curated with Wyatt Kahn
June 7 - July 22, 2019
Opening Thursday, June 6 18 - 20h
Zurich Art Weekend Hours
Friday June 7, 14:00 – 18:00
Saturday June 8, 10:00 – 18:00
Sunday June 9, 10:00 – 18:00
Curator walk-through Saturday, June 8 11 - 12h
Tony Feher was one of the most rigorous and innovative sculptors of the past three decades. From his emergence in the late 1980s to his death of AIDS related illnesses in 2016 he manipulated the detritus of the human landscape, constructing sculptures that maintained an intrinsic poetry as they dealt directly with an everyday minimalism of shape, color and form. Grand in their visual and conceptual generosity and humble in scale, the works on view at Plymouth Rock, only his second one-man exhibition outside the USA and the first since 2004, are iconic of Feher’s vocabulary of the commonplace: varying tones of plastic bottle caps, glass marbles, plastic strapping, spare change and empty jars. All is set as is or placed on or within the other, appearing effortless in the way the recycled objects are forced to reveal an intrinsic beauty, logic and harmonic architecture.
The exhibition is co-curated with the artist Wyatt Kahn. Kahn worked for Feher from 2010-2012 and Feher became both a mentor and close friend of Kahn’s up until his death. In the late summer last year, Kahn was at an opening at Plymouth Rock where Feher’s work was brought up as a desired exhibition for Plymouth Rock. Kahn interrupted, explained his relationship and asked if he could help.
Tony Feher was born in New Mexico in 1956; graduated from the University of Texas, Austin in 1978 and lived and worked during his entire career in New York City. His work is part of the collection of nearly every major American museum.
This is the first solo exhibition of Feher’s work in Switzerland, only the second solo exhibition in Europe and the first solo exhibition outside of the USA since 2004.
CONVERSATION re: TONY FEHER (Mitchell Anderson and Wyatt Kahn)
Last summer, when Wyatt Kahn casually mentioned that he had spent a few years as the studio assistant of Tony Feher, I was a bit awestruck. Here was a close friend of mine who, unbeknownst to me, had actively worked along someone infinitely important to my own artistic practice. Feher is an artist whose work has never had a real exposure in Switzerland or Europe and is unknown to everyone I have spent my life around for the past decade. With this exhibition I attempt to correct this in the small way that Plymouth Rock allows me. In the following conversation Kahn and I use our personal connections to Feher and his work as a lens through which to discuss the pieces, their place within a recent art history and the ongoing influence of an artist I am deeply honored to be able to present in Zurich. - MA
Mitchell Anderson: When did you first see Tony’s work?
Wyatt Kahn: I think the first time I saw Tony’s work was at his studio. I guess I had seen those big table tops arranged with objects on them before that. A grid of objects. But, I wouldn’t have been able to put the name with the work. About a decade ago I was asked if I wanted a small job moving some things in the studio of someone’s boyfriend. That boyfriend was Tony, so I ended up going to the studio and putting it all together.
Anderson: So, before you worked with him as his assistant you worked with him on a casual basis?
Kahn: It was like a single day and then Tony asked if I was free to work on the following Monday because he had some other things and that became me working at Tony’s three to five days a week for two and half years. It didn’t stop. That day after we unloaded the truck I was with Tony for two and a half years at least one or two days every week.
Anderson: What kind of work did you do with Tony? When I look at his sculptural practice I’m not sure that I would know what he would require a studio assistant for?
Kahn: Tony went on a lot of trips. He did a lot of residencies, but he also liked going on group trips to places like Kazakhstan. Vacations. Polly Apfelbaum or Zoe Leonard, a curator or two, Dan Cameron, I don’t know all the names of who were involved in this group on the trips. Tony would pack very light on the way there, maybe one rolling suitcase. When he was there he would collect things on the street and in stores and, then, he would have ten suitcases coming back to the studio, like the largest size you can imagine. So I would organize it. Because what he would do if he made a baby jar piece with a marble and it broke he would send the collector a new baby jar or go and fix the baby jar, so he had extras of all of these things. This one Dr. Pepper soda bottle cap, which he used and it was one of his favorites and they put them out of production and he went to every store and bought hundreds of Dr. Peppers so he would have a backstock of that bottle cap and when that ended he would have to go search in other states, finding the materials as all artists do. Tony was an obsessive collector of things, he had many pairs of Prada shoes he never wore, egg shells from what he ate. He would always say “It’s clean”, he didn’t like being called dirty, dusty or messy and he insisted that stacks of things were clean, which they were, but he had a lot of stuff.
Anderson: When Feher went on these trips was he concerned with where things came from, or was everything kind of equal when it came back to the studio?
Kahn: He knew where everything came from. I think there was a leveling, I don’t think he put more weight into certain originations. He definitely did not. He viewed the gum wrapper he found on the street equal to the rug he bought, or the object he got in Morocco.
Anderson: Right, so it all became a construction, a color or a form when it would enter into the studio and his practice.
Kahn: It’s hard to speak for him, but what I saw it all became material.
Anderson: How did he talk about his materials? Was it clinical? You mentioned the Dr. Pepper bottle cap…
Kahn: He would be self deprecating, but defensive. He would, in some ways, mock the ridiculousness of his sculpture, but on the other hand he was very stern that this was the same as any other artist with their work. He would mock it, but defend his practice, rightly so. He would find importance in the object the same way, say, a painter would find Prussian blue pigment important.
Anderson: Did he speak about how he would form constructions, were you there, did you see these moments?
