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The Bourse de Commerce opens its doors for the important exhibition of François Pinault’s art collection. An exhibition featuring the artist Urs Fischer, the opportunity to discover our interview from Crash#90

Swiss-born, New York-based artist Urs Fischer has made the Big Apple his personal playground for pushing contemporary art to its limits, reshaping and melting away the codes of this world in his own way. Occupying the intersection of conceptual art and the absurd, his works take on many different forms, from collage and painting to food – as in Bread House, his house made from loaves of bread created in 2004. In October, he unveiled Leo (George & Irmelin), a wax sculpture representing Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio with his parents, at Gagosian Gallery in Paris. The candle, lit at the opening of the exhibition, burned until December 20.

Armelle Leturcq: Our new art issue is dedicated to the idea of experimentation. On October 14, you organized a big “happening” called HEADZ SALON with Spencer Sweeney at La Java in the 10th district of Paris. It was very experimental: the audience was seated at a big table, drawing and painting like at a workshop, as a hip-hop band from New York City performed. What was the process of this event? 

Urs Fischer: It came by chance that Spencer and I had a show at Gagosian Gallery in Paris at the same time, and we are also close friends. We have already organized this kind of party in New York together. At first, we wanted to organize something for one month, but in the end it was just one evening. The other thing is that we wanted to build something and make books with all the paintings and drawings made during the party. But yesterday’s party was much more about the music because it was in a club. It was a bright room, not a studio or something, so the musicians were more exposed. But because we went to a club, it’s much more about the music. The musicians are so good anyway. It puts most artists to shame when I see how good they are. They improvise, they do it live and make no mistake. On the other hand, artists are all lazy. At the beginning it was more formal and then on the second set, there was a little more color in the paint. It’s an approach we came up with together and so we thought: “why not?” I don’t know if you saw the book I edited with all the drawings from the New York event.

Yes, I’ve seen the big book – it’s huge! Do you think there is still room for experimentation in the art world today?

Yesterday was about improvisation. I think experimentation is linked to improvisation. If you look at the latest Figaro daily paper, Toulouse Lautrec is still making the headlines… (laughs) It’s kind of funny, no? In the twentieth century, jazz was the cultural invention, movement, expression or form that influenced visual art the most. It started in the 1930s, but it continued into the next decades, mainly in the US but also in Europe. I remember reading an interview with Bruce Naumann once, and he said he leaves the traces of his process in his work because he heard music played live, improvisation. Jazz improvisation is very important and has influenced a lot of artists. Improvisation didn’t exist before jazz. When we think of improvisation in art, we are basically talking about the influence of jazz. Improvisation didn’t really exist beforehand; it was mainly African-American culture that influenced everything, even Pop Art.

Do you think improvisation is the key to your work?

I don’t know. I know more about other people’s work!

Here you are showing a big candle of Leonardo di Caprio with his parents. When did you start exploring this idea with candles?

The candles come from many layers; it’s not just one idea. I first started making works with real candles in them, like household candles. But they kept melting, so I made human figures that I carved myself. I started with a portrait of Peter Brandt about ten years ago. Then it was a portrait for a specific location. Then I forgot about the technique for a while, and later started using it again. Sometimes I think I’m finished with something but then time goes by and I change my mind. Here I tried to make a family portrait with Leonardo di Caprio, but it just didn’t work altogether. It worked very well with Leo and his dad, also with him and his mom. But I couldn’t find a good image of them all together. That’s why there are two Leos in one in the sculpture: one with his mother and one with his father. Leo’s parents are divorced and don’t talk to each other anymore, so maybe that’s why… It’s somewhat improvisational, by staying open to whatever comes along.

Can you tell us about the idea that this artwork is destroying itself?

