San Francisco

Katharina Fritsch

Katharina Fritsch’s first midcareer survey was a succinct assembly of “greatest hits”: eight works drawn from her entire career, including Warengestell mit Madonnen (Display stand with Madonnas, 1987–89), Tischgesellschaft (Company at table, 1988), and Mann und Maus (Man and mouse, 1991–92). Her first full-blown sculpture, Warengestell, 1979–84, a display stand holding several small objects—including a Madonna figurine, a water mill, and circular shapes—already incorporated many of the motifs on which she would later elaborate. Also on view was Kind mit Pudeln (Child with poodles, 1995–96), a sculpture that Fritsch created for this exhibition that consisted of three concentric rings of black poodles surrounding an infant from whom emanated golden rays. With its allusions to baby Jesus, Kind mit Pudeln, like much of Fritsch’s work, plays on Catholic themes, while it encapsulates the strange combination of kitsch and foreboding characteristic of her work by surrounding the holy infant with poodles that appear at once menacing and ridiculous.

The exhibition’s surprise was the inclusion of Museum Modell 1:10, 1995. Singularly disappointing when squeezed into the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale for which it was originally designed, here, in an airy setting and equipped with a strategically placed semicircular mirror that enabled the viewer to view the whole as if looking down from above, it read as a serious attempt to present a museological ideal (or, rather, its model). Because Fritsch’s work depends as much on setting as on the objects themselves to produce a sharp, resonant image, the generous space of the lofty Botta galleries seemed tailor made for it.

Exploiting and exploring the connection between objecthood and two-dimensional images is an interest Fritsch shares with other ’80s artists, especially Jeff Koons, but her references are certainly among the most intricate. Her world is filled with an idiosyncratic mixture of binary oppositions that mix the Catholic and the hokey, yet its thematic sweep is Wagnerian: ranging from the battle between good and evil, to the tension between folk and commercial culture, to the frightening subconscious that underpins high-minded ideals. These themes, and the elements she uses to conjure them, are repeated and transmogrified from work to work.

Unfortunately, this exhibition reinforced our experience of Fritsch’s work as a series of discrete objects. None of her “marginal” pieces were included: no small-scale works, no nonsculptural works. Also the sculptures were positioned in such a way that they hardly came into visual contact with each other. Thus, the integrity of each work was preserved, but the possibility of making comparisons between pieces and arriving at an overall view of her oeuvre was frustrated.

Two sculptures—Gespenst rind Blutlache (Ghost and pool of blood, 1988), and Mann rind Maus—did share the same visual space, to electrifying effect. Gespenst und Blutlache always seemed trite to me, but next to the more accomplished sculpture, Mann und Maus, it acquired depth as another exploration of the duality of body and mind. Mann und Maus was not diminished either: it retained its humor, its formal grace and, as a witty feminist reworking of John Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, 1790, a painting of a woman with a demon on her chest, it was surely one of the more complex works in the exhibition.

Much of the work shown here attained the material perfection to which Fritsch aspires, bewitching the viewer with its meticulous craftsmanship. Yet, I found myself wishing that the artist would occasionally materialize in her own work—as Hitchcock, with whom some of her thematics overlap, does in his films—and thereby slightly disrupt the hermeticism that comes with perfection. For, although her images are precise and her references clear, what they amount to is not. And Fritsch’s work is too deliberate to leave room for the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions, yet the artist herself is absent as well. Paradoxically, despite the plethora of Fritsch’s allusions, her reluctance to give it a direction makes for a fundamental opacity at the work’s center.

Daniela Salvioni