Alfonso Hüppi

(Text to exhibition A46 from 29.6. until 12.10.2002)

In spite of his Swiss surname, which has its origin in a small village near Berne, Hüppi has – like his two brothers – an Italian first name, for their father served in the Swiss Guard in the Vatican.  Alfonso Hüppi learned the craft of silversmith in Lucerne, which at the academies in Pforzheim and Hamburg led to sculpture on the one hand and calligraphy on the other. Thus his painting manifests marked tendencies both towards the calligraphic and towards the three-dimensional. These tendencies were already manifest in his early nature studies of 1959 and are still just as evident in his large painted wooden panels, which at the very least are leant against a wall, but in their diversity of forms more often seek their complete freedom and independence from the two-dimensional, reaching out into the third dimension. Their most concentrated form, the long, narrow see-through slot between iron frames, may indeed be hung on the wall, but it is largely intended to stand in the room, likewise at an angle, and possibly arranged in a composition with, or superimposed upon, other condensed pieces of its kind.

A long way lay in between. As an employee of the Kunsthalle in Baden-Baden during the 1960s, Hüppi had hands-on access to an omnipresent material that cost him absolutely nothing: the wood from packing crates and pallets. It was from this wood, which in most cases was roughly sawn, that Hüppi made his Wood Reliefs, sometimes ever so gently accentuating the natural colour of the wood, sometimes painting it in bold colours, but with extreme sensitivity, which in Hüppi’s case is by no means a contradiction of terms. His work with this material gave rise to such pieces as his Decubings (cf. Cat. 28), wooden cases taken or broken apart and laid flat, or his Wood Carpets or Tympana from sawn-up rough spruce boards or spruce crates. Other found materials, too, served Hüppi as a medium of expression. An old wooden door, for example, was the support for his Hommage à Tadeusz Kantor (Cat. 6) of 1966.  Natural wood surfaces were, and continued to be, not only the supports but also integral parts of his works right up until the large painted wooden panels of the late 1980s, the wooden surfaces of which were left unprimed and often left unpainted as part of the composition.

The second basic raw material of Hüppi’s art is paper.  He draws constantly, a fact demonstrated not least by the countless Telephone Drawings that filled, together with drawings by Franz Eggenschwiler and Dieter Roth, the multivolume catalogue of a touring exhibition in 1980.  Only for his drawings and his sensitive silkscreen prints from around 1970, which were so eminently suited to the material, did the paper remain flat, for Hüppi would not be Hüppi if did not venture into the three-dimensional with this material, too. In much the same way as he prepared the wooden supports for his paintings, the paper was cut, made to bulge, crumpled and torn either before or after being painted, or sometimes both before and after. At other times he would work on found scraps of paper already cut and/or folded, as in his collages of the early 1980s, which could assume wall-filling proportions (Cat. 29), or in his painted Passe-partouts (Cat. 36, 37), the paper equivalent of his Frame Paintings (Kat. 33-35), in which the painting extended beyond the panel across the broad surfaces of the frame. In principle, any found object may serve as the support or raw material for his works. In Hüppi’s case, however, such objects are not just combined with other found objects into assemblages but also – as can be seen from his found painted pieces of wood, for example – worked, processed, adapted and even reshaped to the point of complete alienation.

Hüppi forever plays with the line, and this is never anything but ambivalent. The outline of a field of colour may be more meaningful than the field of colour itself, while a wooden board cut with a graceful sweep of the saw can simply dematerialize, as though swept away, leaving only the sawcut line.  Front and back, top and bottom, left and right, background and foreground – all defy precise definition, only the line remains.  Thus Hüppi’s Cheops Pyramid (Cat. 1) is not a pyramid at all, but perhaps just parts of such a one. Nonetheless, the rectangular yet irregularly inclined planes evoke the sharp-edged interplay of light and shadow that characterizes the pyramids of the Giza desert. Even in his early nude drawings, Hüppi determines only the outlines, while the interior drawing constantly changes from concave to convex, defying the definiteness of forward and backward movement, though never renouncing its relief character, never becoming two-dimensional.

