“A Glitter and Sparkle Would Arise in This Gray...”
Verena Pfisterer’s Visionary Art

For her, the inner and outer world, everyday life and utopia, were inextricably entwined. She was an outsider throughout her life. Verena Pfisterer’s little-known Gesamtkunstwerk is only being honored now, a few years after her death. By Oliver Koerner von Gustorf
“I haven’t lost my confidence. But now I know for sure that I mustn’t yield to any false romanticism. I need to know that I’m an exception in my surroundings. I need to know that I will remain empty inside as long as it takes for me to find the peculiar thing that piques my curiosity. Be it in art, in writing, in God, or in another person.” This diary entry from 1959 can be found at the very end of Verena Pfisterer’s book Die Illusion der Freiheit der Kunst (The Illusion of Freedom in Art), published in 2014, a year after the death of artist, who was virtually unknown hitherto. The collection of Pfisterer’s texts and works does not document disappointment, however. Rather, it tells of her unswerving search for a way out of her human and artistic isolation, of the drive for freedom and communication that accompanied her throughout her life.

A photograph from 1958 shows Pfisterer, shortly after she turned 17, at the opening of the Galerie Junge Kunst in her native city Fulda. Clad entirely in existential black, she is sitting in a showcase in the exhibition space, turned completely inward, while the residents of “economic-miracle” Germany view her through the glass, as though she is an apparition from a different cosmos. As radically as only very few artists of the postwar era, Verena Pfisterer attempted to meld the present, everyday life, and the lives of others with her highly complex inner cosmos, which suddenly was everything at once: visionary, abstract, erotic, revolutionary. To convey this, to enable others to experience it, she invented an “art of experience, of tactility, and of activation,” in the words of Christian Siekmeier, who represented her estate with his gallery EXILE. While Pfisterer’s work is manageable, her creativity was boundless. She created color spaces, abstract architectures, boxes from which glittering silver rained down on viewers. She photographed, designed fashion, wrote novels, shot films, and made performances to unite her inner world with the outer world.

>From the early 1960s until her death, she worked on an oeuvre in which life and work, art and politics, are indivisible, which can enter into dialogue with American Minimal or Conceptual art, with the ephemeral beauty of a plastic flower, or with the shadow of a house gable in rural Germany. “In Düsseldorf, things developed terrifically,” said her artist friend Franz Erhard Walther in 2014, recalling their time together at the Art Academy there, where Pfisterer studied from 1963 to 1967. “Some of her works were grandiose, with great power. Eva Hesse, the German-American proponent of Arte Povera and process art, attended Hoehme’s class at the academy. I’m convinced that some of Verena’s works had a strong influence on her. The simple, ‘poor’ materials, for example! Other artists in her circle – including Sigmar Polke and Reiner Ruthenbeck – benefited from her approach at least atmospherically.” 

Indeed, the nervous energy of the colorful plastic wires that Pfisterer had sprout from a cardboard case like the "hair" in SCHULZE OBJEKT 'Haare' from 1964 are reminiscent of Hesse’s iconic work Metronomic Irregularity II from 1966. As with Hesse, a revolution was in the making here; the rigid formal language of Minimalism is captured, expanded with other materials, imbued with biographical, psychological, and emotional themes, and also made political. Years elapsed before Eva Hesse and Paul Thek with their “dirty” corporeal Post-Minimalism were celebrated and paved the way for the Abject art and the success of artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and Robert Gober. When Pfisterer studied in Düsseldorf, there was neither an organized feminist movement nor something like “queer politics” or “body politics.” In this regard, Pfisterer was way ahead of her time. Her works are more corporeal, more resistant, and more extreme than those of her contemporaries.

The box titled Silberfallen that she built in 1965 may have been influenced by the space-travel-and-stars visions of ZERO, but the silver powder that falls from the ceiling and is swirled around by a fan in this “magic space” is also the androgynous silver of Andy Warhol’s Factory, the silver of freaks, shamans, and border crossers. The experience is meditative, as with her Licht-oder Spiegelbrunnen from 1967. At the same time, however, it is a transformation machine that envelops the viewer in a silver whole-body makeup.            

The radicalness with which Pfisterer plays with all kinds of influences and means was surely not planned systematically was not merely a formal experiment despite all the thought-out construction. Instead, she was more concerned with life, with vital expression. In catalogues and articles, Pfisterer’s time at the Düsseldorf Art Academy is described as the pinnacle of her artistic career. But the fact is that these four years are the only ones in her life in which her work is seen and discussed in the context of contemporary art. Naturally, though, there is a before and after, and entire parts of her oeuvre are only being viewed and categorized art historically now, a few years after her death.

