Walter Pichler, an Artist Who Bucked the Status Quo, Dies at 75
By DENISE GRADY
Published: July 28, 2012
Walter Pichler, an architect who became a leading artist in Austria’s postwar avant-garde movement, eventually distancing himself from the art establishment by moving to a farm and creating works mainly to please himself, died on July 16 at his home in Burgenland, Austria. He was 75.
The cause was cancer, said his assistant, Alois Hörtl.
Mr. Pichler was a sculptor and illustrator whose works included a white, torpedo-shaped helmet with a television inside it (“Portable Living Room”), a rusty bed frame supporting a humanoid form divided by sheets of jagged glass, and numerous drawings and models of fantastical structures, among them floating cities and underground buildings.
His architectural drawings were not just plans; they were also works of art in and of themselves. Other images — “dream drawings,” as he called them — were dark and psychologically loaded. His figures were often skeletal or robotic.
“In the early 1960s he was one of a small group of Austrian architects who took a visionary approach and made images of architecture that completely defied the status quo,” said Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, which owns 16 of Mr. Pichler’s drawings. The group also included the architects Hans Hollein and Raimund Abraham, who won international renown.
The group’s drawings and models challenged modernist architecture, which emphasized function and often produced stark buildings devoid of ornamentation and dominated by concrete and metal.
“They began to explore the emotional resonances of architecture,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “A building might tell a story, rather than just be a function.” Mr. Pichler liked designing buildings that were never going to be built.
In an essay, he wrote, “this is what we reproach architectural functionalism with: it no longer functions.” He proclaimed, “What I call for is an architecture which fascinates.”
Walter Pichler was born on Oct. 1, 1936, in Deutschnofen, northern Italy. He studied art at the Hochschule für Architektur in Vienna and began working as an architect in the 1950s.
In the early 1970s, after a flurry of shows in Europe and the United States brought him international acclaim, Mr. Pichler moved to Burgenland, a corner of eastern Austria near Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia, away from the world of galleries, museums, exhibitions, art critics and collectors. There he did what is widely viewed as his best and most important work.
“He bought a little farm there, and in one of the buildings he discovered a little figure that was wrapped in gauze — I think, a Christ figure,” said Barbara Gladstone, owner of the Gladstone Gallery in Manhattan, which has shown his work. “He was inspired to make a kind of altar for it, to give it a special place.”
Mr. Pichler converted a farm building to house the figure and then began altering the other half-dozen or so outbuildings on the property, installing one of his own sculptures in each. One is composed of two large, cylindrical concrete containers with a system of gutters that collect and disgorge water. The sculptures and the buildings that sheltered them became his life’s work.
The works were “very polished, dark, ominous, mechanical,” Ms. Gladstone said, likening some to Darth Vader, the villain in the “Star Wars” movies.
“He really built these sculptures for himself,” Ms. Gladstone said. “He didn’t want to compromise anything, and if he worked for himself, he didn’t have to.”
Mr. Pichler is survived by his wife, Elfi, and his daughter, Anna Tripamer.
He refused to sell the sculptures from the farm but sometimes lent them out for shows. Ms. Gladstone, who had seen his work in a show at MoMA, traveled to Vienna in the hope that he would allow her to exhibit his drawings. She found him to be serious, formal, elegantly dressed and not easily persuaded to part with his drawings, she said.
“He was always surprised when someone wanted to show them,” she said. “The commercial world was not something he went after.”