Bizarre Love Triangle(?): Urs Fischer at JTT
Picture this: A highly in-demand blue-chip artist inclined toward maximalism announces an exhibition of new work in a New York gallery––only it's not the powerhouse mega-gallery that has helped propel him to international art-industry stardom. Instead, it's a single critically respected yet micro-sized space on the Lower East Side. Even stranger, the show becomes only the most recent in a series of occasional one-offs that the artist has done with other for-profit galleries right in his main representation's backyard––all with no apparent pushback whatsoever.
From a business standpoint, what the hell is going on here?
I'm glad I led you into asking that question. Because this exact scenario is playing out right now via Gagosian all-star Urs Fischer and his just-announced exhibition at JTT, which follows in the tradition of other one-and-done dalliances with his former gallerist Gavin Brown.
Titled "Ursula," the new show will consist of a single sculpture modeled after Aristide Maillol's classical bronze "La Rivière." The catch is that Fischer's piece will be made out of plasticine, a material described by JTT founder Jasmin Tsou as "super-soft" and "similar to Play-Doh," so that visitors (per Fischer's wishes) can alter the work as they please throughout the exhibition's run.
Intriguing as "Ursula" may be from an aesthetic standpoint, I'm even more interested in how it came together from a commercial standpoint. To be clear, I have no inside information about the machinations behind the show. And I suspect that, if I tried to find out, my efforts would meet with as much success as an ex-convict's application to the Secret Service. But despite the oddity on first glance, it doesn't take much for me to break this bizarre love triangle into a set of extremely logical incentives for all parties involved.
Let's address Fischer first. I expect that "Ursula" owes to some amount of genuine inspiration linked to the venue. Artists tend to get legitimately excited about the prospect of creating for new spaces and with new collaborators. It's an underrated reason that gallerists now feel the need to regularly remodel or expand their real estate: They don't want their most valued talent to get bored and start looking elsewhere.
That said, considering the concept of "Ursula" itself, it's appropriate that Fischer would also use the exhibition to manipulate another public image: his own. By showing with a small critical darling like JTT, he gets to project to the industry that he's a rebellious free-thinker unwilling to submit to the bourgeois expectations of the high-end gallery sector. He does what he wants, when he wants, where he wants, as his muse wills it. Rather than an expensive tool of the system, he is a True Artist. And reinforcing that perception has real value in the industry. (For another example, see Oscar Murillo's recent "anti-colonial" passport tantrum.)
At the same time, Fischer's "rogue" show at JTT also represents a small but deft ploy to keep his career firmly in Larry Gagosian's foreground. Similar to what I wrote about fellow Gagosian roster-member Richard Serra's one-off exhibition with David Zwirner in 2014, "Ursula" creates just enough of a scene to remind Fischer's primary dealer not to take him for granted. It's the equivalent of flirting with a seductive stranger right in front of your significant other, simply to remind them that you have options.
However, that tactic is only marginally effective here, and the reason why leads into Gagosian's incentives for allowing the JTT exhibition to happen. The reality is that it would be proof of dementia if Fischer were to actually leave a sector-leading mega-gallery for a small LES space––as crazy as if Jay Z were to actually leave Beyoncé for Becky with the good hair. More importantly, both sides know it. Therefore, Gagosian can happily let the show go.
In fact, he can even build off of it. Fischer's allegedly independent-minded branding exercise helps Gagosian just as much as it helps Fischer, since both parties are ultimately selling his work based on the same narrative. Furthermore, Gagosian can actually use the "Ursula" sculpture itself as proof of concept for a new body of work, upcoming entries of which he can immediately begin selling to his own collectors. Even better, Gagosian gets to do so without paying any of the associated costs of mounting the JTT exhibition. "Ursula" literally represents free money to him.
I'll even go one step further: Because of the built-in future earnings potential, part of me suspects that "Ursula" is already sold to one of Gagosian's clients. Fischer might then be subsidizing JTT's overhead for the show using part of the proceeds, while Tsou pays the rest in exchange for the permanent surge in prestige that her gallery will enjoy for having done a project with an artist of Fischer's caliber. That alone would be worth the price of exhibiting and marketing a not-for-sale work.
Put it all together, and as antagonistic as "Ursula" looks on the surface, it's not hard to see how everybody involved could get what they want out of the show. As with so much else in the industry, all it takes is a little molding and shaping behind the scenes.