Walter Pichler, Schlafender, Grundkonstruktion (Sleeper, Basic Construction), 2011, wood, glass, 11 3/8 x 13 3/8 x 37 3/8".

Walter Pichler, Schlafender, Grundkonstruktion (Sleeper, Basic Construction), 2011, wood, glass, 11 3/8 x 13 3/8 x 37 3/8".

Walter Pichler

Walter Pichler, Schlafender, Grundkonstruktion (Sleeper, Basic Construction), 2011, wood, glass, 11 3/8 x 13 3/8 x 37 3/8".

It’s a good time for old dogs in the art world; suddenly we’re interested again in hard-working figures who have stayed the course. The Austrian sculptor Walter Pichler is one such artist. Throughout his career he has ignored the marketplace and media culture: He neither sells his sculptures nor allows himself to be lured into the public eye any more than absolutely necessary. Pichler is a man completely engrossed in his work, undistracted by external pressures, uncompromising in every way. “I am a sculptor,” Pichler says. “There are very few. It’s a job that creates distance, requires time, and is not of this day and age.” Still, he can count on the adoration of a loyal fan club, which consists equally of wild young interdisciplinary-art students and artists at the high points of their careers.

Since the 1970s, the South Tyrolean–born sculptor has lived in a tiny Austrian town at the back of beyond called St. Martin an der Raab. It is here that Pichler has endeavored to attain his ideal of art—an art that can live and breathe—and here that he’s established the conditions and rules of his work. An old farmstead serves as both home and studio; around it he has built ideal architectural structures to house his sculptures. Working calmly and slowly, Pichler takes the measure of things and inflects the fundamental principles of symmetry, axiality, and strict frontality in order to join sculpture, landscape, and architecture, looking back to the traditional building techniques of the region and using basic materials like natural clay, metal, wood, glass, and lead to create sacred spaces—sturdy, comforting, and quiet. Pichler is the kind of artist whose aesthetic rigor requires perfect presentation. His ethos is in this way similar to Donald Judd’s: In a parallel move, the American went to Marfa, Texas, to formulate his alternative to the transience and hectic pace of the art bureaucracy.

For his exhibition at MAK—Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art—Pichler has distilled the essence of his fifty years of work in sculpture. Seldom has the work of this master of synthesis been presented more simply and decisively. Without regard to chronology, Pichler has organized works that seemed immovable at his home in St. Martin, yet here he has brought them into surprising new constellations. Here, too, are his alter egos: the torsos Rumpf (Torso), 1982, and Kleiner Rumpf (Little Torso), 1993; the Bewegliche Figur (Movable Figure), 1984, a suggestive cyborg with prosthetic hands and feet in a transparent organza dress; and the explicitly autobiographical Zusammengesetzte Figur (Composite Figure), 1999, whose head is Dieter Roth’s portrait of the artist in vitrified chocolate. Pichler completed the figure, portraying himself as a striding Egyptian. At the far end of the room are works that deal with the theme of pain, featuring a hospital bed, broken glass, body imprints in lead, and a skeletal human figure in wood. This group includes Bett (Bed), 1971, and Schlafender, Grundkonstruktion (Sleeper, Basic Construction), 2011. Drawings used as aids for construction are also displayed. Over all of this, Pichler has placed Schwebender Stab (Floating Rod), 1997, while Drei Stäbe (Three Rods), 1998, lifts off into orbit over the stairwell. The viewer looks up at these copper forms, fascinated, until they are lost from view.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Anne Posten.