On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.
Please note this work is from an edition of three plus one artist’s proof and is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.
Post Lot Text
Regarded by some as being one of Urs Fischer’s most celebrated and iconic works, What If the Phone Rings has been widely exhibited to international acclaim. A sculptural installation in three parts, the grouping features three female nudes; a seated brunette, a floor-bound redhead, and a blonde laid out odalisque-style across a plinth. Unlike traditional sculpture they are not carved of stone or cast in bronze but instead cast in wax—the material traditionally used in the preparatory stages of bronze statuary made with the cire perdue or lost wax method. Despite the pliability of Fischer’s media, the waxen sculptures are solidly monumental, the women realized with dense and substantial lines. Fischer created the wax casts from polystyrene blocks that he carved, filed, sanded and grated to reveal his human forms; the solid planes and ungraded angles due to the happily accepted coincidences of wieldy saw strokes; at the same time, the stark cellulose structure of the Styrofoam sensuously gives way to the rhythmic finish of the wax.
In addition to the hand-painted wax, Fischer has inserted wicks throughout the sculptural bodies—at the back of both the seated women’s heads and in several locations over the course of the lounging blonde’s body. The wicks are meant to be lit on exhibition, thereby transforming the sculpture into a set of massive, human-scale candles. Due to the size of the wicks, they will stay aflame for a long period of time, slowly melting away the wax embodiment.
What If the Phone Rings presents a certain finality of entropic destruction (although after exhibition the edition may be recast and repainted). At the same time it materializes the time-based nature of performance art. The wax women are not simply monumental statuary but sculptures in continuous, albeit melting, flux. There is no final, finished version of the work as it is in constant disintegration.
Indeed, this uncertainty is echoed in the work’s title: the open-ended question of what should happen if the phone does ring. This quandary calls to mind the anxious women of Roy Lichtenstein’s classic Pop Art paintings, such as Blonde Waiting, 1964, where the protagonist lies across her bed, vigilantly watching a clock, in anticipation of her romantic interest, or Oh, Jeff...I Love You, Too...But..., 1964, in which a blonde clutches the phone to her ear in anxious response. Fischer suspends Lichtenstein’s snippets of Pop melodramas and then literally lights a match to them.
Yet What If the Phone Rings is not about an abjection of the female form but about materiality—in particular, Fischer evokes the materiality of painting. While the blonde odalisque ties into a long history of languorous nudes, the fractured, faceted forms of the three women together clearly evoke the planarity of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Moreover, as the exhibition progresses and the sculptures disintegrate like Chianti bottles dotting Italian restaurants, the colored waxes pool and undulate with the sensuality of heavily applied paint. The plastic puddles of swelling color evoke both the painterly plentitude of Lynda Benglis’ floor sculptures as well as the dancing skeins of Jackson Pollock’s classic drip paintings. The wax dripping down the nude bodies, obfuscating the female forms, conjures the violent brushwork of Willem de Kooning’s Woman, I, 1950-52; What If the Phone Rings both literalizes and mocks de Kooning’s famous adage that “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.”
At the same time that the present lot speaks to painterly concerns, it most readily embodies tropes from the history of sculpture. As the artist relayed in 2009, “Sculpture from 2,000 or 3,000 years ago or more has similar concerns as it does now” (U. Fischer, quoted by G. Brown, “Urs Fischer,” Interview, December-January 2009, pp. 186-91). Certainly the blonde woman prostrate on a plinth recalls Etruscan sarcophagi, and the totemic posture of the seated brunette brings to mind ancient Egyptian portraiture. Moreover, the static figures awaiting sculptural release at the strike of a match —heightened by the non finito details of the figures’ limbs—elicit association with Michelangelo’s incomplete slaves commissioned for the tomb of Pope Julius II, 1505. Michelangelo’s non finito slaves, with their tormented bodies struggling to emerge from their marble blocks, have become emblematic of the artistic practice of the sculptor.
Fischer’s mobilization of the material suggests yet another Italian master, Medardo Rosso. With his interest in the play of light, Rosso is often described as a sculptural Impressionist and is celebrated for his wax sculptures, which were cast not modeled. Like Michelangelo, Rosso employed the non finito to create the sensation of an arrested moment. He manipulated wax’s translucent properties to produce ghostly portrait busts. They are quiet and messy and haunting and suggest a direct lineage to Fischer’s wax figures. What If the Phone Rings heightens this sense of a transitory moment in its slow dematerialization from solid monumentality to liquescent dissolution.
In reviewing Fischer’s takeover of the New Museum critic Jerry Saltz wrote: “Fischer’s wizardly ability to present objects on the brink of falling apart, floating away or undergoing psychic transformation, and his forceful feel for chaos, carnality and materiality, make him, for me, one of the most imaginative powerhouses we have” (J. Salz, “A Whole New Museum: The Urs Fischer-izing of a four-story institution,” New York Magazine, November 2009, p. 74). What If the Phone Rings embodies this magic as a sculpture that elevates everyday materials and hauntingly disappears over time.
Wax sculpture has remained a constant interest for Fischer over the last 10 years. Perhaps due to the material’s ability to conjure time and the experiential, Fischer has returned to melting wax sculptures in different iterations. At the 54th Venice Biennale, Fischer presented a 20-foot tall waxen version of Giambologna’s 16th-century marble Rape of the Sabine Women, the melting wax highlighting the sculpture’s Mannerist lines.
That same year, Fischer turned the tables on himself: casting a life-size realistic self-portrait as candle. In his poignant self-portrait, the metamorphosis of form takes on a more macabre nature. Powerful and haunting, What If the Phone Rings is a seminal example of Fischer’s ongoing exploration of wax as a means to express time and experience in the supposedly stationary mode of sculpture.