Were someone to write a history of collective art practice from the past few decades, the artist duo Fischli/Weiss, which consisted of Peter Fischli and David Weiss, would certainly deserve an entire chapter. The death of the latter in 2012 brought their 30-year collaboration to an end. In the months preceding his death, Weiss revisited his early solo efforts from the years 1968 to ’79, and began to prepare it for publication in a series of artist books. At the time of their making the works was known to only a few and disappeared into the archives in 1981 – the year in which Weiss and Fischli exhibited individually at the Kunstmuseum Winterhur for the last time before beginning their collaboration.
In conjunction with a posthumous publication by Edition Patrick Frey entitled Nine Books 1973–1979, the Kunstmuseum Chur, under the direction of Stephan Kunz, has devoted a poignant exhibition to Weiss’ graphic work from this period. The circular upper floor of the Villa Planta – the historic 19th century building that houses the museum – and the other, rather small exhibition rooms offer an intimate setting for Weiss’ small-scale drawing series and artist books, which are presented hanging in frames or within glass vitrines.
The exhibition offers an introduction to Weiss’ graphic system which is characterized by its variety and its humour as well as existential moments. Impermanence is a major theme in Weiss’ early work. The universality of the theme, and its visual translation into a drawing style that’s often figurative and comic-book-like, not only gives the work a certain ahistoricity but also detaches it from Weiss’ hometown of Zurich, which was hardly the arts capital then that it is today, and was primarily known for its ‘Zurich Concrete school’.
In his ‘Regenbüchlein’ (up and down town), an 80-page work published in 1975, torrents of rain flood a large city. In Weiss’ particular drawing style, the rain runs across the pages at sharp angles in thousands of strokes of ink, comic book-style. It was this manic propulsion to his work that earned Weiss, then 29 years old, an almost cult-like following and a growing reputation. A drawing from the same year (Untitled, 1975) shows two masculine figures with oversized and dripping noses strolling through a sad cityscape lamenting that their ‘noses are full of drugs’. This joke, delivered both by the image and the accompanying text, goes down just as well today as it did in the 1970s.
Weiss’ drawings trade in moods, but they never slip into a mere diary-style account of the artist’s mental state; Weiss deploys his stylistic devices with enough conceptual rigour to avoid that trap. Motifs and themes vary often and assume increasingly precise formulations – like in the publication Wandlungen (Transformations) from 1976, in which various figurations undergo a continuous metamorphosis. This strategy of unrelenting perpetuation could be read as a longing for the depletion of meaning and even viewed, perhaps, as a prophetic commentary on the flood of images that defined the end of the 20th century and, with increasing measure, the beginning of the 21st.
All of these themes would resurface in the works of Fischli/Weiss, in one form or another. Looking at Weiss’ drawings, it’s tempting to draw connections between them and the later work of the duo. But from an art historical perspective, it would be wrong to assign such linearity to the work. Weiss’ graphic pieces are too multi-faceted and systematic for such a reductive interpretation – this much is made clear by this exhibition, which serves as a reintroduction to Weiss as a solo artist. Accessible once more, his work can now be shown and studied in its own right. Hopefully it will have a chance to venture out from its original national context as well – rain falls everywhere, after all.
Translated by Jesse Coburn