on the walls. He held joyful banquets for friends, asking them to cook or cooking himself, requesting they bring their own utensils, boards, or dishes to the table. During this time, Spoerri was ambitiously productive, participating in many shows, projects, installations, and performances. He travelled all over Europe and the US. In 1964, he lived in the Chelsea Hotel in New York for several weeks and held exhibitions at the Allan Stone gallery.

However, Spoerri's frustration with the art market and institutions in general would continue to grow beyond his art works' tongue in cheek snub toward their traditions. He also feared that he was becoming trapped in his own paintings, which were falling into a consistently expected formula.

In 1967, he left Paris with Kischka for the remote Greek island of Symi where he remained 13 months. During their time there, the couple worked on several publications and Spoerri narrowed his interests more and more toward food.

Late works

After his retreat, Spoerri settled in Düsseldorf in 1967 where his friends Dieter Roth and Joseph Beuys among others encouraged him to stay. He decided to open a restaurant and introduced the term Eat Art, a new movement focused around food. The artist believed that the act of eating and drinking were not only integral to the cycles of life, but also worthy of celebration and elevation. Restaurant Spoerri opened in January 1968 and became an immediate success due to its surprising and eclectic range of dishes such as grilled ant omelets or python cutlets. But creativity extended beyond the fare; the menu also featured performances and even activities for kids. In September 1970, he opened the Eat Art gallery above the restaurant featuring exhibits made out of food and oftentimes, entirely edible. Many of the artist's friends were invited to contribute artworks. At the opening of the gallery, Spoerri declared, "The theme that we somewhat tackily call Eat Art is broad enough to encompass both decadence and also the creative act of rebirth. And making an artwork out of life itself appears to me to be the most delicious way to employ one's time." By turning culinary considerations into art, he also presented interesting ways for people to consider their own eating habits and consistently challenged and disorganizes long standing sensory perceptions and traditions surrounding food and its consumption. The gallery was a success but only lasted four years, closing for good in 1971.

In 1978, he started a new project: a sculpture garden in Tuscany called simply "Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri." He filled the 35-acre space with re-creations of his snare-pictures and assemblages as life-size bronze sculptures, including his room 13 of the Hotel Carcassone. Longtime friends like Arman, Tinguely, and Roland Topor contributed as well as contemporary artists like Nam June Paik and Erwin Wurm.

One of Spoerri's last major happenings was the Dejeuner sous l'Herbe (or, Lunch Under the Grass) in 1983. The artist organized a banquet for 120 contemporary art world personalities at the Jouy-en-Josas where a year later the Cartier Foundation would be installed. In the middle of the meal, he invited guests to bury their tables, still covered with the remnants of the dishes. In 2010 and then again in 2016, Spoerri revisited the site to orchestrate the "first excavations of Modern art," in true archeological fashion, digging up and analyzing the remains of his banquet.

Throughout his career, Spoerri also took on teaching positions. Between 1977 and 1982, he taught at the Art and Design School in Cologne where he organized exhibition projects and banquets with students. From 1983 to 1989 he was professor at The Academy of Fine Arts, Munich. He also lectured all over Europe.

In 2008, Spoerri formed a non-profit foundation in Vienna, Austria where he continues to live and work today. Through the organization, he donated two spaces to the city to be used as exhibition venues and eateries. In 2015, he participated in a film by Olga Stefan where he discussed his 2010 trip to Romania searching for traces of his father. Olga Stefan stated: "This was the first recording of the artist speaking of his years in Romania and the impact of the pogrom on his biography."

Spoerri continues to exhibit all throughout Europe.

The Legacy of Daniel Spoerri

Spoerri is mostly known today for his snare-pictures and the idea that art can truly capture a literal moment of life. He's created a perpetual time stamp of his own existence, his travels, and his lust for food and companionship through objects affixed to a wall. He has elevated simple items of everyday consumption and one's immediate environment, and minutes of existence, into forever memories. This contribution to Nouveau Réalisme has reverberated throughout the years, inspiring many other artists such as Tracey Emin who famously made an artwork out of the contents of her bedroom consisting of her actual bed surrounded by the trash and clutter of her personal life.

But aside from the snare work, Spoerri's theatrical flair for the dramatic and his love of social engagement led him to also actively involve audiences in his artwork. Spurring an intimate connection between artwork and viewer through hosted happenings, he asks us to conscientiously consider, revel in, and respect the activities of our lives, imparting a message that life is the greatest form of art.

Finally, as instigator of the Eat Art movement, he created a unique perspective between food and art decades ahead of our contemporary obsession with food culture, famous chefs, and our universal consumption considerations and relationships to food. Today, what and how we eat is as trendy a subject as the figurative nude or the eternal abstract painting. This has paved the way for many contemporary artists to add to the dialogue, extending from the personal to political realms. For example, the film Resurrection by Tony Morgan traces graphically a pile of human excrement back through the intestines, to the eating of a steak, and back to its source, a cow.

Spoerri has never stopped working and renewing himself. Through his practice, he questions, humorously, all forms of conformism and invites his viewers to rethink the meaning of objects and moments, especially those that have become so ordinary as to develop an aura of complacency. In spite of his many collaborations with American artists, as notably with the Fluxus group, he is much better known in Europe than in the US. His first retrospective was held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1990, and the Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien in Vienna is now preparing another large retrospective to open in Spring 2021.

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Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper

"Daniel Spoerri Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper
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First published on 18 May 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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