Human Interest: Judith Bernstein on Urs Fischer
Nov 21, 2016

In this series, artists talk about portraits from Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection. Urs Fischer’s portrait of fellow artist Julian Schnabel is an eight-foot-tall candle that melts over time. Here, Judith Bernstein describes this work as a portrayal of the male ego, and speaks about her own engagement with politics as a woman in the art world.

My name is Judith Bernstein. I’m in front of Urs Fischer’s sculpture of Julian Schnabel. The scale is fabulous. An eight-foot Julian Schnabel candle—he’s staring at himself in the mirror. We don’t really know what’s going on in that head; we only see the veneer. Because the candle has melted, it adds to the interest because it’s formed a mask. The face, which is what we’re all actually so concerned with in terms of portraiture, still remains.

You have ego, and you have male posturing. There’s a lot of humor in it, but I do think that there’s adulation, too. There’s so much that portraiture can be. It’s about your psyche, it’s about your physical appearance, it’s about other people’s appearance, it’s about how you perceive yourself.

I always use humor in my own work. In this work, L.B.J. represents the United States. L.B.J. had a great ego—a great, large, large ego—a lot of narcissism. And he was always doing things that were a little bit shocking. In the piece that I’ve done, he’s in a female crotch with a lot of wire around his head, so that I’m actually putting him in a very diminutive position. 

Within contemporary art and art history, there is an incessant need to be on top. Almost everything has been done by men, so you’re always taking on the big guys. I’m observing men’s behavior, and I’m making fun of it, but there’s also admiration in it, too. You have to have a lot of ego to get somewhere in this business. 

I have been working with the phallus for over fifty years. Men may own it in a bodily sense but men don’t own the image. They don’t own it in terms of what you can do with it and what you can say.