Hans Witschi

by Zipora Fried

Hans Witschi, The Watercolorist, 1994, oil on primed cotton, 48 x 36". Images courtesy of the artist.

The first time I saw Hans Witschi’s work was at the Locarno Film Festival in 1992, in Paolo Poloni’s documentary Witschi geht, a film on Witschi’s life and his journey to New York. I had my own fantasies about moving to New York at that time and could identify with the main character. We exchanged studio visits sometime in 2006—we were both living in New York by then and making art in isolation from the “art world,” which gave our work a certain detached intensity and gave us all the time in the world to indulge in deep thought. Visiting Witschi’s studio, I discovered a hidden treasure—paintings, drawings and collages, all registered in an expansive digital database, archived and woven into a complicated, and, to me, undecipherable system. I think even Hans, who created “the monster,” sometimes can’t seem to be able to navigate it. His studio, which includes a grand piano on which he improvises daily, is not large, and a growing stack of sizable painted canvases is devouring the little space that is left for him to live and work. This year he participated in the group show Nevermore at On Stellar Rays gallery. It was there that I saw The Gnat for the first time.

Zipora Fried Tell me something about The Gnat. It’s such a haunting painting.

Hans Witschi It’s an homage to the minute, the negligible, the worthless and dispensable. The painting is based on the German proverb: “Aus einer Mücke einen Elefanten machen”—literally translated: “To make an elephant out of a mosquito.”

ZF You mean like “To make a mountain out of a molehill”?

HW Right. The animal emerges; we take notice of it at least for a short time. The creature looks at us with an expression of deep knowledge, understanding, and acceptance: “I am, therefore I am.” Then it gets swatted.

ZF Well, it’s always nice to see an expression of deep knowledge in a mosquito’s eyes before you throw something at it. It doesn’t have the knowledge that it will die but human beings do—even if we live in constant denial of it. Are you giving the gnat a human mind?

HW We all are emerging in this place at a certain time and then suddenly we are gone. But while we are here, our body shows us the result of millions of years of an unknown force shaping us into what we see when we look in the mirror.

ZF It takes a mind capable of abstraction to see your own image in the mirror and to understand your own mortality.

Hans Witschi, The Gnat, 1993, oil on primed cotton, 48 x 48".

HW Hated by everyone, the gnat had to become lovable, so I gave her—in contrast to the lightness of her species—elephant legs, preventing her from flying; and on top of that, human eyes. It enables the viewer to enter the body of the animal, because it is clear: with an image of a real mosquito, we would notice its appearance, but not its existence.

ZF What do you mean by appearance and existence? By the way, did you know that 100 African elephants are killed every day? I wonder how many mosquitoes are killed every day?!

HW Existence appears through appearance, which is the result of existence. Appearance can be doubted, existence can’t. But it is an infinite loop. There is no appearance without existence and no existence without appearance. The gnat can be easily killed—and if killed, it will disappear—but her existence is indestructible and undeniable. Existence can’t be undone, because she was, she is, or she will be. Appearance is also not only bodily appearance; it occurs, most of the time, in the mind. Things exist in our thinking, in history, etcetera. We live in a zombie world—a world made of our memories, populated by dead people, like relatives and historical figures.

ZF So is the painting of the gnat a self-portrait or the portrait of a zombie?

HW She is too lively to be a zombie. Her look underlines her integrity, her “self.” Is it a self-portrait? In the deepest sense of the meaning of the self—yes and no. But it is the beholder’s self of course, not mine.

ZF You did a lot of self-portraits in the past.

HW There was a time when people would say it was a self-portrait if I painted a flower. It was bothering me a lot, but now I think it was a good sign, because I realized that my self can’t be seen by others, what they see is their own selves. Before I moved to New York, I painted about ten self-portraits directly from the mirror. This was in Zurich at a time of political stagnation and my energy came from revolting against it. I was a member of a disabled-in-action group, acting as an editor of a small magazine fighting discrimination.

