PRINT November 2009


IMAGINE THAT THE SUN IS A GIANT FLUORESCENT BULB. Now imagine that it’s twilight, and you will have a sense of the eerie acidic crepuscule that seems to both illuminate and shadow Katharina Fritsch’s work wherever it happens to be. This effect was particularly salient and unnerving at the artist’s recent retrospective in the bright galleries of the Kunsthaus Zürich, where her sculptures and paintings appeared not to be lit from above but to emanate their own oddly tenebrous glow. One sensed they could change the weather.

Usually we talk about the way a sculpture is illuminated rather than the light it seems to emit. The latter capacity is more generally considered the province of painting, where the combination of colors and the way they are applied generate a particular luminescence more readily than does something as obdurately physical as carved stone, welded metal, or cast polyester or carbon, as in Fritsch’s case. There are, of course, a few exceptions, but they tend to be shiny. And there is, as well, a long lineage of painterly, “pictorial” sculpture (articulated by figures from Adolf von Hildebrand to Michael Fried), though this term usually denotes a class of three-dimensional artworks that deny their objecthood by approaching the conditions of painting’s flatness, whether literally, as in a relief, or more obliquely, via compositional or coloristic strategies—none of which are Fritsch’s stock-in-trade. It’s a little late in the day to tread into the Greenbergian quicksand of this discredited terminology, but Fritsch’s sculptures beckon us there nonetheless. In toying with the readymade, she investigates a class of objects that are as far as possible from painting’s optical alchemy, and she treats her chosen motifs with an exactitude that should affirm their physicality, their very thingness. Yet the characteristic matteness of Fritsch’s surfaces and the exaggeration and effacement of certain details lend her objects a strangely soft-focus quality. And focus, like internal radiance, is something we’re not accustomed to experiencing in a sculpture. It’s puzzling—troubling, even—to perceive that an object is out of focus the way an image can be, but this is precisely the quality that many of Fritsch’s sculptures evince. In her three-dimensional work, she is somehow a painter despite all physical insistences to the contrary, and yet she is surely a sculptor despite her objects’ blurry lambency. Few artists have crossed this boundary to such beguiling and incisive effect.

In Zurich, Fritsch played up this purposeful vacillation, plastering the walls with paintings in the form of plastic panels silk-screened with images culled from postcards or photographs she made herself. Most of the paintings involved only one or two tertiary colors, and, like the sculptures, they felt at once muted and refulgent, crisply photographic yet somewhat hazy due to their inflated scale. Often sculptures were positioned directly in front of these wall pieces. A black Saint Catherine stood before a plane of bluish ivy; a woman’s white torso was surrounded on three sides by park scenes. When these mise-en-scènes were viewed head-on, the backdrops exercised a strong grip on the objects, drawing them into the pictorial world—and drawing out their pictorial qualities. But when seen indirectly, the components of these stagy assemblies pushed apart from one another like similar magnetic poles. The sculptures exerted their stubborn presence, and the paintings hewed to their own perceptual logic, especially when a single image was divided into two or three fields of color that could never quite be sutured in the eye. Here the uncanny atmosphere that Fritsch’s sculptures have long conjured reached a new, environmental extreme.

This moody miraculousness befits Fritsch’s art. She is drawn to religious and mythic iconography, effigies of the Madonna and saints, diminutive crosses, a skull that becomes an instant vanitas in her abstemious hands. A stunning new piece in the Kunsthaus’s courtyard brought together some of these religious figures and other characters, such as a caveman and a slithering snake—an assembly that suggested a hypertrophied bunch of tchotchkes from a Catholic gift shop or a lawn-ornament merchant’s overstock. But the dreamy cavalcade of figures in Zurich included more earthly protagonists: There was a cook offering a plate of food, a table at which were seated thirty-two identical men, a green elephant perched atop a plinth. The paintings contained corny touristic images of Paris, cutesy animals—Chihuahuas in formal wear, a squirrel on water skis—and naked beefcake postcards (from where else but Ibiza?). The critical emphasis on Fritsch’s oneiric icons tends to obscure her love of kitsch, but a leveling, omnivorous bent is a crucial component of her art. The sacred and the profane merge with each other in the crystalline fog of her oeuvre, so that in a retrospective context we are left to ponder precisely which is which. She performs a kind of material transubstantiation on so much quotidian stuff, affirming the artist’s mystical prerogative and heartily mocking it at the same time.

