Gottfried Bechtold

During the ’60s and ’70s, Gottfried Bechtold’s career was difficult for two reasons: he lived in the provinces, near the German and Swiss border; and he pursued an aesthetic largely unrecognized in his own country. Along with Peter Weibel, Valie Export, and Richard Kriesche, Bechtold belonged to a small group of artists who rejected Austrian Expressionism in all its manifestations, from painting to Actionism, adopting instead a conceptual stance with a more international orientation. Although his work appeared in the 1972 Documenta, he had no solo shows outside Austria since 1966, an injustice that was confirmed by this recent retrospective.

In his early work Bechtold analyzed language and image: in Farbwörter (Colored words, 1966), for example, he wrote the names of colors with corresponding crayons and then listed the same words using different colors. These issues of identity and difference in relation to representation resurfaced in other early works, such as Untitled, 1968, in which he wrote the word “hair” using strands of hair. In a piece from the same year, he wrote “frot-tage” in collage and “collage” using frottage, and in his series “Zeichnungsfetischismus” (Drawing fetishism, 1969), he scribbled “from sharp to blunt” with a pencil. Paradoxes, tautologies, and redundancies also appear in his ’70s work, which increasingly involved photography: in Fingernägelschneiden (Clipping fingernails, 1973), scissors cut photographed fingernails; in Fazilet I, 1978, a girl holds a photograph of her upper body before her; and in the “Reisebilder” (Travel pictures, 1971) series, images from fictional journeys, the costs of the respective vacations were listed on the images. The works of this period, which included depictions of painstaking, banal actions, recall works by Joseph Kosuth, John Baldessari, and Victor Burgin.

Paradox in a more ironic form marks Bechtold’s most famous work—Betonporsche (Cement porsche), a poured-cement version of the Porsche 911; first presented in 1971, it has been a permanent sculpture in the parking lot of the University of Konstanz since 1972. The paradox lies not only in the weighty immobility of what was once an icon of speed, but also in Bechtold’s mingling of critique with enthusiasm for the complete integration of technical and aesthetic achievement. He contributed a work to the 1972 Documenta that consisted of announcing his presence, and his various activities, over loudspeakers. Projects like Metamorphose einer Galerie (Metamorphosis of a gallery, 1974) and Project Sozialgrundstück (Social territory project, 1976), also reflected a conceptual orientation. In the former Bechtold projected the conversion of a gallery and its movable property into cash that remained chained to his hand for the duration of the show. Sozialgrundstück was conceived as a companion performance to the 1976 winter Olympic games; with irony directed at the Olympics’ global ideology, everyone was offered a square millimeter of this 60-by-60-meter object.

Projects like this alternated between critique and absurdity, with volatile changes in technique, style, and concept. Perhaps because of the isolation surrounding its production, the work of this period didn’t provide a resolution, nor did it base itself on a dominant model. In the ’70s, this could be seen as a sign of quality. One finds more negative aspects in the ’80s work: provincialism is only one possible explanation for the banality of some of Bechtold’s jokes, or the fact that his irony became an affirmation of commercial preferences—for example, certain pieces were somewhat sexist. There is also an inescapable megalomania in some of the commissioned sculptural work, as in Interkontinentale Skulptur (Intercontinental sculpture, 1985), made for the Vienna Conference Center—a display of gigantic monoliths from all five continents. What earlier works conveyed with biting irony is here pursued in all earnestness.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from the German by Vivian Heller.