Can Big Art Make It in Las Vegas? Urs Fischer Weighs In.


The Swiss artist Urs Fischer suggests beginning our day together with coffee in the Village. Not the Manhattan neighborhood of Greenwich Village — on the edge of which he lived from the mid aughts until several years ago, commuting to giant studios in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Long Island City, Queens — though if you squint, there’s a resemblance to its earlier era: the maze of disorienting lanes, lots of cobblestone (sort of), neon-marqueed Italian-suggestive stands that sell iced lattes (watery) and cannolis (soggy).

No, this is the Las Vegas version, tucked beyond an ocean of slot machines in the far corner of the timeworn, low-lit New York-New York Hotel and Casino on that notorious stretch of real estate called the Strip. “There’s more to see here that’s interesting than some other newer places,” he says, leaning back on a metal bistro chair in front of the faux glassed-in storefront of a stage-set tenement building that showcases a top-hatted mannequin wrapped like a mummy, holding a wicker basket of prosthetic hands and feet. “It’s artificial, but in a good way.”

That, of course, is a matter of taste, as is the very notion of Las Vegas itself. Fischer, 51, known for his conceptually extravagant, hard-to-categorize works (a house made from loaves of bread, a giant pit dug in a gallery floor that looked as if it could collapse the building, a shower of huge blue plaster raindrops suspended from the ceiling, a series of supersized cast wax figures-cum-candles of people including the artist and director Julian Schnabel and the collector Dasha Zhukova, which melt to the floor over the course of an exhibition) has been visiting the city sporadically for three decades, most recently from Los Angeles. That’s where he lives with his two daughters — Charlotte, 15, and Grace, 8 — in a modest-sized but lushly gardened 1920s home near Dodger Stadium.

In December, however, he became a more permanent presence in the desert entertainment mecca when the delay-plagued, 67-story Fontainebleau, a casino and 3,644-room hotel that cost $3.7 billion, debuted its “Urs Fischer Gallery.”

In the middle of the cavernous space, on a round pedestal, stands a craggy, otherworldly 46-foot-tall, 17-ton, gold-leaf and cast-aluminum abstract sculpture called “The Lovers #3,” which suggests two asteroids from dueling solar systems locked in an embrace. A pair of monumental vividly colored paintings — big as Times Square billboards — adorn the walls flanking it. The longest escalator in the state — 150 feet — runs up one side of the room to a near-bare mezzanine; the idea is for visitors to see the enormous works by one of the art world’s superstars from a drone’s-eye view.

Bringing blue chip art to Las Vegas, where some 40 million tourists visit yearly and there are nearly 3 million local residents, is not a new idea, but in execution it has often proved an awkward fit. For a couple of years, until the pandemic, the brothers Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank J. Fertitta III, who are among the most aggressive collectors in the country, installed a truckload of their Damien Hirsts in the Palms Casino Resort, which they owned at the time, including a 60-foot-tall bronze headless male figure called “Demon With Bowl” and a three-section shark suspended in formaldehyde they installed in a bar (scandal ensued when it turned out the piece was made in 2017, even though Hirst had dated it to the 1990s).

Steve Wynn, the casino pioneer, displayed his Renoirs and Picassos for a while at one of his hotels, the Bellagio. (Jeff Koons’s crowd-pleasing, multicolored, stainless steel sculpture “Tulips” lives on the first floor of the Wynn Plaza mall.) A 2009 Jenny Holzer LED display wraps around the Uber pickup area of Aria, a hotel owned by MGM, and Maya Lin’s cast silver squiggle, longer than 80 feet, meant to represent the Colorado River, hangs above the reception desk. Still, Las Vegas is not likely to dethrone New York, Hong Kong or Paris as a world art capital anytime soon.

In fact, it is the largest city in the U.S. without a major museum, despite a series of false starts and the longtime advocacy of the art critic and academic Dave Hickey, who lived in the city for nearly two decades. Late last year, the city announced a deal for a new institution supported in part by Elaine Wynn, the businesswoman and former wife of Steve Wynn, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is run by Michael Govan. His unlikely affection for Las Vegas springs from his decades as a frequent visitor to check in on Michael Heizer’s “City,” the mammoth land art piece that Govan unwaveringly championed, four hours north. Under the deal, LACMA would lend important works to a planned 70,000- to 90,000-square-foot museum, near the downtown performing arts center, which will be aimed at residents rather than tourists. It will be realized within a decade, Govan says, but “school kids in Las Vegas really shouldn’t be taking field trips to the Strip.”

Still, on a late spring afternoon, strolling along the 4.2 mile stretch of bedazzled casino hotels, one after the other, as well as a Walgreens that appears to loom the size of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Fischer, burly with sleeves of fading tattoos — “I’m over that,” he says — has little need to see his art in a traditional museum setting.

