Urs Fischer, “Big Clay #4 (2013-2014), cast aluminum, 511 3/4 x 330 3/4 x 204 3/4 inches (© Urs Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Tom Powel)

Looming over the pedestrians of midtown Manhattan is a monumental new work, “Big Clay #4” (2013–14) made by the Swiss artist Urs Fischer (b.1973). “Big Clay #4” derives from a rather ordinary hunk of clay. Presumably the artist took about five clumps and squooshed ‘em together into a crooked pile — something like an unmanageable bacon cheeseburger. The procedure seems to have been perfunctory, unlike the highly skilled labor that went into transforming the unimpressive clay mound into a whopping 43-foot, freestanding mass of aluminum.

The work’s metallic surface reveals the artist’s magnified palm creases and fingerprints, which at such an enlarged scale become reminiscent of the 1976 blockbuster King Kong.

Encountering the work, one intuitively knows not to advance further, but rather to back away — so to frame it within the dressy vertical contours of Mies van der Rohe’s modernist skyscraper, the Seagram Building, as well as the building’s dynamic plaza (at Park Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets), one of our city’s most prestigious and highly visible sites for public art.

Seagram Plaza has hosted many thrilling works over the years, by greatly accomplished artists, but Mr. van der Rohe originally had Alexander Calder in mind as a permanent fixture. And while various Calders have temporarily occupied the space over the years, it is the architect’s companion building in Chicago, the Kluczynski Federal Building — laying claim to Calder’s blazing orange 40-foot “Flamingo” — that epitomizes the zeitgeist of the big-city romance between architect and sculptor.

“Big Clay #4” contrasts nicely with the architecture, and its scale works well in this outdoor context, but it’s hard to say if the sculpture and architect are hitting it off or not. What seems inevitable, however, is that the average pedestrian encountering the work will return to his/her desk after lunch distracted by a daydream of ripping into a block of clay and feeling the moist, malleable substance squish through his/her fingers. On a subconscious level, one could find oneself aroused by the tactility of Fischer’s squashed clay, or by the work’s inchoate anthropomorphic protrusions and cavities (one might even spend the afternoon google-searching that famous scene at the pottery wheel from Ghost).

In 1951, Marcel Duchamp created “Female Fig Leaf,” a delightfully perverse bronze cast of someone’s vagina. In the small body-pressed sculpture, we are drawn to a ridge that protrudes in place of the female’s ordinary concavity. This work at least partially illustrates what Duchamp meant when he said that “art should grasp the mind the way the vagina grasps the penis.” Could it be that Fischer is teasing us in a similar game of innuendo, allowing us to use our own minds (our own psychology) to grasp the clay and customize its form?

Despite “Big Clay #4’s” presence, its gargantuan hunk seems far too cynical to tease our minds. Urs Fischer, as we all know, has made it big. And now he can literally have it made — as big as he damn well pleases! And to me, his latest gesture confesses: look how easy this is. I can take any lame thing, have it supersized and fed through the art world alchemy machine until it comes back as a staggering set of numbers in my Swiss bank account.

And with the nonchalance of this Zurich-born international artstar, the work can’t help but seem like an anachronism, conceived to bask in cocky irony while claiming the place once held by Pop Art from the late ‘60s (like a Roy Lichstenstein “Brushstroke”). And while the work certainly attracts attention and warrants a critical response, it could also be dismissed as yet another ultra-cool one-liner in a tired genre that was launched with such earnestness by Claes Oldenburg’s conspicuously cheesy “Floor Cone” or “Floor Burger (Giant Hamburger) from 1962. Today one need only ask: what mundane object hasn’t been blown up to the size of a 4-story building?

You might say, Urs is sitting far too pretty to concern himself with the actual premise of this work.  Stillborn in aluminum, there is no perceivable struggle taking place in the work’s initial medium. Compare “Big Clay #4” to any of the remarkably libidinal, angst-ridden clay-to-bronze figures by Willem DeKooning. Or to Robert Rauschenberg’s fabulous “Mud Muse” (1969–71), which consists of a king-size aluminum frame filled with Bentonite that oozes, plops, bubbles and slaps in accordance with sound waves. Or, if you want to feel some clay, compare Fischer’s ironic one-liner to “Challenging Mud,” the Gutai performance from 1955 in which a nearly naked Shiraga Kazuo thrashes his body for hours in a thick ground zero of clay (or mud).

