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Whistling in the Dark

The discomfiting genius of Hans Josephsohn

Joe Fyfe
October 05, 2023
Hans Josephsohn, ‘Untitled (Beno),’ conceived in 1956 and cast in 2015, brass, 18 1/8 x 12 1/4 x 14 1/8 inches

Josephsohn Estate and Kesselhaus Josephsohn/Galerie Felix Lehner; Photo: Kesselhaus Josephsohn, St. Gallen

Hans Josephsohn, ‘Untitled (Beno),’ conceived in 1956 and cast in 2015, brass, 18 1/8 x 12 1/4 x 14 1/8 inches

Josephsohn Estate and Kesselhaus Josephsohn/Galerie Felix Lehner; Photo: Kesselhaus Josephsohn, St. Gallen

There is a new survey exhibition of the work of Hans Josephsohn (1920-2012) in New York, this time at Skarstedt gallery on 79th Street in Manhattan. This one closes on Oct. 28. It will most likely be as ignored as the Swiss sculptor’s previous solo exhibitions in the U.S., which is a shame—for us.

Josephsohn’s work discomfits even its art world champions because it does not fit any obvious or comforting mold. Almost everything he did has a prehistoric, dug-up aura, but it would be misleading to think this was the point. Nostalgia tinged with archaism was far from the artist’s intentions. The work might also seem old school or academically conventional, as some sculptures fall into traditional formats like portrait heads and reclining nudes, but a lot of what Josephsohn produced is not quite in any immediately recognizable genre. The sculptures’ composition of reworked, patched, and encrusted surfaces is derived from their initial realization in plaster. The colors, a combination of closely mottled rich browns and grays, are products of brass casting meeting the oxygenated atmosphere, accompanied by Josephsohn’s supervised adjustments of the patinas in the foundry.

The sculptures at Skarstedt range in dates from 1950 to 2004, all representing editions of six. Many are at least life-size figures, reclining women, as mentioned, large and very large busts of both sexes. The earliest sculptures here are heads, at this early point corresponding to adult human head size. The lordly but reticent half-figures, as they are called, came later. His work is always traveling in-between a fugitive likeness and a very dense but somehow eloquent indistinctness.

One of the heads, Untitled (Beno), from 1956, has slightly chiseled edges (and may have been originally worked up in clay, which he sometimes utilized very early on), done when he was breaking away from a classical training in Italy and Switzerland. The head is a good example of Josephsohn’s curious stylelessness, which was attached to his practice of working from life. The resemblance to the model might remain, but any fine art context is almost absent. This early work was met with confusion, as there was no discernible emotional tenor nor drama in his figures, and most wondered what exactly he was up to. Most critics still do, though Josephsohn has had numerous museum retrospectives and is in collections in Europe and a few here.

The notable half-figures mentioned earlier are present. These later—and odder—extended heads with tiny ears and noses are a bit like elongated but stumpy talking tree trunks without mouths or branches. They are curvy, spattered, and elegantly blunt. These long heads on stunted shoulders with abbreviated torsos make one imagine some immensely delicate brute modeling them out of chewing tobacco.

This was my impression when I saw five of the half-figures in the first show here, in 2006, at Peter Blum gallery in SoHo. That was the first and last time The New York Times saw fit to take notice. Ken Johnson wrote that they had a “portentousness redolent of European existentialism in the 1950s. Yet they have a sweet, almost comical aspect, too, and their old-fashioned, determinedly earthbound humanism is reassuring.” That description is what made me get over there to see them.

The day I saw those five half-figures was the beginning of my admiration for, and instruction from, the work and the person of Hans Josephsohn. I was so taken with them that my planned trip to Chelsea, where the largest portion of galleries in the city were still located, was cast aside indefinitely, as this work seemed to put everything I might see there in doubt.

I was reviewing regularly for Art in America at the time, and I went back for my second look. I went on in the subsequent review to describe this work as being from the hands of a magus. It wasn’t exactly magic, but some unusual kind of thinking was happening there. The five works only whetted my appetite.

