Walter Pichler

Städelsches Kunstinstitut

Walter Pichler has never been very concerned with making his art public. The last large-scale exhibition to include his work was the Venice Biennale in 1982, and his sculptures are to be found in only three public collections. Yet his place in the art world of the past two decades is secure. Although there are drawings by Pichler on the market, he rarely parts with his sculptures. They are components of an overall concept in which the identity between art and life has been given a new dimension.

For the past 15 years Pichler has been living on a farm in Saint Martin, in the sparsest, most isolated corner of Austria, near the Hungarian and Yugoslav border, choosing this as the site for his sculptures. Over the years several small “houses” have been built on the grounds there, each one intended for one or more sculptures. They were built around the sculptures to Pichler’s exact specifications, to shelter the works from the weather and to create an experiential space with a sacral quality. Using models and precisely executed blueprints, Pichler defined the sites and determined all aspects of the construction. He also made autonomous drawings that serve as visual notes and explanations of the projects.

Some of the sculptures and drawings left their home for this exhibition, which, though long overdue, is necessarily fragmentary in nature. Only in the museum’s garden was there an ensemble of works that demonstrated the intimate relation between architecture and sculpture: Stele I and Stele II, both 1962, which were presented in their own small wooden “houses” (constructed 1987), and, behind them, Vogel I (Bird I, 1975), Vogel II (Bird II, 1976), and Der Kleine (The little one, 1979)—three bronze birds on tall, thin acacia columns. They provided the most convincing impression of the thoroughness of Pichler’s efforts to unite thought, work, and life in the artistic process. The other sculptures, set free of their housing for the duration of the exhibition, communicated this in a different way. The circular saw is a very important tool for Pichler and at the same time a dangerous piece of equipment. For this reason, it too requires protective housing, which Pichler provides in Die Wächterin auf der Kreissäge (Female guard on the circular saw, 1982). Here, the blade of the saw (of zinc, painted red-brown) is covered by a construction made of wood, glass, and lead, which shelters the tool and transforms it spiritually into a sculpture, like a medieval shrine. Thus, function becomes meaning. The materials are transformed into a ritualistic whole by virtue of the great detail with which they are worked—for instance, the combination of different metals in a complicated forging process, which are in turn painstakingly bonded to wood or glass or clay. We are astounded by the technical perfection of the seams and by the abruptness with which these materials collide with one another.

Pichler expresses warmth and pliability, but also coldness, brutality,and even the confrontation between life and death, in the unmoving limbs of a metal figure, in the bundle of reeds mummified in many layers of copper, tin, and iron, or in the threat of danger implied by a car on a section of track. His sculptures, despite their static quality and pathos, are not to be understood only as pieces executed with some final end in mind but also as the stages of a developmental process. The farm in Saint Martin embodies this ambivalence too. It is both a sacral site and a living/working space for Pichler and will thus continue to grow and change for the foreseeable future.

Anne Krauter

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.