ZF When I look at these self-portraits I see someone saying in a very loud voice: “I am here,” “I exist,” “I have been here for a while”. . . . It is not clear to me if you say it to yourself or if the works were ever intended to speak to any other person. Sometimes when you spend many days and weeks alone in your studio (and you even had to spend years in limited spatial environments like hospitals), I think the mirror becomes “the other,” and the dialogue becomes less personal and more of a reflection of a “collective self”—or even of an “other person” across the room. So I completely understand your previous statement that the self-portrait is not just about your self.

HW In the mid-1980s I was going through a transformation, where I had to overcome my crushed self-image. One could think of it as a small bubble, hidden and wandering inside my body. This bubble was on the verge of growing and at one point it took the exact form, measurement, and consistency of my real body. Or in other words, the thought-body and the real-body became congruent. As a member of what I call the “untouchables,” depicting my body—crippled from polio in early childhood—was a liberation from the forced and internalized image of a crystalline organized and meticulously functioning “Schamgesellschaft,” a society that is based on and believes in shame.

ZF A few weeks ago I attended a discussion with Thomas Hirschhorn at Artist Space where he criticized artists who tell the viewer a personal story. He said he is not interested in anybody’s personal story when he looks at art.

HW Sounds a bit like 1880 before Freud. I believe, even if the personal story of the artist is absent—fortunately—the personal story of the beholder can’t be controlled by the artist. There is a lot of art out there that activates with certainty one of my most personal emotions.

ZF Tell me more about that.

HW It is very personal . . . the problem with boredom. Joking aside, the art itself has to transport the idea, and personal aspects could prevent that. There is also the banality of art, but if it looks personal, it’s probably not. Is the information that Richard Serra grew up in his father’s shipyard personal—or is it important for the understanding of his art? Is it too personal that Paula Modersohn-Becker painted herself as a pregnant woman, or that Frida Kahlo depicted herself tortured by her back brace? Or Käthe Kollwitz mourning her son, whom she lost in the war? Shame on them? I don’t think so.

ZF Do you think the personal has to do with shame?

HW Yes, a lot. Instilling shame is a means of control. In China a campaign was started to stop the habit of men walking shirtless in public, by telling people, “You look ugly, therefore put a shirt on.” Our society is based on the same principles. We know it from racism and other discriminatory behavior. Everything unwanted is first labeled ugly.

ZF I was in Beijing last summer and I saw men rolling up their T-shirts, exposing their bellies. So now they are wearing shirts but found a way to still expose their “ugly” bodies . . . guess it’s not so easy to encourage shame.

Hans Witschi, Man Sleeping, Tompkins Square Park, 2013, India ink on paper, 5 ⅞ x 4 ⅛".

HW I hope you are right, but in the arts, I see this rampant notion that the personal is bad, that it is not art. Painters say “I don’t want to have a personal style,” or “I don’t want to be recognized by my handwriting.” Who the heck came up with this nonsense? I’m against a culture that tells us that work in which people express their misery is not art but must be therapy, simply because it comes from personal involvement. The political function of such a statement is obvious and I’m completely against this type of patronizing. If the artistic form is there, I don’t care whether it is fed by personal, analytical, or appropriated positions. Actually, I believe that we would be much better off with more “personal” art, than with all the recycled recyclers.

ZF What strikes me the most about your paintings is that there are no strategic calculations involved; to me they are more like studies of the world around you. You investigate and question what nature has given us and you create your own rules. There is a giant rabbit overlooking a city with eyes as large, innocent, and glassy as can be. There are people dissolving into a wall and turning into a sort of heavy liquid. Nothing is clearly solid or fluid, all is changeable. Insides are turned out; blood is overflowing. There is silence but there are also screams, I can see the zombies, broken bodies, and compressed realities, all painted with vivid powerful strokes. But just as zombies sometimes make you laugh, some of your paintings tell quite humorous stories. What role does humor play in your work?