Known for his subtly bemused but often unreadable demeanor — a manner that is in keeping with his work, which tends to refract interpretation and sociopolitical messaging — he seems, in many ways, an ideal bridge between Las Vegas’s art-as-decoration and the community’s inchoate urge to become a full-fledged, culturally rich metropolis. Leave it to other artists to shudder at what they might see as the insurmountable tackiness of the locale; Fischer, who early in his career supported himself as a nightclub bouncer, waves away such concerns with a bearish hand. Over the years some critics have seen his output through an anti-consumerist lens, an interpretation drawn in part from his use of organic materials — dough, unfired clay, fruit, melting wax — that can decompose during the course of a show, but he balks at such readings. He had no compunction at having one of his works be central to the Fontainebleau’s image.

“I don’t look down at this place,” he says, referring to the city. “I think of it as an everything-burger. Is it good? I don’t know. It has a lot of ideas. It’s red-blooded.” He stops to watch two elderly uniformed veterans busking along an elevated walkway with a microphone and a small amplifier, shakily belting out “Easy like Sunday morning.”

“Some people might see those guys and think, ‘Wow, that’s sad,’” he says, dropping a $20 in the bucket, “but I think, ‘Wow, what a great way to get out of the house, away from your wife and pick up a few dollars.’”

Such puncturing of pretension is his métier, which he pairs with an appetite for intellectual meanderings (Jane Jacobs’s conflict with Robert Moses, the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman’s underappreciated paintings, the history of pine trees) and a sharp taste for detail, including for things that other artists might dismiss as cheesy or commercial. For that, Las Vegas and its open spigot of humanity provides the perfect tide pool through which to wade.

“Urs is interested in absolutely everything,” says the New York-based Italian painter and installation artist Rudolf Stingel, with whom Fischer has been close since the two had side-by-side studios in Berlin at the beginning of the aughts. “He wants to examine execution and process, no matter what the thing is. He’s not a snob.”

Jessica Morgan, who curated the 2013 survey of his work while she was in charge of International Art at Tate Modern and now is the director of Dia Art Foundation, refers to him as an “omnivorous image maker, but not someone who spends a lot of time comparing himself to other artists or making a lot of judgments.”

When he’s in Las Vegas, rather than ferreting out his peers’ work — he has never checked out Lin’s sculpture or Holzer’s installation or ventured the 22 miles to his fellow countryman Ugo Rondinone’s “Seven Magic Mountains,” an installation of fluorescent-painted stacked boulders in the desert — he prefers to stroll the Strip.

He might take in such details as a woman’s Mona Lisa backpack (Jeff Koons x Louis Vuitton); how a planted median of blue palo verde trees, parkinsonia florida, forms a vertical axis with the exterior edge of the mammoth Cosmopolitan; the way that someone has impaled the butt of a cigar with a plastic martini sword, and left it, poetically arrayed, in a standing ashtray near the curb.

Riding up the elevator to survey the Immersive Van Gogh attraction and its merchandise — a sea of “Sunflowers” puzzles, mugs and totes — on the third floor of the Shops at Crystals, which bridges several casinos, Fischer is all-in: “This stuff, it doesn’t take away from the real Van Gogh. They’re just different executions.” He is less enthusiastic when he spots a James Turrell art installation nearby, commissioned by the mall developer — a flood of purple light — in an ignored corner where the tramway, escalator and elevator meet.

“Context is everything,” he says, shaking his head slightly. “This is not good.”

More appropriate for its setting, if perhaps too kitschy even for him, is the Bellagio’s giant lobby installation, “Tea and Tulips,” with a 20-foot-high pink-and-purple teapot and a giant hot air balloon decorated in fondant colors. “Sometimes Instagram makes the decisions,” he says, with a shrug, inspecting the engineering for its huge, hovering violet-and-azure hummingbird sipping from a caldron-sized hibiscus. “They have to go with it.”

As the sun begins to set, and the crowds emerge from the hotels, changed from sneakers and shorts into more sparkly garb for a night at the tables or at David Copperfield, the question looms: Does he believe, as Govan does, that Las Vegas may be moving toward a future in which its glitzy camp will be tempered with art-forward urbanity — a setting in which “The Lovers #3,” in all its monumental ambiguity, might seem more at home?

Sure, Fischer says, that would be great — but as always, he playfully hedges his bets. Or perhaps now is the opportune time for an idea that he and the Turner Prize-winning English artist Keith Tyson pitched to the Venetian resort in 1999: “We thought that during the Biennale they should do their own version, set up pavilions with art from every country — the Venice Vegas Biennale. I mean, you could do it really well, for real. To me, it makes a lot of sense.”


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