Walter Pichler was one of the most celebrated and notable artists of the post-war Austrian avant garde. Simultaneously shy and stubborn, he spent the last four decades of his life away from the bustle and gossip of Vienna in the remote village of St. Martin an der Raab. Curiously there were relatively few major exhibitions of his work during his life, and the recent death of this visionary artist was also largely overlooked by the international press.
Walter Pichler trained as a sculptor but his output was truly interdisciplinary, spanning drawing, sculpture, and architecture. For Pichler, all these art forms were inseparable. The Viennese avant garde had evolved within an essentially Roman Catholic setting, and in fact many of the most explosive events of the time happened at the Galerie St. Stephan, which was run by a Catholic priest, Monsignor Otto Mauer. Pichler's first exhibition in 1963 took place in this Viennese gallery, in collaboration with none other than Hans Hollein. The exhibition was simply called Architektur, and Pichler’s manifesto declared:
It is born from the strongest of thoughts. For the people it will be a compulsion, that they will either suffocate on or live by—to live, the way I understand it. Architecture is not the shell for the primitive instincts of the masses. Architecture is embodiment of power and yearnings of a few people. It is a brutal thing, that has divested itself of art a long time ago.. It does not consider stupidity and weakness. It does not serve. It crushes those that cannot tolerate it. Architecture is the right of those that do not believe in right, but institute it. It is a weapon. Architecture unreservedly employs the strongest means that are at its disposal. Machines have taken over and people are only tolerated within its vicinity.
This statement shows Pichler's deep mistrust of the existing power structures being made manifest through the architecture of the time, and which indeed had held Austria in a vice-like grip from the Fascist years into the era of Allied occupation and post-war modernism. He understood architecture as being implicit with politics; it was therefore not an innocent form of art. Pichler continued to work closely with Hollein throughout the 1960s. They shared similar ideas on architecture in the sense that it was not just about static building practice, but could be expanded to embrace the mass media, and was also about human action. The work of both also revealed an intense obsession with the human body and its limitations, and both experimented with the concept of “minimal environments.”
Indeed, Pichler collaborated with Hollein and Ernst Graf on a project for the 1965 Paris Biennale, which created a “minimal world” on a footprint of just roughly three feet by three feet. This contained everything a person needed for survival: a place to sit, a nutrition supply, controls to regulate body functions through temperature and light etc. All the units were designed to line up with each other, and were to be made so that one isolated individual could easily connect with another. It was also intended as a highly mediated environment with television and the latest forms of telecommunication in place. Then, once an individual had died, their container could be flipped sideways and be buried, and then another installed in its place. This was certainly not the Archigram world of happy consumerism and girls in mini-skirts with speech bubbles. It had the messiness of real humanity, with actual flesh-and-blood bodies implicit in the process.
From there, Walter Pichler began to experiment with pneumatics, developing an inflatable chair in 1966 and a bubble space the year after. Bodily control was again the essence of these visionary designs, with the mass media acting as their core nervous system. By 1967 he had developed a TV helmet that anticipated today’s virtual environments. This was followed in 1968 by a survival suit, again as a darker version of Archigram, and these developments need to be understood within the context of space travel and the rapid development of new technologies and plastics. Pichler's projects proved to be groundbreaking and explosive at the Galerie St. Stephan and Documenta 4 when they were shown. Even today they can shock with their almost prophetic anticipation of future developments. Next to Hans Hollein, who acted in many ways as Pichler's mentor, he also operated within the circles of Raimund Abraham and Coop Himmelb(l)au.
By 1972, however, Walter Pichler had entered his period of isolation. His life thereafter merged his interests in architecture, sculpture and the human body in new ways. The farm that he owned developed, slowly and consistently, into an interdisciplinary piece of art. No more works were ever sold. Instead, his sculptures were given their own homes on site. They consisted of torsos, trunks of bodies on stretchers, made first out of wood and straw and then covered with clay. Primitive, eerie and yet timeless, Pichler’s projects were again uncompromisingly based on exploring the limits of the human body as a structure—not happy and fat and comfortably watching TV—but suspended in anguish.
Last year, his work was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum der Angewandten Kunst in Vienna, to celebrate his 75th birthday. Prior to that there had been exhibitions in the Stedelijk Museum in 1997, the Venice Biennale and the Städel Museum in 1982 as well, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1975. But this was in fact scant coverage over such a long and productive artistic life. Likewise, the death of this visionary figure has gone virtually unnoticed, which is another deep shame.