HW It does play a role, crying and laughing at the same time, like a child.My deepest interest, though, is to bring out a felt reality. My body is not just a reflecting tool at the surface. Things go through my body, and they come from my body. I think through the body.It took me about 20 years until I found a linguistic formula for one of my inner experiences: Zeitkollaps, collapse of time. What I mean by that is a particular state of mind, where the perception of life is uncontrollably driven into a stoppage of time. Your lifespan and life space shrink dramatically; for a moment birth and death become the same; you can’t distinguish between beginning and end. Everything falls into a now and nothing has dimension or direction. Maybe someone could get to this state through a zen class or drug use. I myself—maybe through turpentine. I don’t know, but it came one day and it was a frightening experience. Everything stands still at one point, no movement, no expansion. This experience is the underlying force for all my work.

ZF Can you tell me about the purpose of distortion and variation in your work? You tend to paint the same subject again and again. Is there a system within these large bodies of work that you produce?

HW A painting could be considered by definition as collapsed time, because the images are not in succession, they all are on top of or next to each other in accrued time. Distortion gives movement, change, and new forms. It is not the result of something lacking, it’s the opposite: It’s this, plus that. Distortion is the result of indiscrimination and therefore wholeness. This applies also to style and themes in my paintings, which refer to each other back and forth over decades, and the collapse of time appears as a personified form of postmodernism.

Hans Witschi, Figure with a Mirror, 2013, oil on primed cotton, 30 x 24".

ZF So distortion is just a form of variation?

HW The figures are undecided, they are not split into functions, stages, or cultural roles—they are certainly abstractions of the human figure—they are man and woman at the same time; they are baby and dotard at the same time; they build up and erode, bloom and wilt at the same time. One can consider them as “sub-human,” yet they are not animals either. But after all, this is paint and not real life. In real life, without distinctions we cannot make decisions, without decisions we cannot live.

These reflections of mine were the motor to invent a figure that would be this real human being. To achieve that, I had to first strip the creature of personal features like hair and accessories like clothing, get rid of sexual attributes, then throw out all furniture—to create a no-man’s land setting or empty interior to underscore the eeriness. My intention was to show that people living in our world are distorted, and that my figures were the real people! The idea was good. The reactions were different, though, and bothersome. People said: “Looks like you!”

ZF So you failed.

HW I still believe in the idea. The question remains: Why are figures who don’t fit the conventional image considered self-portraits?

ZF Charles Bukowski’s poem “The Genius of the Crowd” comes to my mind.

    [ . . . ]
    beware those who are quick to censor
    they are afraid of what they do not know
    beware those who seek constant crowds for
    they are nothing alone
    beware the average man the average
    beware their love, their love is average
    seeks average

    but there is genius in their hatred
    there is enough genius in their hatred 
        to kill you
    to kill anybody
    not wanting solitude
    not understanding solitude
    they will attempt to destroy anything
    that differs from their own
    not being able to create art
    they will not understand art
    they will consider their failure as creators
    only as a failure of the world
    not being able to love fully
    they will believe your love incomplete
    and then they will hate you
    and their hatred will be perfect

    like a shining diamond
    like a knife
    like a mountain
    like a tiger
    like hemlock

    their finest art

The gnat is painted with an exquisite perversity, with brushstrokes so vibrant that one might hear its wings buzz standing close enough to the canvas. Your lines are so full of life and your stories so full of death. In your series of the painter who paints himself (and at the same time erases his existence), your lines are as vivid and destructive as can be—

HW I was obsessed with the idea of a creature creating itself. You could compare it to the two hands of M. C. Escher, which simultaneously draw each other—a physical impossibility.

Because of the skittish, orange lines in the paintings, people called the series the “spaghetti paintings.” I showed them in connection with another series, one of a little boy drawing. It’s not clear if he is drawing or dreaming, it’s a moment of absence and bliss. The series consists of 23 pieces portraying the same situation, though each canvas is painted differently, hinting at many predecessors. Here a background citation of Schiele, there a hint of a red-chalk Raphael drawing, here some Warhol, and so on. These paintings condense some inescapable aspect of art history and they also deal with Handerrinnerung, the memories our hands have.

In contrast to the “spaghetti paintings,” which seem to express genuine solitude, these could be naive expressions, painted by the boy and casually hung on the wall.

Hans Witschi, Untitled (Boy Drawing), 1998, oil on primed cotton, 18 x 24".

