I never met Kurt Kocherscheidt in person, but I have visited his grave. It is in the cemetery of Jennersdorf, a remote community on the edge of the Austrian federal state of Burgenland, down towards the state of Styria and the border to Hungary. Martin Kippenberger is also buried there. Jennersdorf was long a retreat for artists, an Austrian arcadia. The landscape is hilly, the light southern, and in the early 1970s, abandoned farmhouses could be bought cheaply. Like Kocherscheidt, Walter Pichler acquired an old property, adding a series of extensions for his sculptures, and turning it into a total art work. Out there, far from the cities, one can work well. But one can also easily be forgotten.
This nearly happened to Kocherscheidt’s brilliant oeuvre. In 1992, Kocherscheidt took part in Documenta IX, but the artist died that same year, aged 49, of heart failure. Many years passed before his powerfully archaic paintings were seen again in large-scale exhibitions: there was a Kocherscheidt show at the Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck in Remagen in 2008, in spring of this year at Josef Albers Museum Quadrat, Bottrop, and now at the Essl Museum in Klosterneuburg.
For this exhibition, curator Veit Loers focused on Kocherscheidt’s painting, leaving aside both the totem-like wooden sculptures of his later years and his playful early works. Only two pieces from 1970 found their way into the show. Positioned at the start – clearly as a contrast – were a large painted plywood relief depicting an idyllic South Seas scene (The Lagoon) and a chocolate-brown plaster tableau featuring a winged figure sitting sadly in front of his painting utensils (Self-portrait as Black Genius). Compared with these jaunty works, the pictures that followed look like something from another world.
And indeed, they were all made in the wake of a momentous year-long tour of South America in 1972 and ’73. After this, Kocherscheidt’s motifs changed completely. All traces of narrative were extinguished. The rawness and immediacy of the South American landscape seem to have been translated into the sheer materiality of the painting. The canvases made during the years that followed are often an unprimed grey, the oil paints applied thickly, the palette earthy – umber, sulphur yellow, rusty red, dirty green, black – as in Vorzeichen (Omen, 1978) and Schlafwerkzeuge (Sleep Tools, 1980). In most cases, multiple thin brushstrokes are laid over the canvas like cobwebs.
But here it is not a matter of colour portraying itself as in Abstract Expressionism, not to mention gestural abstraction. The pictures always portray a reality beyond their mere means of portrayal: this thing here could be a plant, that one a loaf of bread, a table, a mask. But Kocherscheidt’s motifs are never really decipherable. Rather than symbols, they appear on the canvas as realities in their own right. And because the focus is not on representation but on real presence, there is no need for any illusion of three-dimensionality or referential colours. In an interview, the artist once described how things change ‘on their way from one’s head to the canvas’, how ‘pictures take on a life of their own and objects are lost during painting’. But in his work, they never slipped into tragedy or poetry, remaining lapidary and silent.
Over the years, Kocherscheidt’s painting became more and more monochromatic. The presence of forms – spirals, discs, cones and nets – was increasingly matched by their refusal to say anything, as in Chinesische Mitte II (Chinese Centre II, 1991) or Grünocker I (Green Ochre I, 1992). In spite of this, all of these pictures possess an astonishing sensuousness and physicality. For all their darkness, they still come across today as fresh, almost as though the paint were still wet. Compared with most contemporary positions in painting – be they glittering, conceptual or anecdotal – Kocherscheidt’s oeuvre is highly distinctive. The oppressive seriousness of his painting is most reminiscent of certain pictures by Max Beckmann. Kocherscheidt’s rediscovery is a major gain. The archaic, primitive quality of his works can be quite unsettling.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell