Spoerri’s habitat: the subject of two recent European retrospectives, Daniel Spoerri has been making art from mealtime leftovers, flea-market finds and commercial transactions since the late 1950s

During his first visit to America in 1964, Daniel Spoerri, one of the most innovative European avant-garde artists to emerge in the 1960s, debuted at New York’s Allan Stone Gallery with an exhibition titled “31 Variations on a Meal.” In the gallery were assemblages utilizing the after-dinner leavings of art-world denizens Ray Johnson, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rosenblum, Marjorie Strider and Andy Warhol, among others. The following year, Spoerri returned and stayed at the Chelsea Hotel for several months. Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery sponsored a two-week show there of the disarray of the artist’s living quarters, dense with the tabletop still lifes that Stone hadn’t sold. These works consisted of actual mealtime leftovers or desktop objects glued to a surface and displayed as wall-mounted high reliefs. During the next three decades, Europe was Spoerri’s principal arena, and his work was seen infrequently in this country. (1) This means that we have some catching up to do with an artist whose inventive practices continue to inform art-making in countries around the world.

Spoerri began his visual-arts career in 1959 at age 30 (after spells as a ballet dancer, theater director and Concrete poet) by founding Editions MAT, a pioneering series of low-cost, editioned works of art by friends such as Marcel Duchamp, Dieter Roth, Jean Tinguely and Victor Vasarely. He was the first to apply the term “multiple” to such projects, which are today commonplace. Along with Tinguely, the Romanian-born, Swiss-reared Spoerri was a founding member of the assemblage-oriented Nouveaux Realistes group in 1960. He also participated in several Fluxus events and publications in the early ’60s.

Like the kindred Surrealists and Dadaists before him, Spoerri favored activities that enhanced the role of chance in his art works. This is particularly evident in the happenstance arrangements of his tabletop still lifes or “snare pictures,” as Spoerri calls them. Although they are his best-known works (examples can be found in most European modern-art museums), the “snare pictures” are only one aspect of “Eat Art,” the term Spoerri coined to encompass his diverse activities with food. For example, in 1961 he commandeered canned goods, signed and rubber stamped them with the phrase “Attention: Work of Art,” and sold them in a Copenhagen art gallery for their original grocery-store price.

Other Eat Art initiatives include cooking as performance; fashioning perishable, eatable art; writing a multicultural history of meatballs; orchestrating banquets and operating restaurants. The short-lived Restaurant de la Galerie J (1963) in Paris was his first such venture, employing art-world waiters such as critic Pierre Restany and poet/critic John Ashbery. His best-known establishment, the popular Restaurant Spoerri in Dusseldoff, opened in 1968 and featured guest chefs such as artists Joseph Beuys and Antoni Miralda. Two years later, he added an Eat Art Gallery on the floor above. In 1977, he, Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle, among others, set up a fetish museum and boutique in a Parisian kiosk where they displayed and sold items belonging to contemporary art personalities such as Christo, Cesar, Panamarenko and Meret Oppenheim. As a playfully entrepreneurial publisher, restaurateur and gallerist, Spoerri creatively exploited commercial transactions as a site for art.

Before 1997, when he settled near the Tuscan town of Seggiano, Spoerri lived a peripatetic existence, that took him to Bern, Paris, the Greek island of Simi, Dusseldorf, Brest, Munich and Vienna, as mood and opportunity dictated.

Although America has given Spoerri a tepid reception over the years, Europe has embraced its native son. Last summer, the five-year-old Museum Jean Tinguely in Basel presented an overview of his career. Unlike his good friend Tinguely, with whom he shared a passion for flea-market finds, Spoerri has not produced many grandly scaled works. As if to compensate for their absence in the exhibition proper, the artist installed a colossal “genetic chain” of found objects in the museum’s entry-level central hall. This narrow, 180-foot-long assembly of cast-offs included shoe trees, crockery, wheels, hand tools, hardware, animal horns and masks from various cultures, nestled one after the other.

“Daniel Spoerri: Metteur en scene d’objets,” as the retrospective was titled, spanned a 41-year period, encompassing art works as well as posters, invitations and vintage press notices documenting his ephemeral, performative acts. (By using the French term for theater or film director, “metteur en scene,” the exhibition’s title underlined the performative aspect of Spoerri’s oeuvre.) Non-German- and non-French-speaking visitors probably missed most of the ingenious, sometimes raunchy humor embedded in his mischievous puns, including the collaborative projects with the artist-poet Robert Filliou. A 1970 Eat Art poster in English, vividly embodied the idea of art as food, as well as recalling Spoerri’s Concrete poetry experiments of the 1950s. A lowercase “e” with voracious choppers bears down on the tip of a wedged-shaped “A” speared with a “T.” The edible conglomerate of the “A” and “T” forms an arrow pointing the way from the word “ART” to the proto-Pac-man mouth of the “e.”

Other choice selections of early Eat Art in the exhibition included sculptural concoctions of bread dough and everyday objects, such as Catalogue tabou (1961), a vertically hung tray of nine lumpy “pastries” studded with brushes, wrenches, corks and bottle caps that have risen to the surface during baking; or Mignon Typewriter (1969), a hilariously dough-bedeviled manual typewriter mounted on plywood. Because its baked configurations weren’t fully controlled here, the dough made an ideal material for Spoerri, a self-described “handyman to chance.” Framed news reports revealed that when other similar bread sculptures were attacked by rats in the basement storage vaults of Milan’s Galerie Schwarz in 1963, Spoerri obligingly acknowledged the animals as post-facto partners in art-making. For those snare pictures that were left open to the elements, as Spoerri intended (many museums and collectors have chosen to enclose their Spoerris in Plexiglas), time itself was another unwitting collaborator. The repellent changes wrought by age include a nauseating coat of dust and grime on the desiccated food leavings and cigarette butts.

A portion of these immortalized tabletops do not concern food. Eat Art avant la lettre (Eat Art Before Its Time), 1964, with its glass full of paintbrushes, highlights another of Spoerri’s enduring subjects, the paraphernalia of the artist. In Le Tiroir (The Drawer), 1960–a gravity-defying desktop with open drawer, tools, coffee pot and tinned milk–he used his legerdemain with a glue pot to transpose the plane of vision, challenging viewers to see these everyday objects afresh. Some of Spoerri’s favored images remind us of early works by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The Swiss artist’s Qui dort, dine (Whoever Sleeps, Eats), 1963, a large, horizontal composition of a cozy repast amid a pillow and blanket, brings to mind Rauschenberg’s 1955 combine painting Bed, which comprised the artist’s own paint-smeared bedding hung vertically on the wall.

Spoerri gave some of his most clever and unnerving interventions the name “detrompe-l’oeil,” suggesting their role in combating painted illusions. For example, in a found canvas showing two rats nibbling cheese, he artfully appended real rat tails that jut out uncannily beyond the frame; for another, the artist audaciously retro-fitted a baby portrait with a leather dog muzzle; and he amusingly augmented a kitsch rendering of an alpine stream with a metal hose and faucet. He borrowed the title of Duchamp’s infamously altered Mona Lisa for LHOOQ, a 1966 wall construction of gridded electrical hardware and what appeared to be a plaster cast of a woman’s naked derriere. Viewers could fondle the knob on a circular switch to flip on a red light. Although Spoerri has ceased making snare pictures, he continues to create detrompe-l’oeils and assemblages, many of which were included in the exhibition. Missing from the show, however, were the bronze casts of chance arrangements of objects that Spoerri began making in the 1980s.

After traversing seven galleries of various chronological and thematic groupings, visitors were lured forward to the eighth and final space by an aural trail of vintage jazz, blaring from a small radio. Like hip Hansels and Gretels, we arrived at a remarkable dwelling, namely Chambre No. 13, Hotel Carcassonne, a 1998 re-creation of the monastically sized sleep, work and storage space in which Spoerri lived between 1959 and 1964. The original one-room habitat was located in the garret of the Hotel Carcassonne, on rue Mouffetard in Paris’s Latin Quarter. Because the hotel’s present owner denied them access, fabricators worked from photos and from the artist’s recollections to approximate the experience of the actual room. The bed and washbasin, only a pace apart, were contemporary to the early ’60s, a conceptually rich, yet financially impoverished phase of Spoerri’s life. To the artist, who in recent conversations expresses no nostalgia about those years, the gestalt of Chambre No. 13 is the equivalent of a giant snare picture composed of his memories. Like his lodgings in the Chelsea Hotel, the Parisian version was an ongoing work of art–Spoerri periodically elbowed aside quotidian items to make room for new art works, some of which were barely distinguishable from the wine bottles, hot plates, china and silverware that crowded his shelves. Making a virtue out of necessity, he filled up the wall space, guided by a joyous horror vacui. The 1998 version is crammed with assemblages and objects in the spirit of the past. A table evokes the one on which Spoerri composed his celebrated book, An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, a compendium of associations inspired by the random assortment of such objects as matches, screws and plastic plugs, strewn across his work surface.

In 1999, Spoerri made a simplified bronze version of Chambre No. 13, which is installed on the grounds of Il Giardino, his sculpture park near Seggiano. Unlike the museum version, it has no ceiling. Visitors can enter through the door of this dreamlike room, peering out at the sky and trees as they make their way amid the eternalized appurtenances of art and daily life.

The esthetic issues that uniquely fascinated Daniel Spoerri four decades ago are today common currency. Artist multiples flourish; Keith Haring’s Pop Shop, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s cooking projects and Josiah McElheny’s glass still lifes of mealtime residues are but three instances of art seemingly infused by Spoerri’s spirit. One suspects that many younger artists are unaware that their work is preceded by his example. It’s time for American art institutions to wake up and smell Spoerri’s coffee.

(1.) Zabriskie Gallery in New York showed Spoerri’s recent assemblages in the early ’90s [see A.i.A., Mar. ’92]. In 2000, another New York Gallery, Emily Harvey, showed “Le Cabinet Anatomique,” a series of altered and augmented antique lithographs. The Guggenheim SoHo exhibited Spoerri’s installation Chambre No. 13 as part of “Premises: Invested Spaces in Visual Arts, Architecture, and Design from France, 1958-1998” in 1998-99 [see A.i.A., Mar. ’99].

COPYRIGHT 2002 Brant Publications, Inc.

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