ZF Are you saying that a hand can only function in certain ways and that its possibilities are all pre-coded by its natural abilities—and therefore also by the hand’s memories?

HW It means that Jackson Pollock was already present in Rembrandt’s studio. Hand memory” is the awareness of the intrinsic ways of applying paint and its equivalent of reception in history. With each movement of the brush, even the tiniest, one ranges over all possibilities of where the painting could go, opening onto one street after another. The artist, like a scientist, focuses on a bit of a sequence in time and form, studying the effect and meaning when the paint is shoved a bit further. For each one of these sequences, one artist, among thousands doing the same thing, stands as an indicator for that particular development in history. Although I don’t believe in linearity, I see all these places occupied; everything I’m doing reminds me of one of those indicators, or of something I have done already. Once in a while I envy appropriation artists, they are in a content win-win situation. The elements they use point at something outside the artwork and can’t be criticized. The signifiers, even those that are badly done, point for example at political issues—so if there were to be a discussion, it would be a political one, and not an artistic one. In painting it’s different. Each stroke matters because the signifier could be misread if not done correctly, and you wouldn’t get the whole picture.

Hans Witschi, The Jockey, 1994, oil on primed cotton, 48 x 36".

ZF The heightened awareness of the body in your paintings brings Maria Lassnig and Francis Bacon to my mind. The characters in their paintings remain in a perpetually vulnerable state with no redemption.

HW My characters too are vulnerable and somewhere in limbo. Their bodies became batteries of pain, constantly force-fed by a culture driven by oppressive aesthetic values, based on beauty and prosperity. But the redemption is there! It lies in the concrete paint itself; there you find actual reward. I heard it many times in Switzerland, people telling me, “Your morbid paintings are not Swiss, you belong to Austria!” I think I’m in a line of “existence theme” artists, I’m influenced by many—Goya, Schiele, Bacon, Ensor, and Kokoschka. Of course,I also like American grotesque painters like Dana Schutz, Lisa Yuskavage, and Judith Linhares. And you won’t believe it, but I strongly admire minimal art. I myself can’t go there; painting for me is like gardening.

ZF The figures in your paintings are sometimes covered by a glossy membrane or encased in a glass bubble. There are many depictions of glass bottles and running water. At your studio I can see a display of kitchen items covered with protective transparent plastic bags, high up on top of your kitchen cabinets.

HW These are metallic milk and coffee pitchers from the place in Switzerland where I grew up. They are in plastic to protect them from soot and dust. In Affoltern am Albis we had prints of paintings on the wall by Cézanne, Degas, and others. I looked at them countless times and scrutinized their details. Each time I became more and more frustrated by the fact that going closer and closer did not allow me to get more information out of the image. On the contrary, the paintings became more abstract the closer I got to them.

Later as a painter I named this discovery Lebensdistanz, the “life distance” needed to recognize objects and name them appropriately—table, chair, etcetera. From that moment on, abstract meant representation on another level. After that I started all my paintings in an accidental manner, adding light and atmosphere later on. Then the figure, which I abhorred for so long, appeared. I felt that bodies and forms got much stronger when foreshortened, or truncated or when their proportions were not right. In dissolving the hierarchy of brushstrokes, the question of background and foreground became clear to me: they are the same. There is no distinction between the inside and the outside—objects pulsate, appearing and receding from the background. The membrane functions as a constituter and/or as a protector of the form, and sometimes a form might only be defined by “REAL.”

ZF What is it?

HW It’s what I call the “Reflection-EnAbler-Line,” an effect adding plasticity to nothingness. The line divides a part of the background into two sections, and you read one section suddenly as reflecting background color onto the object.

ZF And the bottles?

HW We generally don’t have an abstraction of our body, we conceive of it like a snowflake, singular in time and shape, precarious and imperiled. In contrast, the bottle, although easily destroyed, is indestructible as a form. The bottle is an ideal body.

Hans Witschi, Untitled (Water), 2010, oil on primed cotton, 24 x 18".

ZF I always thought the bottle paintings came out of your love of a good glass of wine. What about the faucet paintings?

HW My first faucet painting appeared in a triptych that was part of my “Black Series” in 1983. Expressing an agonizing wait, it came from an early childhood observation of a severely retarded patient going back and forth with his finger under the running water. Later it evolved into an analysis of culture, nature, urbanism, and architecture. The faucet became the symbol of our specific life situation in this civilization. And then there are the glass paintings. The glass functions as a symbol of culture as well. We cut a flower and put it into a glass of water, so the plant can live for another couple of days. This strange ritual reveals a playful approach that includes an awareness of death.

ZF Enough about death. Is there something positive you can tell me about art and life?

HW I apologize, I have a tendency towards morbidity, but the painting itself stripped from content and meaning is full of optimism. Even long-belabored paintings have to look fresh and strong and must appear as if they were effortlessly painted. So there is life-affirmation.

ZF What is the role of light in your paintings?

HW Usually there are two light sources, resulting in a sort of “color-surrealism.” The exposed objects and subjects, caught naked as if by a snapshot, at the mercy of the observer, are strong and defiant. This flashlight kind of illumination gives an exhibitionist quality to the image and a feel of truthfulness. You get the feeling of just having discovered something, or having caught somebody in the act.

ZF The Handbook is a project that you have worked on for three years. It’s a collection of images of hands, cut out from daily newspapers and arranged in different groups in a foldout book. All done manually, piece by piece.

HW When I came to New York I noticed that US newspapers had a completely different approach to selecting photography for publication, and it became suddenly clear to me, that the hand, especially, was the least controlled element in the photograph. Not staged or aestheticized, the hand—an old and trite topic in art—became for me the hand trouvé. There was potential for revision so I started to collect photographs of hands, mostly from The New York Times. I cut off as much of the surroundings as possible, and as a result, the real hand appeared. I laid these images out in long friezes, and being completely de-contextualized and “de-POP-ed”, they became what I called a ballet of incomprehensibility.

ZF How did you sort them? How many images of hands are in this book? This is a piece on the “possibilities and existences of the hand” in the sense of what we discussed earlier. In this book you have given the hand a life and face of its own. It evokes awareness of the sensory and expressive functions of the hand.

HW I didn’t want to use ubiquitous categories like gender, color, age etcetera. I set up a quasi-biological-phenomenological system as if I were an alien looking at completely unknown territory. The categories ranged from “Single Hand” to “Gestures and Positions” to “The Not-Touched-Touch” to the “Structure of Raised Arms,” to mention only a few. Altogether there are around 40,000 images.

ZF Where is the original now?

HW The original Handbook 1 is in the Drawing Collection of the National Library in Bern, Switzerland, and Handbook 2 is in my studio.

ZF Did you ever exhibit it?

HW The launching of the website took place at the video artist Adriana Arenas’s gallery Space 2.D in Chelsea. There was a show of The Handbook Edition at Ursus Books and Prints on Madison Avenue [1996]. In 2000, sections of it were shown at the Kunsthalle Dresden, and in 2011, there was a symposium in the Sitterwerk St. Gallen about “The Archive of the Future,” in which I took part.

Hans Witschi, Oeuvre Total, 2000-, digital.

ZF Is this project finished or are you going to continue it one day?

HW It has developed twofold. Firstly, into other collections of mine. Parts of it can be viewed on my website. Secondly, it evolved into what I call the “oeuvre total,” the documentation of all of my artwork, paintings, photographs, films, notebooks, diaries, articles, etcetera. It is meant as a virtual mirror of my life. Everything is connected and linked and even primitively searchable through an internal java script engine. It’s HTML programmed from scratch with the power of PERL and database connectivity. It works simply on browsers on a server, but also independently, off-line. No other programs needed. The downside: it is very personal and it will not be accessible publicly until after my demise.

ZF You are such a narcissist.

HW Oh, really? Well, I didn’t do it for that reason. It grew and grew and I thought it was good to have a copy of something, for instance when you travel, everything is in one spot, collapsed inside a tiny laptop.

ZF Do you sometimes collaborate with other artists?