I was deeply impressed with what I think was a realization that I was witnessing the products of a truly independent imagination, which is very different from a boundless one, or an endlessly inventive one. Josephsohn wasn’t a showoff. He had a genuinely deep originality tied to a very old and demanding practice.

As I learned from the monograph on him by Gerhard Mack, Josephsohn was engaged simply in the problems of representing the figure in sculpture. I also learned that he was a German Jewish emigrant from Königsberg, which was part of Prussia at the time of his birth, and that he lived in Zurich, having ended up there after a visit to Italy, where he fled the newly instituted Fascist laws against foreign Jews. This was 1938, soon Switzerland closed its borders, and he was stuck there. His parents and siblings were lost in the Holocaust. He never went back to Königsberg.

That review came out and I was contacted by Ulrich Meinherz, director of Kesselhaus, a foundry and museum in St. Gallen, Switzerland, that was founded in response to Josephsohn’s work. He had invited me to visit. Toward the end of that summer of 2006, I was waiting to receive a visa from Vietnam, as I had just received a Fulbright to spend six months there and in Cambodia. Everything was set, and I was packed and sitting on my hands, and the visa was taking its time being arranged. My mother called one day and said, “I’ve been asking my kids if they want to take a trip anywhere,” so I said, “Well, Mom, I’d like to travel around Switzerland and look at the work of this interesting sculptor.” She was also an artist and the idea appealed to her. I found a patron for my further Josephsohn research while I waited for my visa.

Reading the Gerhard Mack monograph, I had learned of the artist’s involvement with the younger architect Peter Märkli. It was a kind of mentorship. Over many discussions about architecture with Josephsohn, Märkli had advanced on his own idiosyncratic vision of building and structures. Among other buildings, Märkli designed the first permanent museum for the sculptor’s work in the rocky Ticino landscape of southern Switzerland and managed to place one or more of his works on or in every one of his other realized projects.

With an itinerary that included the museum, several Märkli houses, and a school, the artist’s studio in Zurich and the Kesselhaus Josephsohn in St. Gallen, we arrived and at the tourist help desk of Zurich’s main train station, the entire circular journey was arranged and ticketed, which, in addition to trains, included the occasional bus and trolley. At one point we were taken over a mountain on a bus full of children on their way to school.

The first stop happened to be the artist’s studio, arranged by Ulrich Meinherz. Josephsohn was a stocky figure about 5 feet, 10 inches with bright white hair and black glasses. He was sitting amid a vast array of plaster sculptures in progress at a small table with a few packages of biscuits, a cake, and a big stack of packages of the long slender cigars that he habitually smoked. We were offered coffee. He spoke no English and Ulrich translated. I tried to talk to him as my mother showed him photographs of her paintings of cows which he seemed content to look at. She was 76 at the time, he was 86, and though I don’t often think of my mother this way, she would turn the heads of strangers then as she does now. I assume he enjoyed her company, since he asked about her the next time I saw him.

Josephsohn corrected me on some of my observations in the review, like how I thought the heads could be looked at two ways, like in cubism. He said no, they began naturalistically, and described how a head in progress in the studio, much like the early heads in the Skarstedt show, would become half-figures. He showed me other works in progress, in which chunks of dried plaster were placed along the hip of a reclining figure in progress. A note to himself, he explained, to build up this area.

My general impression of him was that he was no magus. He was without pretension or affectation, plain-spoken, matter-of-fact and without undue humility. The yard surrounding the studio was full of plaster sculptures too, under small, sheltering rickety roofs to protect them from the rain. All the whiteness of the material gave no hint of the stonily metallic mud that were their final persona. I had read that where he lived when he was first in Zurich looked like he had never settled, that he was a transient. His vast studio was like that. One felt an impermanence, a temporariness, belying the years of work and history surrounding him. Maybe because it was his lone self working there, he never used assistants, there was no efficient “workshop” atmosphere.