The same happens in his painted crate lids Grave Slab for William Tell (Cat. 3) and Untitled (Cat. 2). Colours and forms merge with one another, seemingly inseparably, but then they separate, only to come together again in a completely different configuration. Light and dark, top and bottom, left and right, front and back, time and space, line and surface, roundness and flatness, colour and grisaille find themselves in a state of constant dissolution and recombination – the harmony of permanent change.

The viewer constantly senses the beginning of a variation on a theme, as in Composition (Cat. 4), for example, where we seem to recognize the beginnings of what is later to become the "Tree", or in Diagonal (Cat. 5), an undulating, inclined ornament that resonated in some of Hüppi’s works of 1965 and also influenced Hommage à Tadeusz Kantor (Cat. 6) and Pal X (Cat. 7) and other compositions. But then another form emerges, one that gradually forces its way upwards, taking concrete, dominant shape on, for instance, the Heraklith wood wool board of 1968 (Cat. 10) in the sculpture Tree (Cat. 11) and the relief Untitled (Cat. 12). During the years that followed, numerous silkscreen prints were produced as variations on this motif of the tree, these variations themselves then being varied in turn (Cat. 14, 15 and 20, 21).

The artist defies all clarity in his Crumpled Sheets, works consisting of the very finest bible printing paper painted with acrylic and then evenly crumpled and compressed into balls, some of them left in this most obscure, spherical state and then crated (Cat. 18), though most of them being carefully pulled apart until they were flat once more – crinkled surfaces of almost crystalline structure (Cat. 16, 17).

The interrelation of the concave and the convex soon went so far that Hüppi became equally inspired by the sawn-off pieces from his works (and, later, from those of his students), breathing life into these pieces – which are actually negative forms – in new combinations, as in Untitled (Cat. 23) of 1967 or Twittering Machine (Cat. 22) of 1975.  Such sawn-off pieces existed en masse during the 1970s by reason of Hüppi’s prolific production of works in rough, unplaned spruce boards, such as his Wood Carpets (Cat. 24), his Folding Reliefs (Cat. 25) and, above all, his Decubings (Cat. 28). His use of colour, still powerful, almost expressionist around the middle of the 1960s, became more sensitive and cautious around 1970 and almost totally receded in his spruce wood works by the middle of that decade. Only black and slight tinges of white, pink and perhaps some golden bronze remained, emerging monochromatically from the shadows of the spruce boards arranged in different directions and from their irregularly darkening surfaces.

It was from his Decubings – the wooden boxes that he would roll down a steep hill until they finally came apart and then lay there, completely flat, opened out, "decubed" – that he developed his dramatic gouaches, collaging, instead of wood, parts of newspapers in contrapuntal arrangements (Cat. 30, 31), such collaged paper Decubings often assuming gigantic proportions (Cat. 29). This Dionysian theme also found expression in his large panel paintings of the late 1980s (Cat. 40, 41), while his Apollonian lyricism and simplicity – as in his acrylic on paper Untitled of 1983 (Cat. 32) or his Frame Painting of 1985 (Cat. 33) – continued in his large-format frame paintings or his small-format Summer Paintings (Cat. 34, 35) until 1990. In both extremes, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, Hüppi again developed a tendency towards strong coloration: expressionistic and dissonant in the former, reserved yet visually effective in the latter, as in the altogether restful composition of the decubing featured in Panel 39 (Cat. 45).

Again and again, the figural in Hüppi’s drawings spills over into his paintings, as in Two Wooden Heads (Cat. 48) of 1990 or Untitled (Cat. 46) of 1998. Each time this happens, one can sense an inspired venture into something completely new, a typical example being his "Disk Head", in which the round disk of Untitled (Cat. 50) and the head in Untitled (Cat. 46) or Two Wooden Heads (Cat. 48) had merged together into a dominant feature by the end of the 1990s. This "Disk Head" – or "Head Disk" – may assume the widest conceivable diversity of forms and functions in every possible intensity: from the innocuous, gently caricaturing perforated disk of Untitled (Cat. 51) to the high, not to say aggressive, dynamism à la discus or UFO of his exhibit in the entrance hall of the Tax Office in Ludwigsburg (see illustration on page 11).