HW Well, I played the German philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg in the film installation Subcutaneous by artist Matthew Buckingham. But mostly I work with fellow Swiss artist Bruno Jakob; I play the piano while he is creating his artwork. Lately, these have become public performances, but you have to imagine them more like work situations. There is no choreography, just coincidence. We just had a performance at the Kunstmuseum Luzern last year and next year we’ll be at Kolumba in Cologne.

ZF I saw a film by Noritoshi Hirakawa with your music in it.

HW Yes, I also did some music for videos and films by other artists. And Glassfarm Ensemble commissioned a piece that was performed at The Stone in 2011. My music is generally of harmonic structure, consisting of more or less simple sequences and progressions. It is not only repetition, it’s quite emotional. All my music is first played by myself. This is a self-imposed restriction—even music that is abstract to begin with is thought through the fingers. I call it Vertonte Physiologie, “physiology set to music.” The piano acts as a counting frame, and sort of a computer, and the music is the sound of the combination of the keys in front of you, there is nothing more or in between. The music is actually visible. I believe that most composers don’t hear the music they are about to compose, they see it! In other words, you need to hit a combination of keys first in order to crave for the particular sound they produce.

Although I grew up with classical music and had some training in playing the flute, I was not particularly interested in music as a young child. At night in my bed, I used to listen on a little transistor radio to shortwave stations from all over the world. I was particularly intrigued by the station signals. Around age 14 I started to play the piano while listening to recordings. My goal was to extract and repeat—independently from the rest of the piece—some blues riffs I thought were not played for long enough in the recordings. I played those lines endlessly and through my mistakes my hearing started to become trained for expanded harmonies. At one time I had a jazz group, with a guitar and bass player. The best we did was to get a concert in a small church out in the woods. Eventually the musicians were not satisfied playing my elegiac compositions all the time, and the group dissolved. Then one day somebody asked me, “Why do you play the blues? This is not your music.” This remark made me think about where the blues actually exists in the classical music of my culture. Of course it is there in abundance. Another huge step was incorporating disharmonic keys like the 13th halftone by modulation. I became obsessed with studying what’s played between the themes, and when there is no melody. Analyzing that became an almost insurmountable task.

ZF Do you read music?

HW No, the image of notation gets in the way of my painterly eye—it confuses me so I devised a notation system for myself, which is based on numbered intervals. A major chord with the octave included would read like this: _>4*>3>5

The underline “_” symbolizes the first note and could also be written as “0,” the arrow to the left means that the next note will be up, count 4 halftones and so on. The numbers added together totaling 12, the octave. I believe the major scale in music—c d e f g a h c—is too complicated to remember, so we have to look for patterns:
First I write down: _>2>2>1>2>2>2>1
And then I look for symmetries: _>2>2>1 >[2] >2>2>1

My final notation of do re mi fa so la ti do:
repeat 1

The advantage of the system is obvious: you have only a small portion of the sequence to remember—plus of course the interval key where the repetition will occur. Digitized, the music becomes searchable.

Here is a composition:

ZF Can you draw any parallels between your musical and your visual output? Have you ever seen Arnold Schoenberg’s paintings? He believed in a significant relationship between painting and music. His paintings are so ahead of his time.

HW In my case the music and the visual are separate. I don’t see colors when I play or hear music and vice versa. I’m happy about that, because it gives me the option of a reprieve from each medium. But there are connections of a spacial nature. The work on the computer, programming the documentation, had a big impact on my composing. It is comparable to building a house—the complexity made my brain expand. I could literally feel my brain making new connections, dreaming of unheard music and solving programming problems in my sleep.

ZF I’m so glad we finally had this talk.

HW I hope this wasn’t just making a mountain out of a molehill.

Zipora Fried studied at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna. Recent exhibitions include Dark Paradise, Clocktower Gallery, New York (2013); Drawing a Line in the Sand, Peter Blum Gallery, New York (2012); Salon Noir at On Stellar Rays, New York (2011); Greater New York at MoMA PS1, Queens (2010). Fried's work is represented in museum collections such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, Stockholm. Fried has achieved numerous awards for her experimental films, which have been featured in festivals worldwide.

Figurative art
Body politics
Composition (Music)
The Other
BOMB 126
Winter 2014
The cover of BOMB 126