We left and visited a school designed by Märkli with several reclining figural sculptures placed on the ground in a line along the perimeter of a play area, then we went out to a suburb of Winterthur, to inspect a house by Märkli built on a triangular plot on a hillside, with one Josephsohn sculpture on an exterior wall and one we could glimpse through the doorway. No one was home nor nearby in this quiet bedroom community, and I snuck off in a patch of woods to take a shit. The last time I did this with my mother nearby—she was waiting out on the road while I was in a gully protected by some trees—was when I was maybe 4 years old in the Adirondacks.

Josephsohn was represented in Zurich that fall of 2006 by Bob Von Orsouw gallery. Orsouw complained to me when I met him that the reclining figures on the ground at the primary school looked like pieces of shit. Within the next year, Josephsohn was to be represented internationally by Hauser and Wirth, though whether he had found more sympathetic sponsorship remained to be seen.

The museum in Giornico, a small town, is the location of the Museo La Congiunta, where Märkli built his Josephson Museum. I had read that Patricia Highsmith had lived in Ticino, she once described the region as “a land of mountains that block the sun”—that’s what it looked like there. She had been in Tegna, near the lake and town of Locarno, a tourist destination where we had spent the previous night. We took a bus up the one route through what seemed a continual stone valley of crevices with the occasional waterfall, to the local osteria where we asked for the key. Then there was a quarter-mile walk uphill to an unguarded, cast concrete windowless mass of attached cast-concrete cubes. The key opens a steel door, and one steps over a threshold into a tomblike series of connected chambers only illuminated by natural light from semitranslucent fiberglass coverings on the roofs.

There was nothing dramatic or spooky about the place, but it was quietly thrilling. It was an ideal viewing spot for the work, and from the entrance we walked through early relief sculptures through open doorways revealing sequentially later periods of work, notably many of his high reliefs: groups of figures interacting, held in place under a large plinth shape. There was more of the small later reliefs farther on and a group of half-figures. Märkli had devised an eminently practical way of familiarizing oneself with the entire breadth of the work. La Congiunta had eventually confirmed Märkli’s status as an architect of international standing.

A long journey through the mountains returned us north again to St. Gallen, where in a nearby valley the Kesselhaus Josephsohn holds the majority of his life’s inventory of work and the only public place where his work in plaster may be seen. At least one hundred sculptures in bronze are on the main floor of an old industrial building that is over 55 feet high, and on the lower level are sculptures in plaster filling the shelves and the rooms, hundreds of them. Small figures fill the shelving units.

I returned to Sitterwerk, where the foundry and the Kesselhaus are located, the following summer as a resident artist and writer, where I was able to begin a long essay on Josephsohn, again for Art in America. I sat looking over a river out my door with a small half-figure that was on loan to me on my desk. I could walk over to the Kesselhaus and look through the inventory, which I loved to do. I could go across the way and see the sculptures cast and patinated and once when he came to visit, I had another chat with him. He had a stroke later that summer, from then on, he had to be wheeled through the foundry to supervise his casting.

It wasn’t until I returned to New York and was rereading Edward Said’s book Late Style that I found a way to describe the kind of artist Josephsohn was. Lateness, according to Said, was to be unfashionable, untimely, anachronistic. That seemed to fit him.

One of the most important things I learned from him was a judgment more widely agreed on than I had known. It was the idea that there was a rift in Western art that some thought went from about the 11th century up until Cezanne, where the system of representation was so codified that it left the human imagination bereft, without a recourse to exercise true inventiveness. What I have come to think of Josephsohn is caught up in this one idea, which has allowed me an entrance into art of the Romanesque period that I would not have ever known how to understand without his work.