For the second sculpture triennial of the Association of Bernese Galleries – Skulptur’02 at the Villa Mettlen, Muri/Berne – Hüppi built a Wood Pile measuring 150 x 600 x 100 cm and consisting of 1 metre long logs of roughly 20 cm diameter. The sawn ends of the logs were painted white at one side of the pile and black at the other, each end face then being drilled with holes for the eyes, nose and mouth. These 360 faces, white and bright on one side, black and dull on the other, stare at the visitor like masks in the Theatre of Ostia Antica near Rome. What do they signify? As Hüppi himself eludes interpretation, we must seek other ways of approach. The same obviously goes for Da Capo (Cat. 57), a work produced around the same time. Measuring a good two metres in diameter, this head disk is perforated with eye-slits, some of them filled, by way of commentary, some of them left empty. Likewise alienated are the black round openings of the eyes, nose and mouth.

Perhaps we might seek an approach via Hüppi’s drawing, which has accompanied his oeuvre throughout and has always related in some way to his painting and his three-dimensional objects, though at times less closely than at others. After completely independent beginnings, Hüppi’s drawings may, up until 1980, be considered as preliminary drawings for his paintings, reliefs and objects (cf. Cat. 5). They liberated and reified themselves as works in their own right in his Telephone Drawings. Concrete, though not precisely graspable figuration made its appearance again in the pencil and felt pen drawings exhibited in the Town Hall in Sursee towards the end of 1982. Sheet-filling motifs drawn in red felt pen were subsequently outlined in fine black pencil to create intertwining pancake-like figures. Or were the black outlines drawn first and then filled in with a broad red felt pen? Yet again we are made to feel unsure, for the figures also end abruptly, at the belly, for instance, while the broad red felt pen continues. The figures are doing something, and then again, nothing; they seem to represent something, and then again, nothing; now they are fabulous creatures, now they bear human features, embryonic forms that could just as readily mutate into animals. Exhibited at the Raymond Bollag Gallery in Zürich in March 1990 and documented in a luxurious catalogue, Hüppi’s drawings from 1987 to 1990 manifest the entire arsenal of ideas that inform his oeuvre.  The figural and the representational had now returned much more emphatically and could even make their mark on one of his large-format "Panels" (Panel 27, "Inside Out", 1990, exhib. cat. Marabut, Littmann Gallery, Basle, and Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund 1991/92, p. 41). In Kopflos (Headless), Artist’s Book No. 16, published by the Berlin Academy of Arts in 1993, one could then see where it was leading to: variations on a headless female Roman statue dating from 100 BC, beginning with the title and the statue as the starting point and then followed by Hüppi’s drawings as variations on this statue, perhaps as illustrations of himself, or of others, too, for he had also begun to write, mainly aphorisms, aphorisms brimming over with wit and originality, as one expects of Hüppi. Now and then one might think his drawings are caricatures – take his drawings in his book Kulturradio of 1996, for instance – but then we realize they are not, for caricatures are clearly meant to make people laugh, while in Hüppi’s case one always has to think twice before even risking a smile. And so, in Aladins Wunderlampe (Aladdin’s Magic Lamp) of 1997, Hüppi comments on the travel pictures of lamps in Persia just with his hand-written poems.  Drawn-over photographs (black felt pen on blurred colour photographs) of an end-of-course trip with his students in Die letzte Reise (The Last Trip) of 1999 are freely associative comments of characteristic weirdness and originality.  It was in that same year that the "Head Disk" was born into the drawing (or perhaps adopted by it?), namely into his brother Claudio’s Soorser Wöörterbüechli (Dictionary of Sursee Dialect). The holes for the eyes, nose and mouth are here replaced by letters of the alphabet. Placed in front of each caption letter of the dictionary, sometimes upright, sometimes sloping sideward, sometimes entirely on its side, the head disk conveys a completely different expression each time. A small book of Hüppi’s aphorisms was then published in 2001, the pictorial language of its drawn commentaries seeming to have detached itself totally from Hüppi’s oeuvre as we knew it hitherto. Or perhaps not? Perhaps it is just a special, isolated case. Mention, too, must be made of Hüppi’s illustrations for Hans Kudszus’s book of aphorisms, Das Denken bei sich, (Thinking to Oneself), published in 2002, which consist solely of severely outlined drawings of perforated head disks romping about in intertwining cut-out silhouettes, indeed, precisely at that point now reached by Hüppi in his paintings and objects as well.

