PRINT November 2012


David Weiss and Urs Lüthi, untitled, 1970, offset print, 15 5/8 x 10 3/4". From the series “Sketches,” 1970. Photo: Willy Spiller.

AS A YOUNG ARTIST just starting out, David Weiss made a series of drawings that he published in a small edition in 1975, and in the ensuing decades this Regenbüchlein, or “little rain book,” has achieved an almost mythic status. After David died this past April, I took it out again, for the first time in many years, and was struck by the dedication printed at the beginning of an otherwise wordless volume: “To my friends.” What might seem a hackneyed sentiment certainly now, in retrospect, takes on a profound significance. For though David did, of course, have many friends, more importantly he saw himself very early on as part of a community (as people began saying back then in the 1970s). And community naturally implied its plural, which is to say, micro-social contexts, consisting of various groups and scenes (another word familiar from that time). In the course of his life, he defined himself, not least in his art, with regard to these diverse affiliations—very clear-sightedly, and in that inimitable lovable and humane manner that would also come to characterize Fischli/Weiss’s art.

To think of oneself as part of a collective—that whole tendency was no doubt fueled by the experiences David, and many of his generation, had in the ’60s and ’70s. For David, those were years of wandering, from group to group, place to place, scene to scene. He traveled around and drifted freely, to England, New York, Montreal, San Francisco, Mexico, Cuba, Tunis, Tangier, Algiers, and Berlin. It was a time of enormous upheaval: upheaval that changed our world and our way of life.

Just speaking of that era, one runs the risk of getting lost in endless clichés. Haight-Ashbury, 1968, the communes, the drugs, the politicization. There it is, the offensive whittling down of the times to a compulsorily radicalized thought. And yet it is worthwhile to look at the Regenbüchlein against this background. The actual title of that little book is Up and Down Town. When it was made—on the cusp between lingering hippiedom and nascent punk—David was a member of Zurich’s Commune H (where he lived until 1978). Up and Down Town is a comic book without words, with a clear subtext. It rains and rains, from the first page to the last, and only the person drawing can conjure, like the Heavenly Father, the manifold forms out of the white of the paper, or make them vanish again in the tumult of the rain of lines, so that we don’t really know who or what we’ve seen, or even what is happening on the page. The work is a manifesto against certainty, against the rampant moralizing and dogmatic climate of the 1970s. But it was not itself uncertain. That the comic has no need for words makes this plain as the light of day. The drawn forms and the dedication to his friends produce a clear connection, while the absence of text is a show of respect for the figures as an autonomous cosmos. So, the community—what was it?

Artist or non-artist was not the question: People got together, found one another, could tell from far away whether someone could potentially belong or not. And each person was a complex galaxy. In the Zurich of those years, there were only a few bars that stayed open past midnight. The differentiation, typical of big cities, of the various sub- and microcultures into separate scenes (centered around music, politics, art, or fashion or based on academic affiliation) took place only to a limited extent in Zurich, and this relaxed mingling was precisely what made it special.

David was someone who made friends, anywhere, with ease. People loved his enormous openness and curiosity, though he was not without a touch of shyness, a certain reserve. He was unusually attentive and would animatedly join in conversation on almost any subject, to which he contributed with acute perceptiveness—and a talent for drifting. He was a genuine seeker of truth. Fischli/Weiss’s photo series Equilibres—Quiet Afternoon, 1984–85, in which unlikely configurations of the least prepossessing of everyday objects would find a balance as exquisitely delicate as it was preposterous, might be thought of as a mission statement in favor of taking time, finding pleasure in play, being capable of surprise, and reveling in small marvels. And these are all qualities found in ample abundance in the special portfolio of works—including several of David’s early drawings, never before published—that Peter Fischli selected for the following pages.

Even though David attended art schools in Zurich and Basel and was trained as a sculptor, he was, by nature, an autodidact. It’s not just that he taught himself a lot. His thirst for knowledge was tied up with a very particular manner of perception attuned to the nondescript, to ordinary things that typically go unremarked, and with an extraordinary propensity to question—and to take pleasure in questioning—conventions. He believed in beginning with the nearest at hand, only to give himself over, in the end, to the drive toward an overarching view. One could see that principle clearly in so many of David’s endeavors: for example, in the wonderful flower and vegetable garden Fischli/Weiss would install at Skulptur Projekte Münster in 1997—a small slice of the magical world of Swiss naïf Adolf Dietrich quite literally transplanted into the international art circuit. Or in their suite of photographs Settlements, Agglomeration, 1993—part of their massive archive Visible World, 1987–2000 (talk about over­arching!)—which unabashedly aestheticizes the outskirts, the periphery, that which lies undramatically to the side.

David Weiss, untitled, 1977, ink on paper, 6 7/8 x 4 3/8". From the sketchbook “Frauen” (Women), 1977.

This fundamental independence of mind lent a deep skepticism toward the pretentious or the all too self-assured, which was ultimately expressed in David’s definition of the artist’s role—indeed in his embodiment of it. The attitude of the autodidact arose to some degree from the driving forces of his youth, from the climate of examining all social contingencies and the fundamental questioning of culture at that time. David was somehow able, perhaps uniquely, to take these values seriously and reflect on them while “staying true to himself,” as they used to say. And this idea of staying true to oneself was manifested precisely, if counterintuitively, in his choice, initially made in 1979, to work as part of a pair. He had been born under Gemini, so it makes a certain sense that he found his twin brother, the rough-and-ready Peter Fischli, likewise a Gemini. But David had come along on the cusp of Cancer, and so was marked by its dreamy, melancholic bent. Thus a duality was constructed in shared artisthood, a duality that at once set about deconstructing all other dualities—high and low, original and copy, natural and man-made, real and artificial, center and periphery, amateur and professional, the aesthetic and the banal—subjecting them to an intense yet tender scrutiny.

David and Peter made great art that found its way into the world rather fast, but not too fast. They were successful because they made a body of work imbued with a very particular, almost addictive sensibility—a quality that is antiheroic and antielitist but also antipopulist (though suffused with the greatest empathy for the commonplace, the everyday) and tied to an inimitable sense of humor. Despite their resistance to the popular, Kunsthaus Zürich’s 2007 Fischli/Weiss retrospective set a new attendance record for an exhibition of contemporary art at the museum. Peter and David belong to the first generation of Swiss artists who did not have to emigrate in order to achieve international recognition.

People have often enjoyed comparing Peter Fischli and David Weiss to Bouvard and Pécuchet, the literary creations of Gustave Flaubert who attempted over and over again to explain the world in their outlandish and monumental encyclopedic endeavors. Now that David has left us, I can think only of a maxim that might have been taken directly from the “Popular Opposites” enumerated in their 1981 work Suddenly This Overview, an agglomeration (as it were) of several hundred rudimentary clay sculptures. No, not “big and small,” “theory and practice,” “true and false,” or “funny and silly”; rather, “ars longa, vita brevis.” David’s life was cut short, but the art of Fischli/Weiss gives us enduring pleasure—and a profound, if modestly embodied and endlessly tested, faith in art.

Bice Curiger, a curator at Kunsthaus Zürich, co-organized, with Vicente Todolí, “Flowers & Questions,” a retrospective of the work of Fischli/Weiss, in 2007.