VENICE, Italy—On the day before his exhibition was to preview at the Palazzo Grassi, Urs Fischer could be found elsewhere, in the courtyard of the Accademia delle Belle Arti. Surrounding him, dozens of students were working with clay on the cool pavement — music blasting, beer at hand, food on the way. While installers at the palazzo put the final touches on a survey of some 30 works dating from 1997 to 2012, Fischer was overseeing — not teaching, he hastened to make clear — the modeling of scores of cats, a subject he had recommended to the students because, he says, "cats are very simple, even when you don't know how to make anything." There were resting cats, mating cats, fighting cats, and cats-as-idols, along with a few mice, a freestanding erect finger, and one goofily earnest replica of the orthopedic boot that was stabilizing the recently broken leg of Caroline Bourgeois, the curator of Fischer's exhibition, who cheerfully navigated the Accademia courtyard in a wheelchair. Considering the patrician environment of Palazzo Grassi, you felt that Fischer was appreciating what he called the courtyard's "slight sense of anarchy" no less than the students were. Their unfired clay sculptures would remain in the courtyard, exposed to the elements, until they dissolved into pools of mud. A steady rain began that night.
Rain also marked Fischer's first appearance at Palazzo Grassi, back in 2006: 1,700 flame-red plaster drops, to be precise, in the work "Vintage Violence" (2004/2005). Strung on fishing line, the drops "poured" from the frescoed clouds above the grand stairway to the ground-floor atrium below. That was in the debut exhibition of art from the collection of François Pinault, who had acquired a controlling stake in the historic building in 2005. Fischer has been included in every subsequent presentation of the Pinault collection at Palazzo Grassi and now is the first living artist to be given a monographic show there (on view through July 15) in a new program for the venue announced by Martin Bethenod, the CEO and director of Palazzo Grassi / Punta Della Dogana, François Pinault Foundation: Solo loan shows (there are more than a dozen lenders this time, including Fischer himself) will alternate with thematic exhibitions drawn exclusively from the Pinault collection. A selection of films and videos is slated for later this year.
Fischer's name may conjure images of blasted walls and excavated floors, but for this occasion he and Bourgeois have developed a thoughtful show that downplays spectacle in favor of analysis and association. Jokes aren't ruled out: a shaggy, headless, mechanical dog called "Keep It Going Is a Private Thing" (2001), presents its tail-wagging butt to Jeff Koons's polished, smug-seeming "Balloon Dog," a Pinault trophy piece that is permanently installed just beyond the atrium. But this "overview," as Bourgeois calls it, of Fischer's work is intended to highlight recurring images (clouds, chairs, tools, body fragments) and means (mechanization, suspension, assemblage). It offers a reckoning, however provisional, of what has been consistent within the artist's mercurial practice.
Important here, too, is the theme of "the double." The exhibition is bracketed by two embodiments of the studio. In the atrium is the work from which the show takes its name, "Madame Fisscher" (1999-2000). (Say the title aloud and you'll hear the word "fissure.") It's a "reconstitution" of the young Fischer's cluttered, chaotic studio during a residency in London, complete with trash tossed out the window. In the long gallery that overlooks the atrium is "Necrophonia" (2011), a traditional atelier (made in collaboration with Georg Herold, Fischer's former professor) that features figurative bronzes on tall studio pedestals, a red chaise, a changing area, and — for the preview, at least — a nude model as required for a life study class. Elsewhere, a pair of giant bent screws are propped against the wall of a room from which can be seen, across the atrium, two works from a 2011 series of blow-ups of Hollywood-style headshots that have been overlaid with photographs of a bent screw. Twin casts of "abC" (2007), a sculpture of an ornamental little bird cruelly suspended from a heavy chain, hang dangerously low right where the bifurcated stairs arrive at the upper floor.
There is another doubling of sorts, in the form of a more modest Urs Fischer exhibition covering the period 1996-2011 that opened last February and runs through May 28 at Kunstalle Wien. Fischer is adamant that the Venice and Vienna shows are not retrospectives. Rather, he says, they represent "possible scenarios of how I work." Bourgeois concurs, emphasizing that process — even a near-compulsion to be making things — is the key to understanding both Fischer and the reason for naming the show after an incarnation of his studio. Interesting, then, to consider one last "doubling" in the Palazzo Grassi exhibition: a pair of candles that are just-over-life-size effigies of Fischer and his friend, the artist Rudolf Stingel. Both are seated. Fischer slumps slightly in his chair, gazing past the wax wine bottle on the table before him. He seems the very embodiment of the melancholic artist, neither productive nor antic, but saturnine and still. The candles have been lit and will burn down during the course of the exhibition, vanishing like the cats in the Accademia courtyard.
To see images from "Madame Fisscher" at Palazzo Grassi, click on the slide show.