SUCH MANIC ANTHOLOGIZING, with its shuttling between the miraculous and the mundane, informs the exhibition Fritsch has curated for the pages of Artforum, which functions as a meditation on an object’s secret “double life,” the phrase the artist chose for her title. “Miracle,” the project’s first section, juxtaposes Veit Stoss’s sixteenth-century limewood Annunciation (beneath which Fritsch’s indigent grandfather was baptized in Nuremberg’s St. Lorenz Cathedral in 1900) with an exotic flower that blooms for just a few hours one night each year. Stoss’s scene was historically granted an efflorescence of almost equal brevity: Ordinarily covered with sackcloth, it was only revealed to worshipers on holy days. Like Fritsch’s figures, Stoss’s biblical characters are at once lifelike and mannered, simultaneously of our world and of a realm beyond. For Fritsch, the religious scene’s unveiling also foreshadowed less spiritual, latterday spectacles; the virgin’s open face and broad gestures are as cinematic and gripping as those, Fritsch says, of Angelina Jolie.

“Double Life,” the next spread, shows Fritsch dressed in a trench coat before an oversize figure at the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, Germany. This charged image of a female sculptor donning a typically masculine garment opposite a male artist’s female sculpture shedding her feminine attire serves as a deadpan riff on gender norms. Fritsch claims a preference in her own work for male models, a point of distinction, she says, from women artists who by and large turn their attention to their own bodies or gender, perhaps reaffirming their traditional status as objects. But for Fritsch, Lehmbruck himself had already complicated the much-maligned (and oversimplified) dynamic between male artist and female subject. His standing figure displays its own recalcitrant, if ambiguous, agency—is she resigned or reticent, embarrassed or expectant?—and this is what makes the sculpture a “problematic” object in Fritsch’s eyes. Every Eve, innocent or immodest, deserves her snake. And one is provided here in Sigmar Polke’s Menschenschlange (Human Snake), 1972–76, a painting adorned with a glow-in-the-dark reptile. Fritsch was told that the painting’s owners were startled when they first noticed the creature lurking in their living room. The wily serpent is only evident when the canvas itself is not.

Fritsch’s exhibition climaxes in an explosion of color, a “turning point” in both literal and metaphoric terms. Atsuko Tanaka’s Spring, 1966, is mounted on a motor that rotates the canvas slowly, so that its colorful brushwork never congeals into a static form. Katharina Grosse’s Untitled, 2004, marked a revolution in the artist’s self-perception. One day, Grosse felt compelled to subject her own bedroom—complete with her beloved Jasper Morrison bed—to the swaths of color she had previously directed at the walls and furniture of public gallery spaces. Yet rather than prompting a sense of loss, this self-inflicted vandalism proved liberating for Grosse, opening a sense of new possibility in her work.

A similarly violent exuberance pervades Alexej Koschkarow’s happening Guerra di torta (Cake War), 2000, which he staged with friends in Düsseldorf on the night of George W. Bush’s fateful first election. Dressed in evening clothes, the participants mingled and sipped champagne before a group of invited guests, amid banquet tables forebodingly laid before hundreds of identical creamy pastries. With Muzak versions of songs like Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” filling the air, the partygoers suddenly broke into an orgiastic food fight, slathering one another with cake until they looked like the survivors of some adipose apocalypse. Fritsch pairs a video still of this mad battle with Adolph Menzel’s drawing of Field Marshal James Keith, who perished in 1758 while serving Frederick II of Prussia and was interred in the crypt of Berlin’s hallowed garrison church. When the vault reached capacity and was opened in 1873, Menzel made a suite of drawings to record the macabre scene. With its stark cropping, intimate point of view, and tremulous hand, Menzel’s sketch lends the corpulent soldier a feeling of hovering between life and death, more than a century after he met his end. This sense of suspended animation is familiar in Fritsch’s art. Bristling with life yet stock-still and distant, her figures and images seem forever on the verge of emerging from or succumbing to a state of ominous, indefinite arrest.

“Katharina Fritsch” will be on view at the Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Nov. 6, 2009–Feb. 7, 2010.

Scott Rothkopf is a senior editor of Artforum.