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The New Museum’s “Suicide” Thwarted by Urs Fischer

Artist and provocateur William Powhida — who once predicted the post-boom odds of fellow contemporaries like Dash Snow — has issued a challenge to the New Museum on Bowery in his latest piece, which graces the cover of this month’s Brooklyn Rail. As an emerging artist in New York, Powhida’s satires of the art world cognoscenti hit close to home, and the skewering of the only museum in town that tries to cater to young artists and patrons is gutsy, to say the least. His drawing “How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality” depicts all the usual suspects, from Jeff Koons and critics Paddy Johnson and Tyler Green to museum director Lisa Phillips and curator Massimiliano Gioni. Urs Fischer, whose one-man show currently occupies floors two through four, is referenced as well, though we beg to differ that his exhibition Margeurite de Ponty” is contributing to the NuMu’s so-called “self-injury.” See why, after the jump.

The second floor showcases what the New Museum is hyping as Fischer’s “most ambitious work to date,” a set of more than 50 chrome boxes arranged in a Service à la française. (Taking a jackhammer to the floor of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise actually strikes us as somewhat more ambitious, but, semantics.) Constructed from over 12 tons of steel and 25,000 still photographs, the Pop meets Minimalist objects are displayed like monoliths across the gallery landscape: silkscreened elevations of seemingly random objects that tease out a theme as one progresses through the space. The “immaterial and hyperreal” reproduced objects, which reflect fragments of the space and neighboring mirrored boxes, are often casts and models of the original thing — a cardboard cutout of singer Ashanti, a waxy statuette of a sculpture in the Louvre, or an iron replica of a London telephone booth. In what may be a sign that the New Museum is taking itself a bit more seriously these days, the viewer’s experience in the first gallery is tightly controlled; only 40 people are allowed in the room at once, the only access is through one elevator bank, and no note-taking is permitted.

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(L) Urs Fischer, Service à la française (left to right: Repo Man; Taxi Driver; Supervisor; Unemployed; Professor), 2009. (R) Urs Fischer, Service à la française (left to right: Dental Hygienist; Repo Man; Landlord; Taxi Driver), 2009. Both silkscreen on mirrored chrome steel, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist; Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; Sadie Coles HQ, London; and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich. Installation view: “Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty.” Photographs by Benoit Pailley.

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Urs Fischer, Untitled, 2009. Mixed mediums, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist; Sadie Coles HQ, London; Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich. Installation view: “Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty.” Photograph by Benoit Pailley.

On the third floor, pictured above, 10,000 square feet of trompe de l’oeil wallpaper covers every surface of the room, a “maddening exercise in simulation.” The reinterpretation of the gallery’s physical boundaries is subtle, at first, until you notice the slight shadows of periphery details like exit signs, trusswork, and door handles. And as for that whole ambition thing? Installation of the piece required the New Museum to lower the 2nd flood ceiling by two feet. In an arrangement that Times critic Roberta Smith calls “elegant and breathtakingly spare,” a bright lilac rubberlike piano melts to the floor (it’s actually painted aluminum) while a neo-Dada tongue sculpture fills the requisite Urs Fischer hole motif.

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Installation view of “Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty” (left to right: David, the Proprietor; Frozen Pioneer). Courtesy the artist; Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich; and Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photograph by Benoit Pailley.

We actually saw the fourth floor gallery space first, saving the second-floor army for last as the capstone of “Marguerite de Pony.” Or, in the art critic jargon of Roberta Smith, “This creates a progression of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, or, more precisely, form, space and, finally, form and space, along with changing notions of size and scale.” Specifically, launching into the universe of Urs from the top down allows an initial introduction to a forest of massively scaled boulders, sculptures that look weighty but manage to float in the gallery space. At once reminiscent of skeleton bones (a pelvis here, jawbone there), fossils, and Rorschach blots, this is the outsider art of Dubuffet mixed with the ambiguous readymades of Duchamp. (Case in point, the accompanying found object subway bench against the west wall.)

While the New Museum has experienced some growing pains in the past — the first group show was notoriously tenuous — installing new work by the ringleader of today’s experimental art scene is a step in the right direction. We aren’t talking a vapid mid-career retrospective from the likes of Elizabeth Peyton, or the prevalent garbage-as-art aesthetic of the downtown gallery scene, as embodied in the work of Agathe Snow. Urs Fischer — young, hot, and European, all of which makes for good press — has a career promising enough to merit serious kudos for the New Museum. Whether or not the NuMu will rise above its current status as the non-profit gallery de rigeur of the Lower East Side? That remains to be seen.

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“How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality” by William Powhida. (Click through for a larger image.)

Modern Art Notes also reports that the next issue of The Art Newspaper will also examine the “NuMu/fluff shows situation.” Cue doom music and stay tuned.

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