Thus Spoke Bischofberger: Artforum’s Eternally Swiss Back Cover

An advertisement for the Swiss art gallery belonging to dealer and collector Bruno Bischofberger has occupied the back cover of every issue of Artforum since April 1987.

Eierleset (“Egg Race”), Äffinnen, Fricktal, Canton Aargau, Switzerland. Photo: Albert Bärtsch

Presented with this enviable and ostensibly unprecedented opportunity, a reasonable gallery might choose to advertise their current or upcoming exhibitions with a striking related image, to highlight works by their artists, or to somehow project an image of the gallery representative of their program. But not Galerie Bruno Bischofberger. Over 147 editions of the international art criticism giant, the gallery has instead chosen to indulge in Bischofberger’s other passion: Swiss folk tradition. Since the beginning, the gallery’s advertisements have resisted any change at all. Although featuring imagery by a mix of amateur and professional photographers – some credited, some not, and at least one with the last name Bischofberger – these pages always follow the same format, with slight variations: a seasonal photograph depicting some facet of traditional Swiss life – by turns idyllic and terrifying, and sometimes both – overlaid by the gallery’s address and a roll call of its blue-chip artists, in bold red sans serif type. How these kitsch site-specific snapshots tie in with the gallery or its artists has never been explained. Seen out of context and en masse, as they are presented in 147 Backcovers: Summer Fall Winter Spring, the otherwise digestible design and contents of these promotions at first appear idiosyncratic; upon further scrutiny, however, they seem insane.

The Bruce High Quality Foundation, featuring Bruce visiting Appenzell for the cow beauty competition, Appenzell, Switzerland. Photo: Bruce

Galerie Bruno Bischofberger was established in 1963, a fact reiterated on many of these covers. Since then, it has been instrumental in bringing American art to Europe, and its artists – Basquiat, Warhol, Schnabel, Salle, Tinguely, and so on – are of the kind that can go without first names. Any contemporary gallery’s success is dependent on a certain ability to look and project outwards, on its international relationships, and on tapping into global capital. Invariably, Bischofberger has also had to exceed the boundaries of its local setting, in this case, those of Switzerland. (Given its recent move to a 23,000-square-meter converted factory on the outskirts of Zurich, the gallery has clearly done this with some success.) But if Bischofberger has had to renege on its distinct national identity in the global art market, it has more than made up for it on the back cover of Artforum – officially Artforum International – which has remained sacrosanct for all things Alpine. One cover shows a man deep in concentration as he stares into a vat of Gruyère cheese, elsewhere another shears a sheep to mark winter’s end. Happy pigs scamper through the rolling Swiss valleys, elsewhere a group dressed in surreal (and fairly sinister) traditional costume poses in processional formation, surrounded by snow. Always linked to the season in which the advertisement appears, here time is visually tied to ancient rituals of rural Swiss life – not to an art world calendar of biennales, fairs, and opening weeks.

A group of “Beautiful Chlouses,” Urnäsch, Canton Appenzell, Switzerland. Photo: A. Magro

The publication of 147 Backcovers, assembled by Peter Fischli and Hilar Stadler, marks this more mystical time. Many of us have been looking at Artforum for years, seeing its back cover on our desks and coffee tables without ever realizing it was part of a 31-year meditation. 147 Covers mirrors the iconic softbound 27-centimeter square format of its source publication, yet here the advertisements form their own conceptual art project, one totally unconcerned with the variables or vagaries of art market taste in the last decades – or with how the gallery (or the magazine) actually makes its money. An advertisement from 2017 holds no indication of technological, aesthetic, or programmatic change, and could just as easily be from 1987. Rather than something to be traced or marked, 147 Covers seems to say, “The passage of time can be resisted,” and to suggest the dubious politics associated with an overt idealization of national identity. At its heart, the book constructs an image of a tribal culture far preceding, or maybe exceeding, modernity, and one in diametric contrast to the contemporary Switzerland of global finance and tasteful “Swiss design.” It is unclear whether the book is parody or nostalgia; either way it revels in illogic, conjuring a timeless mysticism completely at odds with contemporary production (artistic, or of any kind). If the gallery’s relationship to Artforum continues, new editions of back covers could continue to appear, eternal return style, and would no doubt look just like this one.

“Silvesterchlausenn,” Uräsch, Canton Appenzell Switzerland. Photo: Fridolin Walcher.

147 Backcovers: Summer Fall Winter Spring is published by Verlag Der Buchhandlung Walther König (Cologne, 2018).

  • Text
    Rebecca O’Dwyer

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