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New Urs Fischer Show Lights a Fire at the Legion of Honor

The Swiss artist’s playful and sometimes macabre sculptures send a contemporary jolt through the museum’s galleries.

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Boy in Chair, 2014, cast bronze.

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Kratz, 2011.

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There’s a new work on display at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum, not so much sharing space with—but rather physically dominating—the Auguste Rodin sculptures it neighbors, among them favorites including The Kiss and The Prodigal Son. Its name is Adam, and it is an eight-foot-high paraffin wax sculpture of a man—a “shoegazer,” in the words of the artist. And it is on fire.

To say the least, the Legion’s latest exhibition, Urs Fischer: The Public and the Private, is a departure for the museum. It is the first of two planned exhibits this year of contemporary artists—a first for the museum under the leadership of new executive director Max Hollein. Both the Fischer installation, which opened to donors and press Thursday evening and will run through July 2, and July’s Sarah Lucas show are being presented “in dialogue” with the museum’s collection of Rodin sculpture, on the occasion of the centennial of the French artist’s death.

The first of these exhibits includes some 30-odd works by the Swiss-born Fischer, largely sculpture. For my money, the prize is Adam, essentially a giant wax candle. (Fischer, who was on hand Thursday evening, told me it’s modeled on a friend of his—he had photos on his cell phone of the real Adam marveling at the sculpture’s details, particularly the sneakers.) By the end of Thursday’s preview, Adam’s head had already begun to melt. Over the course of the three-month installation, it’s expected that perhaps a third of the statue will melt away.

While Adam may be the most impressive piece, others make their own statements. A dozen or so sculptures are staged around the museum’s court of honor, conversing in a sense with Rodin’s famed The Thinker. (Among them: bro w/ hat, more or less what it sounds like; big foot, literally a five-foot-long naked foot; and fireplace, a fireplace with a model train running up to it, all cast bronze.)

Inside, things get even wilder. In the galleries flanking the skeleton fountain just inside the front doors, two large-scale canvases have been replaced with new Fischer works. On one side, a Peter Paul Rubens work, The Tribute Money (circa 1612), has been replaced by Fischer’s Lead and Tin (2016), a seductive, and ghoulish, image of a female vampire. Across the way, Mattia Preti’s St. John the Baptist Preaching (circa 1665) has been replaced temporarily with Fischer’s Drained (2016), a giant portrait of Frankenstein’s monster, with Fischer’s own eyes, nose, and lips superimposed on the creature’s.

The playful bits continue: A tiny blue model of a horse (Crying Horse, 2016) with a giant teardrop falling from its eye, less than a foot tall, stands sentinel in one corner of the gallery, as though placed there by a forgetful child. In a room dedicated to Rodin’s depictions of the burghers of Calais, there’s now a mirrored table set up in the center of the room with images of an ironing board silk-screened onto each side of it (Mr. E & Spotzy, 2011). Elsewhere, a pile of granite poured onto a broken single bed (Kratz, 2011); in a room dedicated to 18th-century Parisian furniture, a sculpture of the stern of a wooden ship (7, 2014), the front end wrecked in an abstract mess of cast bronze, oil paint and gold leaf. Elsewhere, opposite Tommaso Solari’s Equestrian Statue of Charles III (1760) is another model of a horse, this one covered in aluminum and entrapped in a contraption resembling an adjustable-back medical device bed (called, appropriately, Model for Horse/Bed, 2013–2015).

The thinking behind the new installation—and the Lucas show to follow—is clear: to reinvigorate the museum’s permanent collection with a shot of youthful energy. At least for one night, it seemed to be doing the trick, as the crowd that came Thursday night was a decidedly young one. More than that, Fischer’s pop culture–referencing work did seem to enliven the masters’ in some interesting ways. 

At the very least, it creates some new, and interesting, contexts to consider them in: The El Greco image St. Francis Venerating the Crucifix can’t help but seem rather macabre in the shadow of Frankenstein’s monster, right?

 

 

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