Among them are her pictures and writings from the early years. Born in Fulda, Germany, in 1941, Pfisterer grew up in the middle of a predominantly Catholic rural area, surrounded by the nature of the Rhone River, by a cathedral and churches. At the age of 19, she attended the Werkkunstschule in Offenbach for one semester. The paintings and drawings she made during that period still look like conventional landscapes with an expressive touch, Dubuffet-like bodies, melancholy fairytale scenes. Pfisterer’s dairies are full of thoughts about loneliness, emptiness, being misunderstood – things that creative and sensitive young people in small cities feel. However, the young artist does not withdraw quietly to her little room, but publicly lives out her otherness: “Flowing black cloaks, black stockings, a sleeveless tight black dress, the gauntlets of her red gloves almost under her armpits; flowers and long bows in her hair, carnival jewelry and fun-fair jewelry, little bells – bracelets and (...) bell earrings; folklore outfits, resplendent with velvet and silk ribbons,” this was Pfisterer’s recollection of the look of her youth in 1996. The reactions of citizens in Fulda were extreme. The teenager was cursed and spat on, pelted with stones; every walk through the city was a mixture of provocation and running the gauntlet; she was terrorized at school, and even her friends from the Junger Kunstkreis Fulda, a group of young adults interested in art, who wore bowler hats and Jesus sandals, were embarrassed to be seen with her. Yet the group itself engaged in provocative actions, throwing grains of rise on the historic university square as a protest against hunger in the world, called for the cathedral to be painted pink, and gilded the noses of the Baroque stone figures in the castle park.

In contrast to these Dadaist pranks Pfisterer’s youth seems like an endurance performance, no break, no quarter. It is as though she wanted to champion an art that not only intervenes here and there, but wants everything. The minimalist-architectural designs she begins with during her studies in Düsseldorf are only models and sketches. Constructions like Zehn aufeinander folgende rote Glasräume (Ten Glass Rooms in Succession, 1970) recall works by Dan Graham and Robert Morris owing to their reduction. While they function as abstract objects, they are basically environments that can be executed in any size, even reaching the size of buildings. “An art idea came to me a long time ago: Little sparkling stones should be inserted in these big-city buildings gray from dirt at irregular intervals. The light would shine on them – sometimes on this one, sometimes on that one – and a glitter and sparkle would arise in this gray,” Pfisterer wrote in her notebook in 1988, when she had already long lived in walled-in West Berlin, where she moved after breaking off her studies in Düsseldorf.

Many of Pfisterer’s works are utopian visions yet at the same time a means of self-scrutiny in the here and now. Back in 1963, she began a series of staged self-portraits that she continued almost up to her death. In these photographs, her face and hands are covered with punch shapes reminiscent of flower, puzzle parts, and ice crystals. The whole series is akin to a longitudinal study. Under the same ornamental patterns, one sees Pfisterer’s face age, mourn, and resign increasingly. In the last pictures, she looks like an allegorical, mystical figure. While initially she seemed to blossom at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, in point of fact she did not find the soundboard she needed in the environment of Joseph Beuys, Jörg Immendorff, and Polke.

“At that time in the 1960s she could not compete with the great male artists in this business,” says Frieze d/e chief editor Dominikus Müller, who conducted the last interview with Pfisterer in 2009. “And when she moved to Berlin, it was not exactly an art city, but a very political, theory-laden, student city in which there was almost something like a ban on images because painting and making art were seen as bourgeois activities. But there was another reason why Pfisterer moved to Berlin. She did not get any feedback. There was no response to what she did. She said to me something like: I carried on, but no one was interested, no one was there for me.”

This is astonishing when one views her art today. Pfisterer’s fashion designs embody the sensitivity of a much younger, queer generation of artists. Her costume designs and self-staged “body sculptures,” in which every gesture, every fold symbolizes an ultra-sophisticated taste, recall the sensitivity of Kai Althoff. The sculpture Rosenmutter that Pfisterer made in 1965 looks like a predecessor of the giant rose sculptures that Isa Genzken realized in public space in the 2000s – a kind of psycho-minimalism that draws its strength from everyday life and mass culture.