Then there is the power of working from life. Josephsohn has often been compared to Giacometti, and though there are stylistic similarities, the real crossover is their investment in working from models, which both had as one of the central forces in their practice. One’s trying to perceive reality though the model becomes a kind of complete language, as pure and as far outside of daily existence as mathematics or music, with its own laws to be discovered. Their difference, however, was in Josephson’s equal concentration on sculpture as mass. I later discovered that he was preoccupied with Romanesque churches, in their improvisational balance of weighted walls.

Hans Josephsohn pictured with this own reliefs in 2005
Hans Josephsohn pictured with this own reliefs in 2005

Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images

It is a continuing mystery to me how Josephson’s work has been seen and handled in the U.S., though he was admired, even venerated, by Swiss artists such as Fischli and Weiss. Ulrich Meinherz once told me, after leaving his studio, that Fischli and Weiss saw Josephsohn as “a real artist,” as if it was hard to imagine such a figure existing in the world. Josephsohn’s influence was more than detectable in a series they made 30 years ago, of little sculptural vignettes of subjects like “Bob Dylan arrives in NYC” that owe something to Josephsohn’s small, quasi-narrative reliefs. This is also the case with an Ugo Rondinone series, titled Moon Rise, a series of 12 large cartoonish heads, cast in aluminum and painted to look like raw Plastilina clay “that reversed every aspect of the naturalistically craggy, introverted works by Josephsohn, Rondinone’s sculptures are cartoonish and extroverted, mugging for the viewer,” as I wrote in a review in Art in America.

After Hauser and Wirth took over his representation, Josephsohn had his first and, up until this current show, last full-fledged survey exhibition at the gallery’s townhouse space on 67th Street. The gallery put a panel together to discuss the sculptures. On it was Mary Ceruti, at that time the director of Sculpture Center; the philosopher and art theorist Boris Groys; and Gianni Jetzer, an art writer and independent curator, who had organized exhibitions in St. Gallen and was presumably familiar with Josephsohn’s work. Ceruti, whom I knew, told me that night before the panel started that she had no idea who the artist was before she was asked to participate the previous week. Groys, it was obvious during the ensuing hour, didn’t know the work either. Jetzer was the most surprising. I will never forget his observation that the work was like the downtown restaurant Balthazar in its attempt to imitate a look from another era.

During the question period I stood up and took them to task. (“Oh it’s the expert,” Jetzer said.) The main point I was trying to make was that Josephsohn was a contemporary artist that found that he had to rely on the deep past of sculptural history to solve what he perceived as present sculptural problems. In this way, I said, I think he compares more with the architect Louis Kahn than to any other contemporary artist.

A year later Gavin Brown gallery showed three half-figures in a booth at Miami Basel surrounded by glowing paintings by Rob Pruitt, the most ironic and extroverted and playful of artists. The difficult part for me is that it always seems necessary to undercut the strange authority of seriousness that is another aspect of this multivalent artist. There seems to be a general embarrassment at the kind of commitment inherent in the work, even among those who feel or understand the need to show it. I’m reminded of two things: one, the scene in Bonnie and Clyde where they capture the sheriff and have their picture taken with him, where they mock this grim, impassive figure that stands for moral authority, and second, Susan Sontag’s comment that of all things that have come about in Western culture she never thought she would have to defend seriousness.

Josephsohn was a product of a time before everything was labeled within a specific cultural sign system. The work is more about destroying the self than defining it. Though he would never have agreed that his life’s work is imbued with anything like spiritual power, what I have seen of the general reaction to his work in this country reminds me of Boli figures, power objects of the Bamana tribe of Mali, a packed, encrusted, animallike figure. It is made with things said to have spiritual energy, like animal blood, chewed up or vomited Kola nuts, beer, semen, honey, metal, animal bones, vegetable matter, manure and grains, all packed tightly and added to over time. Apparently, when faced with this object during a trial that is taking place within the tribe for some offense, when the accused faces the Boli figure, being confronted with this object compels a confession. Similarly, Josephsohn’s figures seem to compel a lot of whistling in the dark.

Joe Fyfe is a painter living in New York who often writes on art. He is working on a biography of John Coplans.