Josef Bauer, Körpergalerie (Body Gallery), 1974, photographic print, 29 1⁄2 × 21 5⁄8" (framed). From the series “Körpergalerie” (Body Gallery), 1974.

Josef Bauer, Körpergalerie (Body Gallery), 1974, photographic print, 29 1⁄2 × 21 5⁄8" (framed). From the series “Körpergalerie” (Body Gallery), 1974.

Josef Bauer

Josef Bauer, Körpergalerie (Body Gallery), 1974, photographic print, 29 1⁄2 × 21 5⁄8" (framed). From the series “Körpergalerie” (Body Gallery), 1974.

A woman awkwardly and rigidly clutches a giant letter k to her chest as though it were her greatest treasure and she fears it might abandon her. The object is not much smaller than she is, and there is something touching about how its cumbersome bulk yields to her forceful embrace. The black-and-white photograph is part of a series titled “Taktile Poesie” (Tactile Poetry), 1965–, by Austrian conceptual artist Josef Bauer, whose work since 1964 was presented in this survey exhibition, titled “Taktile Poesie—die Sprache des Zeigens” (Tactile Poetry: The Language of Showing). Bauer’s “tactile poetry” is best understood as a variation on the explorations of language as a material for art that emerged in the 1950s as concrete poetry—for example in the work of the poets of the Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group), among them H. C. Artmann and Gerhard Rühm.

Unlike them, however, Bauer is not content to work on paper, choosing instead to focus on the haptic dimension of language and using the human body to probe it. Some of his letter objects are made to be hugged, but others extend to become long poles that can be carried around as if in a procession. The photographs of such performances are never pure documentation. On the contrary, Bauer staged the events, usually spontaneous affairs involving neighbors or relatives, held in nature and without spectators, as a pretext to take pictures. At the gallery, one of these letters on a stick, a u on a long aluminum pole, buchSTABE (U) (Letter [U]), 1983, leaned in a corner like an oversize pitchfork. The piece also illustrates Bauer’s showing of language: In his hands, it is an act that can take on a demonstrative, emotive, or rebellious cast. The last was here exemplified by Die Sprache des Zeigens (The Language of Pointing), 1969, a photograph of an outstretched hand holding an l aloft like a torch, in a gesture that might read as a signal of revolutionary pathos. But the artist seems to prioritize other aspects over the semantic tenor of his letters or their aesthetic qualities as objects. He endows the building blocks of written communication with materiality and a tangible bodily existence, translating language into an affective physical idiom.

A group of wall objects created in 1970 supplanted the hand holding the letters in the photographs with its imprint in white modeling clay wrapped around an x, a t, or a cross made of wood painted black. These pieces spotlight the immediate effect of a human action as basic as a squeeze of a hand. In the 1960s, Bauer had also started inviting the public to handle some of his works: amorphous polyester and poly—urethane constructions such as Körpernahe Form (weißes Objekt) (Close-Up Shape [White Object]), 1965, which was on view here. With their organic forms as well as the use of physical interaction to establish an immediate relationship to the body, these objects recognizably anticipate Franz West’s more widely known Passstücke (Adaptives), the first of which dates from 1974.

Works from Bauer’s series “Verfügbare Pinselstriche” (Available Brushstrokes), 1987–2015, pinpointed the interplay between the sculptural qualities of painting and the human figure. To make these pieces, Bauer daubed paint on a glass pane in thick brushstrokes, then peeled off the drying pigment and transferred it onto newspaper cutouts showing female models. The paint typically covers the women’s faces and much of their bodies; in some cases, the models are effectively clothed in paint, with only their faces and limbs sticking out.

Bauer made pioneering contributions to vital developments in Austrian art—especially concerning sculpture’s relationship with the human body—that later propelled the more prominent careers of artists including West and Erwin Wurm, as well as tendencies in international body art. Oddly, his work seldom got the recognition it deserved, though that has begun to change. Later this year, a long-overdue major retrospective of his work will finally take place at the Belvedere 21 in Vienna.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.