More Concrete than Concrete. Josef Bauer: A Compact Overview in Graz

Florian Neuner
Kunstverein Graz, 19.06.2014

The modernising impetus unleashed by neo-avant-garde positions such as those of the Vienna Group, and also expressed in work by authors like Helmut Heißenbüttel, Franz Mon or Eugen Gomringer, did not have a lasting impact on German-language literature. In the long term it was instead the literary work from Group 47 that prevailed; these authors, most notably represented by figures such as Günter Grass, Martin Walser or Ingeborg Bachmann, drew every possible lesson – political and moral, for example –  from the “Zero Hour” of 1945, yet did not draw any aesthetic consequences from the experience. Narratives were told as they always had been, whilst poems continued to be decked with metaphors à la Gottfried Benn. Although the literature scene and literary studies now largely ignore the modernist strand in post-war literature in German, some protagonists of this movement have once again become the focus of attention in affiliated disciplines in the last few years. Aanant & Zoo in Berlin for example recently showed Gerhard Rühm’s Arbeiten auf Papier / Works on Paper; Dieter Roth’s growing posthumous reputation as an artist has also helped to attract more interest in his poetic oeuvre. And the Grazer Kunstverein is devoting a veritable retrospective to Josef Bauer.

Josef BauerFig. 1

  Traversing the boundaries between media was always a central aspect for neo-avant-garde literature – this is sometimes identified with concrete poetry, some refer to it as experimental literature, others as New Poetry. Viewing language as material on the one hand meant that its tonal and articulatory dimension could be viewed in isolation and appraised from a quasi-musical perspective. At the same time, trajectories that led towards the realm of the fine arts were opened up by underscoring writing’s visual form. The point of departure for what is known as visual poetry was generally a white sheet of paper, slotted into a typewriter. The aesthetic of typescript formed a frame for visual exploration of language, drawing on elements such as the uniform spacing of letters, or their fixed proportions. In addition, excerpts torn out of newspapers often appeared as collaged text material, alongside the  handwritten signature of the artist. Josef Bauer however, born in Upper Austria in 1934, abandoned the two-dimensional sheet of paper as the exclusive arena of visual poetry at a fairly early stage – we are talking about the mid-1960s – and clearly demarcated his work from “the great majority of other artists, who were enslaved by the multitude of possible forms of visualisation for texts on paper”, as Jiří Valoch wrote on the occasion of a 2008 exhibition in Plzeň.
  This forms the starting point for the compact Graz retrospective; displaying thirty works from a period spanning forty years, it offers a multi-faceted overview of Bauer’s highly imaginative conceptual art.  In the 1960s he coined the term “tactile poetry” to refer to his approach, sketching out his practice of viewing language as material in a more all-encompassing sense than concrete poetry of that era did. More concrete than concrete, you might say.  Eugen Gomringer once referred to a “concrete world” that Bauer was working on: his ”tactile poetry” is poetry you can reach out and touch. Letters in the form of three-dimensional objects are set in relation to human bodies – as in the case of buchSTABEN / Letters, set on the end of long rods, which are then moved and positioned by the artist, or in a photographic Körpergalerie / Body Gallery, in which a girl embraces a giant  “K”.

  Josef Bauer Kunstverein GrazFig. 2

However, tactile poetry can also appear in the guise of a Nackenstütze / Neck Support or may step across the boundary separating it from Land Art (for example in a photo series produced on Ibmer Moor). In any event, the borders between sculpture, performance or visual poetry never played a role for Bauer. The early installation Gedeck für eine Person / Place-setting for One from 1969, shown in Graz, still exudes the didactic air associated with philosophy of language that is emblematic of many works of concrete poetry too: an armchair next to a table is represented simply by the sequence of letters spelling out the German word “SESSEL”;a representation of a fork is visible on the table, alongside a loaf of bread and a real spoon, together with the printed word, “MESSER” (“knife”). Later installations, which Bauer in some cases worked on over an extended period, are more complex in their conception, such as Raum der Büglerin / Ironing Woman’s Room (1970–1992), which comprises 13 objects (laundry, ironing board, a picture frame etc.) that form an evocative constellation.
  Bauer has continued to this day to inflect a spectrum of variants in a broad range of media on the great question of language and/in space, for example in a series of slides in Raumstudien / Space Studies (1968–2005). In und / and from 2005, “u”, “n” and “d” are set on a table in the form of three iron letters – however, anyone who thinks they have grasped in just one swift glance has not yet spotted that the “d” is four centimetres thicker than the other letters; in contrast, a text tube from 1991 is lined on the inside with newspaper, as wastepaper bins sometimes are. The observer asks: is this about reading the text? Am I meant to bend down and peer into the tube?  Over the course of decades, Bauer has also used text and images to spell out the nuances of colour and colour perception, in a certain sense at the intersection between concrete poetry and conceptual art Examples include Zweifarbenbild gelb / Two-colour Painting: Yellow (1985), a monochromatic blue panel bearing the letters “gelb” (“yellow”) in an elegant, matching shade of blue, or Rote Quadrat /  Red Square from 2003; this is a square text panel, on which Bauer presents – black on white – the designations for certain shades of red, from cadmium to ruby red or terra pozzuoli. Lob der Oberfläche / Praise of the Surface (1987) is made up of four concrete pipes, their upper sides painted green, red, blue or yellow, whilst Farbträger / Supports for Colour (1988–1992) works with over-painted poster décollages. One current work trenchantly shows Verfügbare Pinselstriche / Available Brushstrokes as casts arranged on the floor;  Bauer’s interest remains, over and over again, directed to the material.
  Josef Bauer’s oeuvre does not have to be understood in terms of literature, although this was the primary mode of reception for decades – last but not least because Linz, where Bauer worked, was a central node for neo-avant-garde literature in the 1970s and 1980s with the circle around Heimrad Bäcker and his journal neue texte and the publishing house by the same name; in addition, Bauer was a member of the legendary “bielefelder colloquium neue poesie”, which wound up its work in 2002. In 1977 his central catalogue publication was also released as a neue texte edition, and sets itself firmly within literary discourse with its title, zeile für zeile / line by line. Austrian reviews of the Graz exhibition have now quite rightly referred to other contexts  – pointing out that Bauer created body-oriented sculpture, for example the aforementioned work Nackenstütze / Neck Support, long before Franz West and Erwin Wurm worked in this vein.

Josef Bauer_Kunstverein GrazFig. 3

For decades, with far too little attention from the art world, Josef Bauer has been working on unbelievably diverse modes of making concrete concepts and processes fluid, and in the process has managed to avoid slipping into the kind of ossification in aseptic coolness that makes certain “concrete” work look so dated nowadays. The exhibition at the Grazer Kunstverein provides an impressive example of the multiple directions to which this oeuvre can be connected.

Josef Bauer: Werke 1965–Heute
December 7, 2013 – February 23, 2014 at Grazer Kunstverein, Palais Trauttmansdorff, Burggasse 4, A-8010 Graz

Fig. 1
Josef Bauer
‘Tatort’, 1966, (Photography, 30 x 23,5 cm)
Courtesy of the Artist

Fig. 2
Josef Bauer
‘Körpergalerie’, 1974, (Photography, 15,3 x 24 cm)
Courtesy of the Artist

Fig. 3
Josef Bauer
‘Taktile Poesie, Nackenstütze’, 1967, (Photography, 20,3 x 30,5 cm)
Courtesy of the Artist

Florian Neuner is a Berlin based writer and journalist. He is founder and editor of the journal IDIOME. Hefte für Neue Prosa (Klever Verlag).