Walter Pichler by Diane Lewis

BOMB 77 Fall 2001
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Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Austrian artist Walter Pichler’s studio is far removed from Vienna, in a town called St. Martin. In this rustic environment he has responded to the landscape with a series of primordial architectural works that comprise an enclave. The structures he builds on his land are integral to his sculptural works, and Pichler’s studio is filled with the history of his endeavor in the form of drawings, sculptures, models, castings, and finely crafted architectural details. He works across all of these disciplines; yet his subject matter is preeminently the importance of penetrating the solemnity of the archaic, anonymously authored work of art. This is the attempt of one individual to confront objects and structures that come from a civilization’s collective memory, from its rituals and its magic.

Pichler employs the landscape to construct bodies, and the body to cast and imprint architectural members in continuous, alchemical transformations among mind, memory, and matter. Drawings are employed for diverse purposes: some explore the consciousness of the figure in and as inhabitable space; others locate and inscribe structure and structures. But all of the drawings are texts for other unfoldings, and in this way are intrinsically architectural. They are notations for other states of being, other constructions.

Authored by an individual bereft of the collective, his works become a modern search for equivalents to the mystery found in tribal objects, ancient structures, and embodiments of the human figure for metaphysical reflection. His particular discomfort permeates the work with an existential character in the spirit of Giacometti, who Pichler knew as a student in Paris. But over the long distance, Giacometti’s drawings, their sense of space, their few lines, remain a challenge. Pichler speaks of a “super drawing, a drawing that is interdependent with a concrete manifestation, a drawing as a notation for, or a memory of.”

Born in South Tyrol just before the epoch of World War II and maturing in an era of a simultaneous unification and loss of collective heritage, Pichler witnessed the political abyss of postwar Europe with a criticality employed to redefine the psychic ties latent in works of art and architecture. I can read his choice to situate in the rural landscape of Austria at St. Martin as an induced isolation in a geologic time; a search to be made in a site outside of an anthropocentric, linear history. Pichler has conceived of his surroundings as equivalent, through his architecture, to a classical landscape. He fuses the principles of Greek space with the issues of indigenous form.

Pichler’s imaginary transformation of the landscape into sculpture necessitates that structure and material be readings of terrestrial conditions. In this way, he enters the root of architecture. The elemental articulation of his architecture as plinth, roof, megaron, and portal, engaged as temples for sculpture, indicates that through his work, he reconceives his chosen environment, the rued mountains of Austria’s southern border, as a classical landscape.

His contemporary imagery is imbued with a sense of the Gothic and the classical. The basket of lines he uses in drawings to encase the figure is projected directly into his sculptural construction as branches. These arboreal skeletons are filled out with mud and seem slightly druidic in character. They also have a heraldic and trophy-like presence. Both Gothic and pagan, they are the eternal captives of the pavilions at St. Martin.

Pichler and his work are existential, solemn, archaic, contemporary, witty, heroic, and antiheroic, all at once. His interest in the individual’s loss of participation in a collective spiritual culture reminds me of the 19th and 20th-century tradition of philosophical and ethnographic theory surrounding the German language, as can be seen in the architecture of Gottfried Semper. Pichler has affectionately hinted at the power of his childhood encounters with the exotic and ancient in Austria museums of natural history and ethnography, and their influence on his desire to make images, structures, and figures. Simultaneously urbane and rustic, he can charge any site with magic.

—Diane Lewis

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Originally published in

BOMB 77, Fall 2001

Featuring interviews with James Casebere, Raimund Abraham, Julia Wolfe, Mary Robinson, Barry Hannah, Jonathan Franzen, and Barbet Schroeder. 

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