Daniel Spoerri, who turned 80 on Mar. 27, 2010, has worn many hats throughout his life: ballet dancer, editor of a concrete poetry magazine, publisher of multiples, restaurateur, innovative teacher. Since 1997, much of his energy has been focused on Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri, a large sculpture park in Tuscany that features some 40 of Spoerri’s own works and an equal number of pieces by artist friends.
Spoerri emerged as a visual artist around 1960, as a member of the Nouveaux Réalistes, exhibiting relief sculptures he called “tableaux-pièges” or “snare-pictures.” These are tabletops with more or less random arrays of glued-down objects. The fullest expression of Spoerri’s Nouveaux Réaliste period is his book An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, published in French 1962 and in English in 1966. It’s a classic artist’s book and endlessly fascinating, as is Spoerri’s next volume, The Mythological Travels of a Modern Sir John Mandeville, being an account of the Magic, Meatballs and other Monkey Business Peculiar to the Sojourn of Daniel Spoerri upon the Isle of Symi.
As the 1960s progressed, Spoerri integrated sculptural works with performances in the form of meals and banquets produced at galleries, museums and, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, an eatery in Düsseldorf called Restaurant Spoerri. (Last year, Spoerri launched a new version of Restaurant Spoerri in the Austrian village of Hadersdorf am Kamp.) He also organized barter markets (inspired by Malinowski’s ethnological studies) and pursued many other Fluxus-inspired activities.
Spoerri’s work has never been much appreciated in this country, nor does he have much interest in the U.S. In 1964-65, he spent time in New York, living he says “as the Americans force you to,” while feeling marginalized as a “Frenchy” (because he had come from Paris). Apart from a couple of shows at Zabriskie Gallery in the early 1990s, his work has since been largely unseen here (much like that of his friends Robert Filiou and Erik Dietman). This could be the result of Spoerri’s multi-tasking lifestyle or his longstanding attraction to anti-art, exemplified by his cuisine-art. There’s also a mournful, and sometimes even morbid, undercurrent to Spoerri’s work, more evident in his assemblages than in his festive events.
Like most Europeans of his generation, Spoerri grew up in a climate of fear. Born in Romania to a Jewish father and Swiss mother—his name was originally Daniel Feinstein—Spoerri was subjected to Romanian anti-Semitism as a child and lost his father in the Holocaust: it was only his mother’s acquisition of Swiss citizenship that saved him from a similar fate. (There’s a useful book to be written about the impact of Romanian exiles on the artistic and intellectual life of 20th century Paris: Tristan Tzara, Isidore Isou, Emil Cioran, Spoerri. Like Spoerri, Tzara and Isou were Romanian Jews: Tzara was born Samy Rosenstock; Isou, Isidore Goldstein.)
Despite the price exacted on his family by European history, Spoerri has a strong attachment to the continent’s past: Europeans have, he says, “2000 years of culture in the ass” while Americans have only 200. Unlike his or her American counterpart, the European artist is “tormented by culture, by everything one sees.” It’s that torment that provides the foil to Spoerri’s irrepressible zest for the variousness of life.