May 04 - Aug 28 2022
Swiss Institute is pleased to present the first institutional survey of celebrated Zürich-based artist Walter Pfeiffer in the United States. The exhibition, the artist’s most wide-ranging to date, primarily consists of artwork shown publicly for the first time. Pfeiffer is recognized as a key figure of contemporary photography, having ascended to prominence within Zürich’s countercultural circles in the 1970s. Infamous at the time for his frank depictions of gay sex juxtaposed with scenes of domestic solitude and snapshots of friends, Pfeiffer explores the syntax of pictures: how acts of arrangement and modes of presentation generate moods and associations. Organized chronologically, the exhibition brings together photographs, paintings, drawings, videos and collages made by Pfeiffer over the last six decades to showcase the artist’s approach to capturing life’s pleasures, poetics and oddities in images. From still lifes to landscapes to portraits, Pfeiffer’s style oscillates between graceful naturalism and playful self-awareness.
Pfeiffer was born in the rural village of Beggingen, Switzerland in 1946 and moved to Zürich in 1966 to attend the newly established experimental art school, Form & Farbe, as a member of its inaugural class. There he was first exposed to the satirical and disruptive attitudes of Dada, an artistic movement which was founded in the city fifty years prior, as well as to Pop Art. To support his newfound art practice, Pfeiffer worked as a graphic designer and stylist for Globus department store, illustrating advertisements and arranging window displays. A towering painting of a cat’s expectant face made in this period greets visitors to SI’s gallery.
Whilst living communally in a 19th century villa on Freigutstrasse in the center of the city, Pfeiffer began photographing friends, lovers and visitors to his home, using flash to correct a blur caused by his tremulous hands. He quickly began to incorporate photography into his artistic practice, expanding upon the stylings of Wilhelm von Gloeden, the portraiture of George Platt Lynes and Herbert List, the tableaux of Paul Outerbridge and Luigi Ghirri, as well as the aesthetics of beefcake magazine Physique Pictorial. Alongside detailed pencil drawings of body parts and mundane objects, these photographs demonstrate Pfeiffer’s blending of precise timing with the casual, often impish attitudes of his models.
In 1974, at the invitation of Swiss curator Jean-Christophe Ammann, Pfeiffer participated in the groundbreaking exhibition Transformer: Aspekte der Travestie at Kunstmuseum Luzern. Inspired by the fluidity of gender, sexual reflexivity and the stylings of Glam rock musicians, the exhibition placed Pfeiffer in dialogue with artists including Urs Luthi, Luciano Castelli and Katharina Sieverding. In addition to providing the catalogue’s cover, Pfeiffer presented 19 photographs of Carlo Joh, his muse, who died shortly before the exhibition’s opening. This survey marks the first time these prints have been exhibited since their original display.
Following a decade of travel and collaborations, Pfeiffer seldom left Zürich in the 1990s, retreating from the the circuits of contemporary art to focus on painting and teaching. The resultant solitary nature of Pfeiffer’s practice prompted a shift towards scenes free of bodies: kaleidoscopic still lifes, flower paintings and nature photography that, in spite of their personless content, still simmer with a vitality also present in Pfeiffer’s depictions of homes and interiors. Views of Pfeiffer’s current apartment complex undergoing renovation, cast against an overcast sky, are accompanied by a portrait of the artist’s mother and a drying rack strewn with white garments. In parallel with these quotidian studies, Pfeiffer’s attraction to opulence emerges. In a more recent photograph, the windows of Marie Antoinette’s bedroom in the Petit Trianon are shown ajar, overlooking the Temple of Love.
Distinguished by their tonal variety, a selection of Pfeiffer’s self-portraits are installed on SI’s second floor gallery alongside a display of the artist’s scrapbooks, an integral element of his practice developed from 1971 to the early 1990s. In agendas, binders and notebooks, Pfeiffer formulates collages as punchlines, integrating his own photographs amongst 3-D objects and images cut from fashion magazines and classified ads. Reminiscent of the absurdist potency and irreverent spirit found in collages made by Hannah Höch and later William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Pfeiffer’s books meticulously synthesize color, form, texture and language into a droll vernacular unique to the artist. On the opposite wall, three monitors cycle through hundreds of pages of Pfeiffer’s unpublished journals and the guestbook of his Freigutstrasse villa, while a fourth plays two videos: Music for Millions (1977) and The Plaza (1985-2001). In the former, Pfeiffer and friends experiment with a camera in his studio, tuning the radio to different stations, dressing and dancing in accordance with the changes in frequency. Across these varied formats and stages, Pfeiffer conveys in pictures how life’s vacancies are punctuated by eruptions of expression and charm. With both distance and intimacy, the artist illustrates these spontaneous revolutions.