In late 1992, just as his career was about to take off and not long after his participation in Documenta 9 earned him international recognition, Austrian painter and sculptor Kurt Kocherscheidt died at age 49. Not that he fell into total oblivion, but the artist who signed his works “Kappa,” later reduced to “K,” remained more or less an Austrian phenomenon, only occasionally noticed outside the boundaries of his native country.
This year, however, Kocherscheidt returned to the spotlight, as institutions in Germany and Austria determined to put him back on the map. After a retrospective at the Josef Albers Museum in Bottrop, Germany, last spring, the Essl Museum in Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, mounted an exhibition spanning the years 1970 to 1992. With the exception of one sculpture, a relief placed at the entrance in a vitrine, the show focused on his paintings, which were arranged in chronological groupings. The exhibition conveyed a clear idea of Kappa’s artistic journey from sketchy, partly figurative, partly abstract paintings to predominantly abstract canvases with a heavy application of oil paint.
Upon entering the first room, visitors were immediately thrown into Kocherscheidt’s mid-’70s surreal universe. Crickets and beetles crawl about on oversize flowers; antennae and limbs sprout. Figurative elements are coupled with circles, cones or diamond-shaped splinters. In the early works, the partially bare canvases are colored in a range of earth tones so subdued that, among them, ocher seems bright. In paintings in the adjacent rooms, curious hybrid beings—personified bugs, flies and dogs—gather around a dinner table. In an “unsettling encounter,” or Ungeklärtes Zusammentreffen (1979), two dog-headed chimeras face each other, seemingly reluctant to sit down at the partially set table.
From the mid-’80s onward, Kocherscheidt’s peculiar anthropomorphism gave way to geometric forms found in nature. Spiderweblike grids and simple patterns began to cover the entire canvas. Colors grew darker, formal contrasts starker. The brush was traded for the palette knife. Some of the works were obsessively painted, over and over, and they became more and more abstract. Increasingly, they were about the medium itself. The exhibition closed with Kocherscheidt’s final, large-scale paintings, in which he carried this approach to its extreme. Thickly slathered in oil paint, the paintings become quasi-sculptural objects that suggest little more than the process of their making. One untitled work from 1992, for instance, records the trail of the palette knife spiraling inward until it could go no further.