Becoming human

Swiss-born artist Hans Witschi began as an abstract painter. He wanted to avoid depicting anything human—especially the human figure. “I despised everything that reminded me of the human level,” he recalls.

And it is little wonder. At nine months, Witschi contracted polio and spent most of his childhood at the Kinderspital (Children’s Hospital) of the University of Zurich. There, he and other children spent their days in casts or strapped in braces in an effort to straighten their disfigured limbs.

You are an artist

Housed in a beautiful chateau with patients from all over the world, the Kinderspital was “New York in Switzerland.” There, Witschi was exposed to culture, including concerts and art lessons that he likely would not have experienced at home. “There, we would have probably just watched TV. Famous people came to the hospital who were patients of the renowned pediatrician Dr. Guido Fanconi. And then you had all the other ones who, like me, were more regular people.”

Witschi took to drawing and painting right away, encouraged by his teachers, who recognized his talent and gifted him oil paints. “You are an artist,” they told him. One teacher advised him that one day, he would be asked who he had studied with, and so gave him lessons with the abstract painter Gustav Guldener in Zurich. Witschi studied with Guldener for about two years after leaving the hospital at age 16.

During that time, someone gave him a book that contained a painting by Francis Bacon. The work showed a crawling figure. “It was a polio figure. And I thought to myself, oh, that’s actually my theme.” The image triggered a shift, and Witschi began moving toward the human form, which has since become the focus of his work.

Being a human

Witschi’s journey from abstract art to the human form took place over a series of self-portraits created during the 1970s. In his first self-portrait, he drew himself blindfolded because he literally could not look himself in the eye—a legacy of his reluctance to view and accept his body. But the Francis Bacon drawing was an impetus to leap forward. “There was a push toward the body. It was an important time because it allowed me to overcome myself in a way.”

“Dealing with the human body or with humans is very difficult because psychological aspects always come into play,” says Witschi. “With the figurative work, you are always coming to feelings, your own feelings, of being a human.”

Form out of chaos

During this time, he also began developing his approach to painting, which he describes as allowing “form to emerge out of chaos.” For one painting, which was documented in the film There goes Witschi (Witschi geht) by Paolo Poloni (1990), he began with a series of abstract lines. He then painted these together and explored a number of different forms in various configurations that seemed to emerge from the background.

In a fascinating process, he moved through, in effect, four or five different images before ending the painting with two figures, one holding another in a room that recedes to a small square window.

New York, New York

Witschi enjoyed success as an artist in Zurich, where he was often featured in the media. In 1989, he received a Studio Grant for a visit to New York City from the City of Zurich, including a six-month visa, stipend and studio on West Broadway. Witschi loved the anonymity of New York, but true to his teacher’s prediction, when people asked who he had studied with, they were impressed even though most had not heard of Gustav Guldener.

When the six months came to an end, he realized that if he returned to Zurich, he would stay there “a long, long time.” For him, “Zurich was a nice place, very structured and crystalline.” New York, by contrast, gave him more artistic freedom, allowing him to let go of the artistic identity he had in Zurich and propelling him to develop a new one.

“New York is an invisible force that changes you. It’s like a pressure cooker, with things bouncing around and people coming and going. It’s about the density of the culture. Everything is down near you; it’s not curated like in Europe. It’s really very inspiring. It feeds you with energy.”

Seeking the new

Witschi became a Critique Artist and faculty member of the Art Students League and found a small studio in the East Village, where he still works today. He continues to seek new ways to approach his art. During the 1980s in particular, he felt his artistic vocabulary was becoming too narrow. Until then, he worked continually on only one painting, “always being in that world.”

“My work was very dense with layers during the 1980s. The imagery was strong and heavy in its impact. I felt restricted in my vocabulary and had to change how I do things.” He would try to start without an idea, as he believed that would give him the greatest freedom. However, after two or three brushstrokes, he immediately saw that he was “full of old ideas.”

Fighting against this “automatism,” he would take some color and do a “very little thing” and leave it. “Maybe it is hard to live with, but I leave it and see where it’s going. Maybe it goes further a day later or maybe a week later.”

The gesture

Various artists have influenced Witschi’s work. Like Bacon, Witschi depicts figures in a layered manner, as in a movie. From Francisco Goya, Egon Schiele, James Ensor and Oskar Kokoschka, Witschi has also adapted a more theatrical approach—the figure stands there, but as on a stage, and “emanates something, through a gesture or through a pairing of figures. And that’s the thing I’m interested in,” he says.

Take the gesture in The Watercolorist (Der Aquarellist), 1994. Here, we see the head of an artist with the white canvas showing through some of the looping brush strokes, rendering his head transparent. In his teeth, he is gripping a paintbrush, and before him sits a glass half full of water and a pad of white paper with a single, large “O” painted in white.

Hans Witschi

Hans Witschi (Swiss, born 1954), Untitled (Water), 2017, Oil on primed cotton, 30 x 24 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie & Edition Stephan Witschi

The subject forces him to continually explore different approaches. “Each time, it is still a challenge formally—how should I do it differently? It gives me more pleasure in a way than dealing with all the questions around ‘What does this human do on the canvas?’ What does it say? What is the meaning? How is it connected with the other humans, and so on? The faucet is more an abstract painting.”

A felt reality

Whether he is painting human figures or faucets or other objects, Witschi is always seeking to make “a painting in which everybody can really feel something. You don’t have to understand it. I don’t understand my paintings either. And if I did, it would be so boring.”

“I am always looking for the moment the painting tells me something,” he says. “If that moment is not there, I have to keep going with the painting. And then suddenly the painting becomes something, and I feel the force coming. And then I know, now I’m on a good track.”

Hans Witschi, born 1954, is a visual artist who studied painting in Zurich under Gustav Guldener in the 1970s. He moved to New York City in 1989 when he received a Studio Grant by the City of Zurich. Witschi’s works have been shown at the Shedhalle (Zurich), Kunsthalle Palazzo (Basel), Ursus Books (New York), Kunsthistorisches Museum Schloss Ambras (Innsbruck).

His work is in numerous collections, including the Rockefeller University, the Graphic Collection of the National Library in Bern and the Musée d’art et d’histoire de la Ville de Neuchâtel. He is the recipient of the Federal Visual Art Fellowship of Switzerland (1992). Witschi’s collaborations with other artists include his piano music, spanning from Noritoshi Hirakawa’s 1994 video A Destination of Ego, shown at MoMA PS1, to the 2014 performance with Bruno Jakob at the Kolumba Museum Cologne, Germany.

The documentary Witschi geht from Paolo Poloni was shown at the Locarno Film Festival in 1992, the Film Festival Montreal in 1993, and on diverse television stations throughout Europe, and depicts, besides the life of the artist, Witschi’s immigration to the United States.

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