Field Notes on a Change of Location

Walter Pichler’s oeuvre, characterized by an inherent tension between architecture and sculpture, has interested me—if memory serves—ever since he first started bringing it, his oeuvre, into this world, into his world.
It was thoughts such as the above which accompanied me on my most recent visit to St. Martin in southern Burgenland, where Walter Pichler, one of the leading artists of our times, has created a unique place of art: the site contains a multitude of constructions which are purpose-built for his sculptures, constructions that impress one as being something like miniature temples—all in all, a Gesamtkunstwerk.

And it is precisely there that the artist succeeds quite naturally, it would seem, in drawing the observer into his holistic worldview. His works are parts, protagonists of an overall whole, a whole which gives them their uniqueness, makes them irreplaceable. Like individuals, they manifest their respective selves within this space, at this location which is theirs. Pichler claims for his works something which seems unusual for art objects: identity. He bestows it upon them not only by according them roles (such as that of “Protector”), but also by embedding them within locations, by creating worlds for them.

Perhaps it is also the attempt to reinterpret the mystery of this delicate but nonetheless powerful realm between sculpture, architecture and the assertion of life: for this same purpose, I personally retreated to northern Burgenland, unaware (but of course somehow knowing) that there, once again, I would be unable to escape the distinct traces of Walter Pichler. It was on a site situated between vineyards, wine cellars and a traditional quarry—where I built my “pit” and Walter Pichler put up his sculpture Die Sitzgruben [The Seating Pit] (1970)—that “we” found each other once again, in that place-in-between—between sculpture, nature and architecture. Fundamentally, however, it is not just about in-between space, but much rather about free space, seeing that we succeeded in physically (and ideationally) locating ourselves exactly where we did.

One of the peculiarities of Walter Pichler is that he treats public portrayals, presentations and exhibitions of his work with extreme care and caution, and sparingly in terms of their number. Pichler contemplates, makes plans and deals with the matter at hand intensely before actually beginning with an exhibition project. I remember that the exhibition Sculpture: Walter Pichler (1990/91) had already become an unshakable idée fixe of my museum work as far back as 1986, when I was appointed director of the MAK (at the time still called the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts). And it was not to be an exhibition in the usual sense. Pichler took on the location of the museum as a new challenge of spatial and intellectual penetration. He slashed open walls, built massive pedestals of bricks and concrete, drew an axis through the central exhibition hall—really through the entire building—and set up a temporary House for the Cross in the museum garden. This exhibition project had been preceded by years of conversation and debate between the artist and myself.

Pichler’s starting point was architecture, which—as I remember—began the 1960s with a provocative outcry advocating a new sort of architecture, an architecture whose bold, strong and powerful utopias such as Core of an Underground City* still represent a challenge for present-day students at institutions like Columbia, SCI-Arc, Cooper Union and Shanghai University. Pichler’s success has been in defining this position, giving it lasting significance and, just as he does with his own works, creating identity.

In Gate to the Garden, which is at once an independent structure and an indispensible part of something larger, he created a sculptural work which intervenes successfully and quite empathetically in the historic architectural substance of the museum. At the same time, it allows sculpture and architecture to become a single whole, thereby also inseparably joining museum and artwork. Pichler created not only an autonomous work, but also opened a gateway for art. Today, over 20 years later, his Gate has lost neither its fresh, contemporary essence nor its unique aesthetic authoritativeness.

This he created in 1990. Since then, Walter Pichler’s presence has been extended into the MAK Collection of Contemporary Art through his drawings and objects. Walter Pichler. Sculptures Models Drawings, the last exhibition which I initiated as MAK Director, can also be explained via an awareness of the responsibility that an arts institution assumes when it continually and uncompromisingly accompanies artists on their individual paths.

In Walter Pichler’s world of the unity of sculpture and architecture, it is no longer about crossing borders between disciplines. For Pichler, this unity is something which he has long taken for granted—indeed, he may have actually done so right from the beginning. His sculptures are part of an overall whole, and fragmentation or removal from this whole is something which they tolerate only with difficulty. His sculptures accept no changes in ownership; they belong to Walter Pichler just as he belongs to them. Pichler’s overwhelming refusal to give in to the seductions and dictates of the (art) market is the logical consequence of this unity.

His works also refuse to accept just any place of exhibition; Pichler much rather demands a place for them like for human beings, a place where they can retain their subjectivity, their holistic quality. The MAK is this place-of-being for Gate to the Garden, just as his buildings are this place-of-being for his sculptures. They are rooted and anchored in a consistent vision which is capable of encompassing more of Walter Pichler than many are able to comprehend.

With regard to his art, Pichler has conceived something which museums are challenged to understand: that art stands at the center of the museum, and the human being at the center of art. Art must not be allowed to degenerate into an object of an institution’s analysis, presented simply as an “artistic stance” or a “work” belonging to the institution’s cultural profile. Pichler’s sculptures make a claim to subjectivity, to humanness. They are not satisfied with being treated as art market wares, and they unceasingly demand their own space. Museums must do justice to the challenge of functioning as a place-of-being for art, claiming this role in the interest of both its artists and the people who work there and visit. For his sculptures, Walter Pichler demands from a museum no less than what he demands for himself: an art institution which accompanies him, rather than interprets him. He demands congruency and communication on the level of interest, surely on the level of respect, and also on that of passion—independent of any so-called “good feel” for the art market. Following an artist as a museum—as the MAK has been successfully proving for over 20 years now—means more than loyalty: it is a statement of faith. It means advocacy for the vision of the individuals behind the art and the art behind the individuals. Walter Pichler is a living example of such devotion, formidable as only few others. Just as Walter Pichler claims entire houses for his sculptures, he also claims for them museums such as the MAK, which has long chosen to devote itself not to objects or “stances,” but rather to a consistent mission of giving space to art and artists. In the eyes of Walter Pichler, the MAK seems to be a place-of-being—and staying—for his sculptures, and this fills me with great personal joy.

Peter Noever
August 2011

*) The exhibition Hollein – Pichler – Architecture. Work in Progress, Galerie nächst St. Stephan, Vienna 1963