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Patrick Frey

Interview by
Valentina Ehnimb

An all-rounder of the art world–a publisher, art critic, curator, actor, comedian and writer–Patrick Frey opens up on his career in the publishing industry, and on the importance of books as autonomous works of art–with no commenting texts, nor interference with professional graphic designers, and all done by the artist himself.

VALENTINA EHNIMB: One might call you an all-rounder: you have been a curator and art critic, then publisher, actor, comedian and writer. Edition Patrick Frey, which you founded in 1986, has so far published more than 200 art books, while you continue to write regularly for theater, TV and print. How have you managed to handle as many different métiers, all of which share an interest in language, and more specifically, the written word?

PATRICK FREY: I think at one point in my career as an art critic, which went from 1977 to about 1984, I realized that this lonely job of writing on other people’s creative work would kill me one day. I didn’t want so much to apply a theoretical mindset on works of art and analyze them at a comfortable distance, as much as I wanted to immerse myself into the object of desire. By the end of the ’70s, I realized that traditional art critique had somehow come to an end, and that I had to find something different of my own. Something with less gravity. It also had to be something I wouldn’t have to do alone physically but was still dealing with language. So comedy on stage was that something. It saved me. Then publishing books gave me the opportunity of dealing with other people’s creative work in a productive way, make things happen, enable somebody to realize a project I found important or just fascinating.

VE: Edition Patrick Frey publishes around twenty books a year, mainly about and in collaboration with Swiss artists. What are your criteria for realizing a book project? How has this developed over the years?

PF: We started with artist books in the purest sense of the word: books as autonomous works of art, no commenting texts, no interference with professional graphic designers, all done by the artist himself, coached by me. The criteria were deep interest, exaltation, surprise. And most of the authors were friends. In a way, we stick to those principles to this date, even though we act far more professionally, with a team of talented editors and graphic designers. We still publish a book the way the artist wants it.

VE  With some artists—including Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Klaudia Schifferle and Andreas Züst—you’ve collaborated for many years, making books that are now iconic. Could you tell us about your fascination with those artists?

PF  I learned from them. With their way of looking, they opened my eyes and expanded my consciousness. They intrigued me with their curiosity, their playfulness and their deep sense of humor.

VE  In 1981, you curated the show “Bilder” (“Pictures”) at Kunstmuseum Winterthur, which featured many artists that you would later support: the above-mentioned, but also Urs Lüthi, Martin Disler, Anton Bruhin, Olivia Etter and others. Notably, this show took place just a few years after the seminal essay and exhibition by Douglas Crimp on the Pictures Generation, which coined the term Appropriation Art. Was there a connection between the Zürich and New York art scenes at that time? What was the influence of exhibitions such as “Saus und Braus” (1980), curated by Bice Curiger, and “Transformer: Aspects of Travesty” (1974), curated by Jean-Christophe Ammann, which took place around the same time?

PF  When I curated “Bilder,” I had no idea of “Pictures,” but as I was a bit fed up by the prosaic sensuality of conceptualism, I was fascinated by the return to figurative art by the Italian Transavanguardia, which Achille Bonito Oliva introduced within the “Aperto 80” exhibition at the Venice Biennial. “Bilder” was very colorful and diverse. Five of the artists, among them Bruhin, Disler and Schifferle, worked together on a wild, chaotic mural. Fischli and Weiss exhibited separately for the last time, Fischli showing a table-top-universe with living mice and guinea pigs, Weiss a wall-sized drawing of the mythical “Völkerwanderung” with himself present as a small hologram contemplating three gigantic moon sculptures.
I think the connection between the Zürich and New York art scenes on the level of younger contemporary artists was only established during the ’80s, partly thanks to the work of Parkett magazine. Bice Curiger and Jean-Christophe Ammann, on the other hand, were among the most influential people for my cultural education and the way I look at art and artists. For me, they were seminal.

VE  What projects are you currently working on?

PF  There are too many! Just this morning, we finalized the project Vida by Mexican photographer Jesús León, a wild and sensual trip through the nightlife of Mexico City.  Soon Bildrausch will come out, the fantastic overview on world-renowned photographer Walter Pfeiffer’s less known drawings from the last 50 years. At the same time, with my co-author Katja Früh, I am working on a comedy about a deeply depressed man who is forced to celebrate his 60th birthday. It’s titled Kopf hoch!, which in English would be “Cheer up!”.

Images courtesy of Edition Patrick Frey, Zurich.

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