If we survey Hüppi’s entire oeuvre from its beginnings right up to the present day, we cannot fail to notice a development that is, to say the least, odd, for it does not begin with the wild excesses of youth and then gradually become calmer and more serene. Quite the reverse is the case. Beginning with reserved shapes and colours and almost geometrical structures that have already misled many of us into thinking he was a Constructivist, Hüppi became more and more effusive in expression and has now reached his most explosive phase. This is particularly evident in his last frame paintings and his large painted panels that only iron frames can now hold together. Hüppi, for whom language is much more than purely a vehicle of communication, had asked us prior to the opening of one of his recent exhibitions at our gallery whether he should bring some "dynamite" along with him. Indeed, such a high degree of subversive energy on the part of someone who is well past retirement age must be a very special case and one wonders which way he will be going from here. We can certainly expect some surprises.

Like most artists, Hüppi maintains a controlling influence over the reception of his oeuvre and he is extremely choosy, not to say intolerant, though in a characteristically tolerant kind of way. The demands he makes are high, and justifiably so, for his first important solo exhibition in 1964 was hosted by no less a personage than the legendary talent-spotter Rolf Jährling at his Parnass Gallery in Wuppertal. Felix Handschin, likewise an early recognizer of genius, exhibited Alfonso Hüppi’s works on as many as four occasions in Basle between the years of 1967 and 1983.  The long series of exhibitions at the Hans Mayer Gallery in Düsseldorf began in 1971, those at the Medici Gallery in Solothurn in 1972 and at the Littmann Gallery in Basle in 1986.  The series of exhibitions at important museums, public art galleries and art associations within the triangle formed by the Folkwang Museum in Essen, the Grisons Art Society in Chur in the South East and the Kunsthalle in Berne in the South West began as early as 1965 with an exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Baden-Baden and culminated three decades later in 4Hüppi, an exhibition held jointly with his wife Brigitta and their two sons Thaddäus and Johannes at the Museum für Neue Kunst in Freiburg/Breisgau and at the Kunstmuseum in Solothurn in 1996/97.

Special mention must be made of the art critics Dietrich Mahlow and Lothar Romain and the poet Otto Jägersberg, who stand out among the many who have ventured critical appraisals and scholarly explorations of the works of Alfonso Hüppi. Nevertheless, a comprehensive treatment of his oeuvre, which would be desirable, indeed urgently necessary, has yet to be undertaken.  Critical appraisal of Hüppi’s work has also become possible on another level, namely through and in the work of his students at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf: he would never tolerate imitation or unoriginality, for it was the methods of his art, not its results, that were to be the example.  All the same, Hüppi was both an enthusiastic and an enthusing teacher. After his retirement, he created a kind of museum-cum-academy on the farm of a friend in Etaneno in the Namibian steppe, where he stays and works from time to time with his students (see illustr. p. 12, 13). Even his two sons, Thaddäus and Johannes, and his wife Brigitta work independently of Hüppi, and entirely uninfluenced by him, both in content and in form, despite the overwhelming strength and coherence of his oeuvre.

Hüppi’s oeuvre is distinguished by a powerful language of signs and symbols that is in no way abstract, neither in the sense of pure abstraction nor in the sense of abstraction of the concrete. Hüppi belongs precisely to that generation of artists who succeeded in overcoming the prevailing abstraction of the years between 1948 and 1965. Indeed, Hüppi’s signs and symbols are its opposite pole. He uses them very consciously and precisely. Despite the occasional semblance of playful ease, Hüppi brings neither fortuity nor automatism into play. On the contrary, it is consciousness and deliberateness that operate in Hüppi’s works, taking clarity of form and colour far beyond that light, subtle irony that captivates us again and again.  This Apollonian rationality and clarity, however, are but a thin crust over the Dionysian fervour and chaos that erupt again and again. Hüppi’s art is the art of the human being.

Wolfgang Henze

translated by John Brodgen, Dortmund

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