Starting in the late 1960s, she created a number of objects and design drawings, a formal canon in which a few specific elements are used again and again: cross, heart, flower, child, box, cube, light, glass. “From my childhood and early youth material symbols of the valuable emerge repeatedly that are in line with these longings, evoke them, confirm them, and thus give rise to a peculiar feeling of happiness,” Pfisterer wrote back in 1973. In the meantime, she had begun training as an occupational therapist in the field of mental health and studying sociology. The objects she created in Berlin starting in the late 1960s have something graspable in the true sense of the word, almost didactic: stuffed plush crucifixes, which could be as big as a body, crosses that hang on strings like marionettes or, containing “armpit bumps,” become phallic symbols. Pfisterer designed heart forms, papier-mâché and wooden hearts. For Blumenbaby (Flower Baby, 1972), she equipped a small nativity figure with flowers. She continually rearranged her objects, filmed friends taking them in their hands, kneading them, sitting on them, playing with them. Her drawings from the Deutsche Bank Collection such as Objektzeichung: blaues, dickwandiges erleuchtetes Glasbett (Object Drawing: Blue, Thick—Walled, Illuminated Glass Bed, 1979) and Zeichnung: (pseudo-)drei-dimensionale Wolke mit zweidimensionalen Sternen (Drawing: (Pseudo-) Three-Dimensional Cloud with Two-Dimensional Stars, 1979) show the fine line between abstraction, utopia, and article of daily use in Pfisterer’s cosmos. 

“It was very important to her to live with art, for everyday objects to play a role and not be put on a pedestal even in a figurative sense,” says Silke Nowak, who showed Pfisterer’s work in several group exhibitions between 2012 and 2015 in the project space SCHNEEEULE she cofounded. “That’s why she took up these themes with the hearts and flowers, so that everyone could relate to them. She did not want to say something about kitsch; she simply liked roses and hearts. Her work with crosses moves in yet another direction. Fulda is an archdiocese with many churches, and these crosses can be seen everywhere – they even accompany you there in daily life. On the one hand, Verena envied people who were able to devote themselves to faith because this gave them a sense of security. But this was not possible for her. She called this into question and even made fun of it.”  

After she moved to Berlin in 1967, Pfisterer became more politically active. “I read a little about Marxist-Leninist aesthetics,” she wrote at the beginning of 1970. “While previously she wrote poetic and precise language, now I was reading dry, tough, ideological political prose. That was longer the real Verena. We probably weren’t supposed to know that she was continuing to ‘make art,’” recalled Franz Erhard Walther in 2014. During this period, Pfisterer distanced herself increasingly from the established art business, worked with mentally ill people, and taught free drawing classes in her apartment. For her, working as a therapist or a teacher meant working for the benefit of society – a counter-model to apolitical, self-centered art and the capitalist art market. “At the time I believed that you couldn’t sell artistic results. So I gave most of my works to people as presents. I assumed that society had an obligation to support artists and be financially responsible for them,” she said in 2001 in an interview with Texte zur Kunst.    

In the 1970s, she began photographing everyday life in walled-in West Berlin – construction sides, billboards, passersby, window displays. At the end of the 1980s, she commenced her series Alltagsfoto (Everyday Photo), which she continued to the end of her life. Pfisterer’s pictures of day-to-day situations, of occupied buildings and her neighborhood, are both contemporary witnesses of a disappearing urban culture and formal compositions that lend the ephemeral an abstract beauty.

In the 1990s, she withdrew increasingly, battling depression as well as alcohol and drug addiction. In 2001, the Berlin gallery Kienzle & Gmeiner showed Pfisterer in a solo exhibition, and in 2004 she was represented in the group show Kurze Karrieren (Short Careers) at MUMOK in Vienna, for which Pfisterer created new works and large-scale drawings that picked up on her works from the 1960s and 70s and deepened her conceptual and visual approaches. Although Pfisterer was a kind of insider’s tip in the art scene, her breakthrough didn’t come. During her cooperation on exhibitions in the SCHNEEEULE she became friends in 2012 with Silke Nowak, who visited Pfisterer regularly. “At the end of her life she was lucid and reflective. She rarely left the house, but she did a lot of research on the Internet, read newspapers, listened to the radio. Verena was very well informed, ordered artist catalogs, which we discussed. She was up on what was going on in the art business, yet at the same time divorced from it. Politically, she remained true to herself and was completely left-wing up to the end.” 

Verena Pfisterer died in May 2013. She left behind a rebellious legacy that has hardly been shown so far, that remains misunderstood, and that even today eludes simple categorization. “It is questionable to continually relate her art and her life to her much more successful male colleagues,” says Christian Siekmeier from the gallery EXILE. “This is repeatedly done with women artists to classify their misjudged achievements. For the sake of simplicity, Pfisterer’s work is linked to that of Franz Erhard Walther. Conversely, however, the question arises as to whether Walther shouldn’t be linked to her. But to come to this conclusion, extensive research still has to be done.” The works, texts, and interviews known so far alone show that Verena Pfisterer deserves what she didn’t have throughout her life: an audience.