URS FISCHER (b. 1973)
URS FISCHER (b. 1973)
URS FISCHER (b. 1973)
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The Collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann
URS FISCHER (b. 1973)


URS FISCHER (b. 1973)
signed, titled and dated 'Urs Fischer 2012-13 "SECRET"' (on the reverse)
milled aluminum panel, acrylic primer, gesso, acrylic ink, acrylic silkscreen medium, acrylic paint
96 x 72 in. (243.9 x 182.9 cm.)
Executed in 2012-2013.
Sadie Coles HQ, London
Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner
P. Bhatnagar, A. Haywood and A. Kunicky, eds., Urs Fischer: Paintings 1998-2017, Vol II: 2012-2015, New York, 2019, p. 247 (illustrated); Vol III: 2016-2017, no. 247 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Working in painting, sculpture, installation, and photography, Swiss-born, New York-based artist Urs Fischer challenges our collective thinking with humor and invention, using new combinations of media to expand our perception. Having never been formally trained in painting, Fischer is an outsider, working to destabilize inherited notions of art and carving out a singular, international career spanning more than twenty years. Above all, like an alchemist, he uses his materials in unexpected ways and to novel ends, often using media outside the realm of high art, like bread, dirt, and vegetables, to play with ephemerality, taste, and scale. In so doing, he changes what art history can be, creating performances, happenings, and shifting sites of interaction. Secret is a tactile exploration of the sensuality of the body, the photographic image, and paint itself, an almost sculptural image that draws us into its own space with its texture and larger-than-life scale. It is representative of the “secret” of art generally, how photographs and paint can create emotions and histories, inviting us into another world like the eyes of a Hollywood star. We also get a glimpse of Fischer’s own “secret”: his ability to generate feeling and visual intrigue no matter his chosen materials. Art history has always been one of his prime media, from his full-size wax replica of Giambologna’s sculpture The Rape of the Sabine Women (1579-1583), created for the 54th Venice Biennale, to the present work, which becomes a reflection on the multiple lives of painting and film. Fischer’s genre-defying work has been exhibited all over the world, and it is held in prestigious public collections like the Broad Collection, the Kunstmuseum Basel, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Bacall from the 1947 film Dark Passage, a murder mystery wherein Humphrey Bogart’s character undergoes plastic surgery to escape being framed for murder. The film also uses the innovative “subjective camera” technique, in which the action is viewed through the eyes of the protagonist. There could not be a better metaphor for Fischer’s art, so often concerned with how identity and vision are constructed. In Secret, Fischer sees how far he can manipulate Bacall’s face, just as Bogart’s character manipulated his, without losing her essence. Fischer remembers, “I used to watch up to three movies a day,” and in so doing he came away with a sense of how to intervene in formulaic narratives onscreen (U. Fischer, quoted in H. Judah, “Interview with Urs Fischer: A Subversive and Irreverent Artist,” Numéro, January 17, 2020). The artist’s interest in film resulted in his monumental Problem Paintings series, of which Secret is a standout. The Problem Paintings darkly manipulate stock photos and headshots with otherworldly additions like mushrooms, beets, and eggs. 

In Secret, Fischer obscures Bacall with pigment, forming a cartoonish rainstorm around her equally stormy gaze. Her iconic look, however, manages to shine through. In an ode to Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, each raindrop is graphic and heavy, like a crying comic book character whose emotions are both relatable and melodramatic. Fischer further manipulates Bacall’s publicity shot and does not present it as such, but rather adds an element of his own subjectivity to the image. These painterly marks, themselves metaphors for brushstrokes, contrast with the photographic silkscreen of Bacall’s headshot, creating a space in between mediums that is filmic in its suggestion of motion. Warhol did the same in his pioneering of silkscreen, which deconstructs the boundaries between painting and photography for emotional effect. While Warhol had a penchant for blurring, Fischer opts here for a crisp, almost computer-generated, look that rehearses the heightened artifice of films. He is never cruel or ironic, though, and his choice of source material often comes from a place of love and empathy. Fischer plays with the image and the film to which it refers on their own terms. It is as if we have caught Bacall in an archetypal meeting in the rain, clandestine or romantic, a cliché that Fischer both honors and pokes fun at in Secret. Coming into question is a play of agency and subjectivities. Who owns Bacall’s image: the film studio, Bacall, Fischer? Fischer argues that the image contains traces of every entity that has touched and produced it throughout history, bleeding together in the downpour. 

Like melodramatic film, Fischer thinks through the simultaneity of emotions, stacking them upon each other in a way that is true to life. As writer and curator Michelle Kuo argues, “[Fischer applies] tremendous pressure to all manner of sensations, materials, spatial dimensions, and experiences—compacting them with the kind of brutal yet limber combinatorics normally achieved only through the digital” (M. Kuo, “Taste Tests: The Art of Urs Fischer,” Artforum, November 2009). Fischer aspires to the crisp, all-at-once nature of the digital while retaining his interest in the artist’s hand. This kind of image-making is reminiscent of the Surrealists, who, in their canvases, created surprising combinations of objects, ideas, words, and emotional states, often drawing upon dreams and stories. For instance, René Magritte, to whom Fischer has been compared, creates scenes that become movies of sorts, feverish narratives that are akin to a murder mystery but have no single conclusion. If early Hollywood film is the ultimate dream, Fischer is its interlocutor, refashioning the uncanniness of Bacall’s gaze upon us as a contemporary hallucination that is artificial, real, and hyperreal.

Secret is one of Fischer’s most important paintings, and it poses essential questions about truth, fiction, ownership, irony, and the role of the artist. We are being watched even as we likewise look at Fischer’s painting, leading us to question our status not only as viewers of his work, but also art and film across time, all of which is now available to us instantly. Likewise, we experience everything all at once in Fischer’s work, his precise but winking layers encouraging a wide-ranging view of human experience.

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