Morgan Fisher

The Portikus exhibition hall, newly built in 2006 on an island in the river Main and attached via a plank to Frankfurt’s historical Alte Brücke, or Old Bridge, doesn’t exactly look like a building designed for the display of contemporary art. With a small footprint, but rising high with a sharply pitched roof, it recalls the typology of the city’s medieval houses. Inside, soaring walls (nearly thirty feet tall), vertical windows, and a narrow balustrade underneath the coffered ceiling shape the appearance of the space. A balcony halfway up offers an overview and houses the institution’s reception desk. With its extreme dimensions, the building represents a challenge for any artist exhibiting there. Struck by the “uselessness” of the hall’s upper part, and with unusual (for him) technical effort, American artist and filmmaker Morgan Fisher decided to highlight its features by mirroring them in the white cube that constitutes the building’s lower half. The effect of Portikus Looks at Itself, 2009, was stunning yet ambiguous. The floor was almost entirely blocked by a gray structure mimicking the ceiling’s coffers; all other elements—windows, walkway, and balustrade—were doubled mirror-reverse, so that one felt as if one were walking on the floor and the ceiling at the same time. From the balcony one could see both areas in perfect symmetry, as if looking onto a huge mirror.

However, the doubled features were not exact replicas but simplified models, painted in Fisher’s favorite color: matte 18 percent gray—also, as it happens, the average shade of the Portikus building’s concrete elements. Moreover, the windows were rendered as blind gray panels, yet that fact doesn’t necessarily make them monochrome “paintings” (nor was the floor to be seen as a minimalist sculpture). Fisher often points out that one of his concerns in painting has been how to avoid the rectangle becoming a container for what will become a picture, like a frame in film. For example, in an exhibition at the Neuer Aachener Kunstverein in 2002, titled “To See Seeing,” Fisher framed doors and windows with his “Door and Window Paintings,” L-shaped canvases in gray that functioned like the squaring-down of the camera window. The architectural features determined the shape of the paintings, the goal being to get rid of composition and the framing rectangle. Likewise, at Portikus the architecture was the main, if not the only, determining device. What it created could probably best be understood by looking at Fisher’s landmark films, which he has been making since the late 1960s. His structuralist method is already evident in their titles, such as The Director and His Actor Look at Footage Showing Preparations for an Unmade Film (2), 1968, or Standard Gauge, 1984. In the same way that he uses the format conventions of film as its content, there was no other content here than the framing conditions of the architecture. Doubling the structure’s “useless” features created a trompe l’oeil, though one easily seen through, a spatial experience that was utterly site specific; but at the same time, the added elements turned that which was there before—the architecture itself—into an illusionist image, as if one were looking upward to a Baroque ceiling painting.

Eva Scharrer