The Grazer Kunstverein is a bewildering space. Thanks in part to its labyrinthine layout and to the curatorial approach of director Krist Gruijthuijsen, who uses the space as if it were a Merzbau, one can scarcely find one’s bearings. The works and interventions of various artists and authors intertwine as if in a collage. Two permanent works by Ian Wilson and a so-called ‘Members Library‘, for example, are placed within the exhibition space. Other works feature as part of The Peacock – a permanent but constantly altered exhibition – a sculpture by Will Stuart, for example, and a rug by Nina Beier always turning up in a different place.
The works of 80-year-old Josef Bauer are at ease in this setting. Bauer remains relatively undiscovered even within Austria. This may be due to the fact that he has spent his entire life in and around his native city, Wels in Upper Austrian – never leaving the farm, as it were. Though this fact has fostered his overlooked position, his art is anything but provincial, oscillating between lettrism, concrete poetry and colour-focused painting. Many of his works deploy strategies and formal solutions that were devised around the same time in the major art capitals and for which other artists would garner fame. At the beginning of the austerely titled exhibition Werke 1965 – heute (Works 1965–present), for example, one finds a photograph of a man with a sausage-like sculpture slung over his shoulder. This is a 1967 photograph entitled Taktile Poesie, Nackenstütze (Tactile Poetry, Neck Support). As a point of comparison, Franz West did not begin his similarly mounted Passstücke (Adaptives) – sculptures designed to interact with the human body – until 1974. The 1969 work Gedeck für eine Person (Place Setting for One) is similarly striking. A spoon lies on a table beside a photograph of a fork beside the printed word MESSER (knife). While comparable works by Joseph Kosuth (e.g. One and Three Chairs, 1965) existed at the time, they were little known, especially in Europe. Other works by Bauer that involve lettering, such as buchSTABEN (Letters, 1968–ongoing), are comprised of long metal rods with individual letters attached to their tips, which are placed in groups or leaned against walls. As a swarm of moveable parts, the letter-rods perpetually generate new meaning.
Along with such reflections about perception, naming and the ‘grasping’ of language, what the exhibition reveals above all is Bauer’s focus on objects through his installations. One especially fine example is Verfügbare Pinselstriche (Available Brushstrokes, 2013), an unprepossessing grouping of small plaster casts of brushstrokes in various colours on the floor. In installations such as Griechenbeisl (1971), named after a bar, and Raum der Büglerin (Ironing Woman’s Room, 1970–92), by contrast, numerous everyday objects such as an ironing board, a sock and a small table have been partially coated with paint and arranged loosely in corners of rooms.
These groups of objects are structured as clusters; together they generate an intense atmosphere. They are likely what makes Josef Bauer’s oeuvre interesting from a contemporary perspective. They clearly align with certain artists’, curators’ and critics’ current conviction that artistic vigour is no longer to be expected in a single work; rather, a sort of consonance is to be sought – that is, complexity of meaning as poetic accord arises from combinations. These combinations can consist of different atmospheric spaces, different banal objects, or the works of highly divergent artists. The permanent exhibition The Peacock thus functions as a ‘prelude’ of sorts. The exhibition’s musical score then, segues cheerfully to complex combinations. Within the now two-decades-long trend of rediscovering artists who were underappreciated for a long time, this type of inclusion presents a persuasive alternative: inspiration rather than hagiography.
Translated by Jane Yager