I like the figure of this sculpture, but I don’t like the idea of how heavy it would be if it were made out of marble… It would be too classical. The way I did it, it’s just there, it’s light and the material is soft. It is what it is and it takes on a life of its own. The flame basically activates it and gives it life. It’s just a medium that gives me a lot of liberty to do things that otherwise would be too obvious. I could have done it in marble back in the day, but not the way we live now… Over the years my art became about these portraits of people I know, but it’s not everybody I know, just some people that have something unique about them. It’s not about the individual really – even though they’re friends of mine – but there is something to them that is more universal.

Are the people always larger than life?

Yes, it’s a little bit bigger than life size, like most classical or Greek sculptures. Even if you want something to appear life-sized, it has to be slightly bigger. A sculpture that is made to scale looks small. I also wanted the mother to be tall.

By destroying itself, does the piece also function as a reflection on the economy of art?

People buy stuff all the time: they buy religion, they buy objects, they sell ideas, politics, houses, food. The market gives me the money I need to be free, but you can also do it with less, as I used to do. Other than that, it has nothing to do with art. It’s the same market as people who want to buy a watch or a house. But it’s becoming more complicated as the art market becomes a means of control over art. I think there are many ways of gaining control over art, because nobody really knows what it is and it keeps changing. That’s why Toulouse-Lautrec is still on the front cover of the Figaro. (laughs) We don’t know what’s good or bad art; there’s something for everyone. The market only provides monetary value. It gives something you can hold on to, so you can control the numbers. It builds clarity. The same goes with art movements: it’s a way to categorize things and rationalize art. I like artists that I don’t understand. I know when it works and can feel it when it doesn’t.
But you don’t know why it works, that’s the magic of art!

Exactly, I don’t know why. I can explain why it doesn’t work easily, but the opposite is much more difficult!

And the fact that the collector can redo the piece is very interesting.

It’s like conceptual art.

Like Lawrence Weiner who lets the collector paint the artwork on their own.

Yes, exactly. The good thing about conceptual artwork is that you don’t need much storage and it’s always new. There’s never any patina on a Lawrence Weiner. If you look at the pigments Van Gogh used, they fade away and became something else. It’s kind of interesting and beautiful and different. But Lawrence Weiner pieces look exactly the same. They don’t age.

And why did you choose Leonardo DiCaprio?

It just happened that way. He asked me if I could do his portrait, and at first I said no. But then I said yes if he would agree to do it with his parents.

So is he going to buy the sculpture?

No, I’ll give him one. Whoever I make a sculpture of, I give them one as a present.

And what about your big “collages” with big eyes, Thinking Moon, Gentle Moon and the others?

I made three or four paintings two or three years ago with smaller eyes. Then I put one in a show and I never resolved it, I just did it. Then I tried to go back in and now we’re here. I was wondering if the sculpture needed something else. I made them and then I made the candle.

It fits really well together. Do you consider it to be photography or painting?

I don’t care. We actually established that it is basically painting, at least if a Warhol is a painting, for example. But it doesn’t really matter. There are different layers of painting, even though it’s based on photography. It was made by hand and transformed again and again. First there is painting from the hand, then painting from the shoulder and finally, painting that moves the upper body and chest. There is a limit to these kinds of movements, too. That’s what we call body painting. With these projects, I have agency to move and use speed in painting.

So the idea of experimentation is still there?

Yeah. I like that these things are bigger than the actual part I use, you know. Paint doesn’t have to be defined by my hand; it can be bold.

Are you still doing collages with fruits? They have been an inspiration for a lot of other artists, no?

Yeah, that’s the same, with a background and foreground. It’s bi-dimensional and it builds a dimensional order.

Urs Fischer, Leo (George & Irmelin), 2019
Paraffin wax, microcrystalline wax, pigment, stainless steel and wicks
84 5/8 x 38 5/8 x 57 3/4 inches
214,9 x 98,1 x 146,7 cm

Urs Fischer, Lover’s Moon, 2019
Aluminium composite panel, aluminium honeycomb, two-component adhesive, primer, gesso, solvent-based screen printing ink
96 x 72 x 7/8 inches
243,8 x 182,9 x 2,2 cm


Interview by Armelle Leturcq.
Photos by Quentin Hourie.

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