Urs’s big pile of clay is not clawed at or “pushed” as they say, with too much intensity; on the contrary, he seems to have allowed this giant monument to simply ease on out. It is something like bodily waste. And when it comes to defecation, effort can only get in the way, which explains the difficulty of being potty-trained. We all have to learn to let go — to let gravity do the work for us, to un-grip the metaphorical “clay.” Thus, by potty training standards, Urs’s Big-whatever might be seen as a real accomplishment.

Urs Fischer, “Big Clay #4 (2013-2014), cast aluminum, 511 3/4 x 330 3/4 x 204 3/4 inches (© Urs Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Tom Powel)

But all sarcasm aside, I do read a deeper pathos in the work which I find very interesting. Could it be that Fischer is referring to a different kind of waste, the wasting of an opportunity — the opportunity, that is, to sculpt, to apply oneself, to use one’s imagination. I see the work as a metaphor for the uninspired artist who has all the resources one could ever want at his fingertips, but has no hunger. At this scale, and financial output, one might call such a waste a tragedy.

Compare “Big Clay #4” to Fischer’s highly productive and even democratic (while equally cynical) 2013 show in LA’s Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, where over a thousand museum-goers were invited to enter the gallery and sculpt-away with Urs’s clay. After a few weeks, the room was packed with a motley array of anonymous, dried-up clay objects (skulls, pretzels, iPhones, a tombstone, a bowl of soup, life-size humans). Despite the energy and creativity of the mob, Fischer seems to have balked, for the spectacle was actually derivative of fellow Zurich artists Fischli and Weiss, who have exhibited similar unfired and uninspired clay doodles since the early 80s, but with tremendous originality.

Big Clay is actually Urs Fischer’s second appearance at the Seagram Plaza. Back in 2011, he installed a 20-ton tattered teddy bear/desk lamp, another upscale piece of kitsch in Condo-ville. Apparently that same year, a painted bronze bear from the same series was auctioned off by Christie’s for just under $7 million. Nice. My impression is that, back in 2011, Urs Fischer was taking his brand of intentionally derivative art into the same arena as Jeffrey Koons and Paul McCarthy, both of whom walk the line between inflated crap (overpriced merchandize) and literally inflated crap (balloon-shaped poopy). In 2007, McCarthy created a fabulously menacing work called “Complex Pile, Shit Pile” a series of gargantuan Macy’s-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-ish, inflatable bowel movements. And Koons recently unveiled a deeply pathological, 10-foot-tall painted aluminum mound entitled “Play-doh,” which poses as a pile of colorful (edible) children’s clay. I read the work, and its clever title, as a pun, referring to the class of people who like to play with their dough. Could it be that Urs is in competition with Koons and McCarthy to see who can drop the largest, most expensive turd in the art casino? Where it will be purchased by the most reckless gambler at the poker table? If so, isn’t this pooping contest, actually more of a classic pissing contest?

Wikipedia defines a “pissing contest” in the following paragraph:

[…] a game in which participants compete to see who can urinate the highest, the farthest, or the most accurately. […] Since the 1940s the term has been used as a slang idiomatic phrase describing contests that are futile or purposeless, especially if waged in a conspicuously aggressive manner. As a metaphor it is used figuratively to characterize ego-driven battling in a pejorative or facetious manner that is often considered vulgar.

In 2007, Urs seemed to be lifting his leg and marking a different arena with his cunningly derivative art (or shocking acts of plagiarism, depending on how you see it), when he completed his quasi-earthwork/re-deconstruction “You.” Using a jackhammer to break through a concrete floor and a backhoe to excavate tons of cubic NYC property (clay, I presume), Urs transformed Gavin Brown’s Enterprise into an indoor crater—an obvious “cover,” if you will, of Chris Burden’s seminal 1986 installation at MOCA’s Temporary Contemporary entitled: “Exposing the Foundation of the Museum.”

Returning to “Big Clay #4,” imagine if Urs’s work had had slightly different parameters. What if he had un-gripped his five-pound hunk of clay in the middle of the plaza, forgoing the urge to go gigantic. There, dwarfed by pedestrians, would stand a pretty modest offering. Who knows how many people would have stood in line all day to have their way with it. But such a small work would have been an enormous risk — that of not making a splash, and not being noticed (i.e., see Valie Export lying in the street c. 1970). But there would have been an even bigger risk: failure to mint.

