Perched atop a tall crate, the hulking form of painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel looms over the viewer, broad-shouldered and clad in a navy blazer, white button down shirt, paint-stained white pants, and brown lace-up shoes. Swiss-born, New York-based artist Urs Fischer created a larger than life-sized wax replica of his friend replete with a wick at the top of the representation’s head, transforming the Schnabel’s form into a figurative candle. When the wick is lit, the sculpture becomes a durational performance: Slowly, over the course of weeks, the larger-than-lifesize Schnabel-shaped candle melts into long streaking drips of wax, ultimately liquefying into a pool. Upon doing so, a new cast of the figure is made, to be lit and melt again. For Fischer, the fire of the candle animates the wax, slowly heating it and allowing, in the artist’s own words the “materials and images to take on their own life” (Urs Fischer, Standing Julian, Whitney Museum of Art, via http://whitneymuseum.tumblr.com/post/143428833844/standing-julian-is-a-portrait-of-urs-fischers).
Since coming on the scene in the mid-1990s, Urs Fischer has trekked a steady pace towards art stardom by transforming the images and motifs of the traditional genres of painting—portrait, landscape, the nude figure study, and the still-life—into sculpture and introducing time as an element. Despite having such a focused conceptual approach, what is most interesting about Fischer’s work is the variety of forms the artist uses to translate this idea into reality. Rather than having a signature style, he chooses the materials most appropriate for the individual work itself, ultimately dissolving the conception of genre that he takes as his starting point. Nicholas Cullinan, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, describes the experience of walking through so many disparate forms in Fischer’s studio. Cullinan writes “To pin down what exactly an ‘Urs Fischer’ should look like would be an almost impossible task, beyond a few of his best-known series. Even as I walk around the studio, the array of works in progress and the different mediums and forms they adopt, all being made in tandem, resembles a group show more than the output of one particular artist at a certain moment. Similarly, trying to map a coherent list of influences or a lineage for Fischer’s work proves rather fruitless. On the one hand, the crispness of the Problem Paintings or the mirrored boxes Fischer emblazons with images of mundane objects animal, vegetable, and mineral—such as a calculator, a raw steak, and a cigarette lighter—would seem to nod respectively to the icon-obsessed silk-screen paintings of Warhol and to the contemporaneous phenomenological investigations of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s quaclri specchianti (mirror paintings) of the 1960s, which draw the viewer involuntarily into the composition, defying us to remain passive or apart. Equally, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, Fischer’s ongoing and much rougher series of sculptures of fragmented human forms, made variously in such materials as wax, bronze, polyurethane foam, and plaster-for instance, the juxtaposed orifices of mouth, ear, and anus in Untitled (Holes), 2006, and the grasping hands of The Grass Munchers, 2007,—have a clear sculptural lineage: Medardo Rosso’s human forms half-emerging from amorphous wax mounds; Bruce Nauman’s and Alina Szapocznikow’s sculptures of the fragmented body; contemporary figures such as Robert Gober” (N. Cullinan, “Urs Fischer’s Objects and Images,” Parkett, July 1, 2014, pp. 57-59).
Fischer often introduces the medium of time by incorporating materials that have expiration dates, like food, or in the case of Julian, fire that slowly transforms and melts the wax. The candle has been a frequent motif in still-life painting since the seventeenth century when painters across Europe incorporated the theme as a means of warning about overindulgence, decadence and a life that strayed from the doctrine of the church in vanitas and memento mori paintings. Fischer also taps into another death-themed practice from the same time period: the use of wax to make death masks, sculptural portraits or full-sized effigies of the recently deceased that would be paraded as part of a funerary procession. Madame Tussaud’s wax figurines are a direct descendant of this practice. Cullinan connects Fischer’s waxworks to one more art historical source when he write, “Like Fischer’s transient works in this medium, waxworks are doppelgangers: They are in lieu of something or someone and remind you of an absence; they are doubles and placeholders for people and things departed. The sculptural processes that Fischer adopts, which tend to privilege or at least foreground casts, also recall some of the developments in shaping the human form that ran parallel to sculpture. One of these is the death mask, a wax or plaster cast made to record a person’s features shortly after death as a record of his or her physiognomy. Another is the plaster-casting technique developed by nineteenth-century Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli. During his excavations at Pompeii, Fiorelli used plaster of Paris to fill the cavities left by the bodies of the volcano’s victims in the volcanic ash and lava, producing casts of the corpses that turned a void in to a mass. The result was an uncannily evocative record of people at the moment of death” (Ibid., p. 59). Fischer’s Julian lies directly in the middle of all of three of these traditions—the candle motif in still-life painting, wax effigies for funerary purposes, and the wax model of the celebrity, and archeological document.
Julian is not alone in Fischer’s repertoire of working with wax. The sitting Schnabel finds a companion in Standing Julian, made in the same year and in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Italian-born, New York-based artist, Rudolf Stingel and British artist Adam McEwen have both been the subjects of Fischer’s wax portraits. For his contribution to the 2011 Venice Biennale, Fischer created a one-to-one replica of sixteenth-century Flemish-Italian sculptor Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women from 1574-1582. As the wax cast of the mannerist marble masterpiece, characterized by a sinuous s-curve of bodies contorting around each other, melted over the course of months, limbs slowly fell off around the central composition. A solitary wax figure of the artist Rudolf Stingel, who like Standing Julian dripped wax into a puddle around his feet in a performance of entropy, watched the scene next to an office chair, that had also been transformed into a candle. Together, with his own wax self-portraits, these works form the meditations of an artist constantly grappling with the consequences of death and history.