Walter Pfeiffer @Swiss Institute

JTF (just the facts): A diverse gathering of photographs, drawings, videos, and other materials, displayed against white, orange, and blue walls and steel dividers in a series of rooms on the ground floor and a single room on the second floor of the museum. The exhibit was organized by Simon Castets and Daniel Merritt.

The following works have been included in the exhibit:

Ground Floor

  • 53 pigment ink prints, 1970/2022, 1974/2022, 1975/2022, 1976/2022, 1979/2022, 1980/2022, 1981/2022, 1982/2022, 1983/2022, 1984/2022, 1985, 1989/2022, 1991/2022, 1994/2022, 1995/2022, 1996/2022, 1997, 2004, 1998/2022, 2003, 2022, 2004/2022, 2005/2022, 2006/2022, 2008/2022, 2016/2022
  • 1 black and white inkjet print, 1978/2009
  • 1 black and white print, 1974/2003
  • 14 gelatin silver prints on document paper, 1973
  • 3 cibachrome prints, 1975/1992, 1984/1992
  • 1 inkjet print on satin paper, 1989/2015
  • 1 mixed media on fiberboard, 1966-1967
  • 3 pencil on paper, 1971, 1972, 1973
  • 1 watercolor and pen on paper, 1972
  • 2 colored pencil on paper, 1971, 1976
  • 1 crayon on paper, 1976
  • 4 gouache on paper, 1994, 1996, 1997

Second Floor

  • 4 pigment ink prints, 1970/2022, 1978/2022, 1988/2022, 2007/2022
  • 2 black-and-white prints, 1975, 1980/2022
  • 7 gelatin silver prints, 1986
  • 1 cibachrome print, 1977/2004
  • 1 pencil on paper, 1973
  • 2 video screen documentations of assorted notebooks, 1971-1985
  • 1 video screen documentation of assorted guestbooks and scrapbooks, 1971-1990
  • 1 video, 19 minutes 29 seconds, 1977
  • 1 video, 3 minutes 10 seconds, 1981-2005
  • 2 gouache on paper, 1989, 1990
  • 1 vitrine with selected scrapbooks, 1971-1988

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Swiss photographer Walter Pfeiffer’s retrospective exhibition opens with an unlikely first encounter – a painted folding screen featuring the enlarged face of a kitten. Pfeiffer made the screen in the mid-1960s when he was just getting started as an artist (and was working as a graphic designer for a local Zurich department store); he didn’t actually pick up a camera in earnest until a few years later. The confrontational but also strangely innocuous kitten is an uneasy place to start, and perhaps that’s fitting for an artist/photographer who hasn’t always been easy to categorize or slot into the existing art historical narrative.

Pfeiffer has often been labeled a cult photographer, that is until more recently when his growing reputation has pulled him out from underneath that kind of underground persona. He is perhaps best known for his photographic work from the 1970s and 1980s, which created a bridge between the more formal homoerotic aesthetics of the middle 20th century (like George Platt Lynes or Herbert List) and a looser, more diaristic style of photography, as embodied by the work of Nan Goldin, and later Wolfgang Tillmans. Pfeiffer fits in the middle (at least that’s where we might place him now), at a point in the arc of photographic history when the approaches to depicting queer life were very much in flux.

This retrospective survey is generally organized chronologically, but with individual images (in various mediums) gathered into clusters, groups, and series. The first few walls of the show find Pfeiffer focused on gesture, pose, and other understated formal concerns. Two black and white images center on the artist’s sister and her friend, who move in a kind of stilted dance of held poses. On the opposite wall, Pfeiffer’s images of the German actress and sex worker Irene Staub similarly explore the nuances of pose, including a sultry look, a gently innocent nap, and a natural laughing silliness. As the images pile up down the long gallery wall, we see echoes of raised arms, an up-close drawing of feet, the mildly seductive pulling of a striped shirt over a young man’s head, the formal pairing of a man’s arm in a cast and the intertwined legs and arms of sex, and a selection of quietly empty spaces. All made in the 1970s, these images capture Pfeiffer searching for his own photographic aesthetic, and finding it the subtle arrangement of bodies in space.

A large pencil drawing of Pfeiffer’s early 1970s muse and model Carlo Joh hovers at the end of the main gallery space, Joh’s lithely androgynous looks highlighted by long wavy hair and full lips. A selection of photographs Pfeiffer made of Joh in 1973 can be found in the small room tucked behind the portrait, with Joh seen in various poses and costumes, both unadorned and in seductive drag. These images are some of the strongest in the entire retrospective, with Pfeiffer actively playing with light and dark contrasts, grainy blur, and inverted camera angles, while sensitively seeing alternate sides of Joh’s complexly fluid identity.

After a short interlude of more muscular color setups from the 1980s, a large grid of photographs, (followed by three more adjacent walls of pictures) spans several decades of more subdued and actively observant image making from Pfeiffer. Repetitions and patterns of oyster shells, beach chairs, and cows are mixed with arrangements of water bottles and tableware, with Pfeiffer seeing overlooked formal relationships in the everyday. Other pictures turn on the touch between two people – in the tub, while shaving a head, and while buttoning a shirt. And color becomes a more central compositional tool in still other images, particularly bright green, which is seen in a tiered landscape model, a grassy area punctuated by a bed of pink flowers, and an overgrown thicket pruned to allow a tunnel to pass through.

Aside from a selection of self-portraits from across the years, the most intriguing artworks on the second floor of the show are Pfeiffer’s scrapbooks, which are displayed in one large vitrine and in a series of video page throughs. Pfeiffer seems to have been a restless scrapbooker, gathering his own test shots, gay nudes and porn, celebrity portraits, advertisements, magazine clippings, art reproductions, postage stamps, and all kinds of other ephemera into densely populated binders, with images arranged into layered dialogue with each other. Some pages are formal, others are bawdy, and still others capture desire, affection, curiosity, or veneration in different guises, the scrapbooks providing ample evidence of a busy artistic mind always on the lookout for readily available inspiration.

While Pfeiffer was a trailblazer for his times, as seen here, the actual innovation in the aesthetics of his photography isn’t hugely apparent. His slow drift toward a more experiential eye does take place, and there are well made images to be found sprinkled throughout this show, but very few, aside from some of his early experiments, the images of Carlo Joh, and the scrapbooks, feel like the coalescing of a distinct photographic voice; perhaps a tighter (or alternate) edit might have made a more compelling case for Pfeiffer’s influence or enduring originality, or his artistic context within an evolving late 20th century Europe. There are certainly pieces of previously overlooked or under appreciated energy to be found here; but there needed to be more photographic knockouts and rediscoveries included if the goal was to to better argue for a more prominent place in the art historical timeline.

Collector’s POV: Walter Pfeiffer is represented by Bob van Orsouw in Zurich (here), Galerie Sultana in Paris (here), and by Art+Commerce for his commercial work (here). Pfeiffer’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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