Urs Fischer: Big Clay #4is on view at the Seagram Building (375 Park Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 1.

Jeremy Sigler is a poet and critic living in Brooklyn, New York and Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. His recent book Goodbye Letter was published by Hunters Point Press.

16 replies on “Urs Fischer’s “Big Clay #4”: The Most Expensive Turd in the Art Casino?”

  1. Worse than the references to feces, the predictability of which Fischer has obviously calculated, is Big Clay’s effect on the modestly informed sector of the public that will see this “art” during their lunch hour. The elegance of the space Mies left the city as a gift—a gift that has grown to the status of municipal treasure for its rarity—bestows on such a cynical and lazy effort just enough credibility to convince people who see it that it is a serious work of art. It gets one nowhere to accuse Fischer of being disingenuous. To do so is to fall into the trap set for “philistines” who “don’t get it”. Besides, he is not alone in this enterprise. It takes a team to produce a joke this big. I suggest instead that we allow ourselves the critical chutzpah to state clearly and unequivocally that Big Clay #4 IS NOT ART. It does not qualify as thoughtful sculpture. It does not qualify as meaningful beyond an expression of its perpetrator’s arrogance. Are we going to continue allowing idiots with too much money to define culture?

    1. Clay is great. Clay is a fundamentally sculptural material. Its the definition of work that concerns me. Sculpture implies a convergence of significant thought, feeling and tactile experience. Two out of those three are missing in Big Clay, and the only way I can see defeating such mindless art market manipulation is to call it out for what it is not. It is many things, but I see no art in it—if the word art has any meaning. There is more art in a Rodin figure’s ankle or one of Puryear’s knots than Fischer’s advertisement for advanced digital fabrication. I’ll admit what I’m arguing for is a more humorless approach to the problem of profoundly shallow art. I do so because I don’t think making fun of it helps. It only plays into their strategy.

  2. It’s a rather striking sculpture in my opinion, and I much prefer Fischer’s (or McCarthy’s) work to Cristo’s bombastic environmental hazards, for example.

  3. Thank you Jeremy Sigler for this thoughtful critique. A dizzy dilemma for the reader when the writing is more compelling than the subject…

  4. Huge squishy giant blobs, amazingly balanced, amazingly produced, with no specific use, poised near a huge contrasting modern office building. Somehow I like staring at it, even only a photo of it. It puts me in a special place.
    Does it get to be art for this. Did a real person make this thing happen.. Then I think there is an artist present here.
    Is the artist innocent or guilty. Did he make art, or just a big pile of crap….I just can’t call it crap. So, let’s call it Art.

    1. Innocence or guilt are terms related to motivation. I’m interested in results. When I suggested denying its status as art, I expected others to disagree. I have no issue with someone else finding the piece interesting for one reason or another. What I am trying to do—and perhaps its working—is to introduce into the critical conversation the notion that a critic can, without breaking some unspoken taboo, assert that a particular piece does not deserve the title art. I do this because if we don’t allow that commentary to develop, we’ll never get closer to a consensus on what is art and what is not art. I respect the comments you make about its contrast to the building. “Let’s call it art” is what I object to. Lets not. Let’s discuss it, leaving the option to question its validity. Assuming as a principle that anything presented as art is in fact worthy of the title, because it is just easier to do so, is unintentionally dogmatic. And that dogmatism, voluntarily accepted by all of us at one time or another since the apotheosis of Marcel Duchamp, has opened the visual art field to a great deal of nonsense. That the piece is “amazingly produced” is certainly true. But I suggest that if we believe art is more than visual entertainment or eye candy, we must look beyond the magic money and technology can produce. Otherwise, art, the idea of art, will become the property of those who have unlimited financial means—not those with actual talent who often struggle in obscurity to the detriment of our collective cultural life. Fischer has the right to do whatever he and his backers wish to do. He does not have the right to expect us to go along with it out of some misguided notion of courtesy.

  5. Peter. Is there any part of Fisher’s process that you are willing to describe as artistic or artful. How about when he was personally squishing these obviously hand squeezed clay shapes and then had the idea of stacking them up balanced. They certainly wouldn’t balance on their own. There would also be a problem of them squishing under their own weight to deal with. Then there is his basic urge to take this vulnerable thing that he made and elevate it from its flimsy, abject state and breathe into it the life of a big, strong monument. Does that merit some artful intention. Some Humanity.
    I’m trying to cut Urs Fischer some slack here with you.
    Would you be more accepting of the piece if he had humbly photo shopped his little pile in front of an office tower for you to see,
    An by the way, he may very well have that to show already.