Kahn: Tony rarely made art in front of me. I would get to his apartment in Alphabet City in the morning and whenever I would come his neighbor would come over and say hi, she maybe had some things for Tony. She would put bottle caps aside for him. Tony loved to tell the story that she had heard he was an artist and had seen some of the work, so now she saved stuff for him and Tony didn’t tell her it wasn’t even stuff he wanted, he took it because he knew it was important to be gracious and he always reminded me of that. Then we would drive up to the studio in the Bronx and maybe stop at the Home Depot along the way. Going to the Home Depot with Tony was a unique experience because he would examine every object he bought, whether it was glue or screws or ribbon or just a broom for the studio - he would look at it with the same wonder and amazement and curiosity and questioning of form. If we were in the city we would always have lunch at Lucien, or we would go to the same place in the Bronx, which he would always complain about because the waitress told him once mushrooms were not healthy and he said mushrooms were the most healthy, so he would always order a side of mushrooms to remind her. Then we would be at the studio, but it would mostly be organizing thoughts, answering emails, moving stuff around. When I came back the next day there might be nothing different, or there might be ten objects that had changed dramatically.
Anderson: My entrance to the work comes from working at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. The year before I arrived he had done two major temporary installations. There was this ongoing feeling that this had been a major event and he had been an important presence for the town. So, I enter this through the legacy of 1960s minimalism, and I only met him once and of course fumbled the chance to discuss this, but did he ever mention those kind of references to you?
Kahn: He talked about minimalism generally. He tended not to talk about the meaning of his work, or where it came from, with me. I would hear him talk about it with other people. He spoke about minimalism, but also how he could continue that language while using this different vocabulary which, maybe, he thought was more engaged to his moment and where he came from.
Anderson: There is no doubt that he redefines the idea of an economy of means. I don’t think the work is about recycling, but it is recycled. That transforms the idea of making work with form, with color, in a constructed way, dramatically.
Kahn: He also liked the limitations, there was a certain limitation with using objects that were found, or store bought, but industrial.
Anderson: Feher’s commitment to a smaller scale or a fragile sculpture is one of the most unique and important aspects of his practice for me.
Kahn: I like the idea of a fragile sculpture because i think that’s what they are physically, but that’s also what they are emotionally. The work deals with sexuality and AIDS, i don’t want to pigeonhole it, but he directly did. He had AIDS throughout his whole career and he was certainly dealing with people around him being sick. All the penny pieces I feel were dealing with this idea of one more year of life.
Anderson: The earliest piece in the show, with the nut and pennies in this honey jar; this is a very representative piece because it is simple, humble and poetic. When I think of these three objects - the nut, the penny, the honey jar - they appear as pure form, but each has meaning alone and together.
Kahn: The other interesting thing in the works in the exhibition is they highlight the humor in Tony’s work. I think you see it in that work. It is solemn, because for me the penny always deals with life and then the nut is a clever sexual reference.
Anderson: Something that Tony was always interested in was the idea that materials would change over time. He would use plastic even though it was not the archival material to use. I’m thinking about 1993’s Perpetually Disintegrating Sculpture, where these colored sponges are housed in a box and it can be shown open or closed, but when open light hits the sponges and destroys the work. The piece is always in a state of decay when it is being enjoyed.
Kahn: It’s a beautiful idea about life, but also a beautiful idea about the material itself.
Anderson: I think there is a constructed impulse in your own work that lines up with Tony’s work. I wonder if this had an impact, did you get along because you shared these interests - even though both of your ultimate goals were far different?
Kahn: I think there were a few overlaps. We both are very good at materials, in different ways. The strength is the same, that it can be overlooked. With my pieces the viewer will never consider how much time it took to decide to use that specific canvas or that particular type of lead - but if it was any other it wouldn’t be as beautiful or as heavy, or as dull etc. I think Tony had this same thing, like with the bottle caps, we would look over the bottle caps, but those had to be exactly those and they were. The work went into knowing exactly what worked and continuing to go back in to the piece if it wasn’t working.
Anderson: Tony is extremely influential for me as an artist. I think even more than I know he has had a grand impact on how I consider objects and place them in space. How did he see his standing?
Kahn: Tony was very competitive. When I worked there it was not the time when everyone wanted Tony’s work and he was supportive and happy, but he was also a little annoyed because he deserved it and he wanted a little bit more and he deserved a little bit more. He never had any shows in Europe for example.
Anderson: Well, I think there’s something to be said that this is the second time his work has been shown in a solo show outside the US and the last time was in 2004. What is so odd about this is that I would think this work would have been appreciated earlier in Europe.
Kahn: What do you think the hold up has been?
Anderson: I don’t know, you know, it is just not known. He had a few champion curators, like Dan Cameron, and he had some group shows in the mid 2000s - but maybe he needed a better context or a larger chance. I think that was a mistake from the art world over here, not to have him place those objects in an exhibition himself while he was alive. I think even more than I know he has been influential for our generation. The use of materials is very free and lets the material speak the content.
Plastic strapping, sash cord
86.4 x 53.3 x 45.7 cm
Plastic fruit case, glass marbles
26.7 x 50.8 x 40.6 cm
Nile Spiral, 2001
222 plastic bottle caps: one red, one orange, and four shades of blue
Dimension variable, approximately 150 cm diameter
3 Pennies & a Lug Nut with Honey Bees & a Scratch, 1997
Pennies, lug nut, glass jar with lid
11.4 x 7 x 7 cm