  6. I’m viewing Mr. Fischer’s “turd” in a slightly different manner. If we can leave traditional, academic standards behind for a moment and, instead, view “Big Clay #4” in purely formal, structural terms, it’s a pretty freakin’ AWESOME object! Any working sculptor would acknowledge that the form — rising from its tiny foot and twisting up through space, first feinting to the left, then cantilevering back to the right before billowing up four stories above the plaza — is one kick-ass feat of artistic/structural bravado. It’s hard, on ANY scale, to achieve that kind of precarious balance and sense of arrested power. And the fact that it was built at considerable expense in no way diminishes its wonder for me. I’d compare it to Rodin’s “Balzac”, both for its majesty of form and for the way it has stirred up the objections of the more tradition-bound critics of its era.

    1. David, Ken,
      Choosing the word turd implies that the artist chose an inappropriate shape. I wrote at the beginning that I thought making jokes like that distracts from the real issue. I see no intent in the shape at all, other than a perfunctory wish to give it an anthropomorphic verticality. It reads like a pile of lumps, with just enough lumps to make a pile. It declares itself a careless gesture in mock imitation of an “abstract” sculpture. As to the feat of recreating it in the scale that stands on Park Avenue, that is a technical and engineering problem that was most likely solved by specialists, not the artist. As far as the artist’s sense of balance, to get the original hand-sized lumps to stand upright simply takes a rod anchored to a solid base that runs up though the clay. There is no balance to contend with. When a sculpture like this is scaled up and cast from molds, it is made hollow. Making it hollow (as the ancients understood) allows counter balancing weights to be placed at strategic points inside the piece. Or more likely, an interior structure that is then anchored to a heavy base that in this case is hidden in the plinth covered with slabs of stone similar to the stones of the plaza. And most of this remains true even if some advanced digital printing was involved.

      Yes, it is awesome. And technically it is very well done. Kudos to the fabricators. Regarding its size, it is awesome the same way a cement truck is awesome. Regarding its shape, the cement truck is more interesting. Rodin’s Balzac is certainly understated. But it not only delivers a genuinely heroic feeling, it admits to the artist’s intention to do so.

      1. Peter, Ken,
        Of course, a good structural engineer can sometimes compensate for an artist’s oversights, but I think the piece, on purely visual & aesthetic terms, works SPECTACULARLY. Independently, each of those blob/units threaten to topple in one direction or another, but because of the counter-balancing effect of the OTHER blobs, they achieve a precarious and titillating equilibrium and that’s solely the work of the artist, not his collaborators. If I saw a cement truck thrusting its entire mass up, vertically into the air, while balancing on ONE TIRE, then I’d say, yes, that’s equally interesting. To paraphrase the great blues singer, Big Joe Turner: “If this ain’t (art), it’ll have to do, until the real thing comes along!” Then there’s the question of Fischer’s sincerity. I don’t know of any artist who would dare exhibit anything other than their very best work (of course, “very best” being purely subjective) and I’m certain Mr. Fischer is no different. Otherwise, why bother?

        1. You make a few good points. And ultimately, if something about a piece excites a viewer, even after they’ve read comments from some crank that thinks it isn’t even art, then there must be some small value to it. As an artist first and critic second I believe a younger artist may see the piece, react to it as you have done, then go back to the studio and make something better. Art has both personal and public aspects. And if my comments resonate as a small voice in the back of that young artist’s mind while they’re working, then my criticism has been purposeful. Have a great weekend.

  7. Another thing I’ve come to appreciate about “Big Clay #4” is
    that it’s a gigantic and fabulously-expensive monument to brevity &
    spontaneity. Wow! Joy and irony in the same piece!

  8. It’s funny, I’m not even close to a fan of contemporary art but I encountered this sculpture last night, a foggy misty New York night. I was absolutely blown away. Maybe it’s because I work with clay myself, but I responded so strongly to this amazing piece of work. The scale of it alone and what it must’ve taken to fabricate in and of itself is a staggering accomplishment. I get the whole “my 5 year old coulda done that” attitude but I really think you’re missing the point. This is an amazing piece of work and I would challenge someone to stand in its shadow and not feel a sense of awe and wonder. Especially on a misty night. While high.

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