Heidi Bucher: Disrupting the Grid
by Liv Cuniberti
From Heidi Bucher, Skira, Milan 2019
Heidi Bucher’s pioneering and extreme investigation into architectural spaces spanned her entire artistic practice. This ranged from her early architectural drawings and abstract silk collages in the 1950s, to the most recognised series of ‘skinnings’ from the early 1970s, up until her untimely death in 1993. A sketch of a church executed in 1952 pays particular attention to the composition of intertwining parquet floors, which would later reappear in her latex skinning works. Bucher would imprint the indexical image of historical or abandoned buildings by layering the selected surfaces with molten latex and gauze strips. This process resulted in a cast of the architectural features, in addition to the domestic objects found inside. Bucher was drawn to emotionally-charged buildings that were connected to her early life, such as the study in her parent’s home, Herrenzimmer (1977–1979); and her ancestor’s home, Ahnenhaus (1980–1982). She also looked at buildings with a spiritual significance, such as the church on 21st Street in New York City (where she worked in 1979–1980)1 and the Bellevue Sanatorium in Kreuzlingen (that she ‘skinned’ in 1988). The physically demanding and performative nature of peeling the latex would result in delicate, yet haunting and visceral portable impressions, replicating the physical space and loaded with psychological connotations.
In the early 1970s, Bucher moved to Los Angeles with her family, after having spent nearly two years in Canada. Los Angeles would prove to be highly formative for Bucher. It is during this time that she befriended Edward Kienholz (1927–1994). The American artist embodied the ideal of the 1960s and 1970s West Coast style, whereby his use of non-traditional and unstable materials was contrary to the smooth polished finish of his colleagues on the East Coast.2 Kienholz had a profound impact on Bucher’s attitude towards the unconventional use of materials in her art practice. He used found objects from junkyards and flea markets to draw from the underbelly of American culture, the macabre and the sinister. Some of these qualities can also be found in the archival photographs of Bucher’s Borg series from the mid-to-late 1970s. These images portray the process of the skinning as murky and sticky, almost alluding to expelled bodily fluids. A series of intimate photographs taken by Kienholz’s wife Nancy Reddin in 1970 immortalises the close collaboration between Bucher and Kienholz.
Whilst Bucher’s work engages with the themes of memory, transformation and documentation, a formal analysis reveals a dialogue with (and a subversion of) Minimalism; specifically the grid. The grid’s perpendicular lines served as the defining element in Minimalism from the 1950s to the 1970s, and is characterised by strict angles, seriality and other formulaic processes. Clean lines that lack decoration and starkness are celebrated, while the geometric and rectilinear forms become devoid of the artist’s presence. Key concepts of such works can be found in Donald Judd’s rigorously industrial and neutral sculptural boxes, Frank Stella’s geometric paintings, Carl Andre’s grid floor sculptures, Sol LeWitt’s systematic wall drawings, and the repetitive gestures of Agnes Martin’s grid paintings. Minimalists were exploring the limitless possibilities of the grid and its perpendicular lines, refusing altogether the representation of an exterior reality. Bucher’s engagement with the format of the grid is clear: she works with the lines that are implicit in the physical and conceptual structures that surround the everyday, and subverts them through her rich and deeply tactile works. This response is especially visible in the impressions of the parquet floor from the Herrenzimmer, as well as the tiled floor and wall works from the Borg.3
Bucher appropriated the language of Minimalism by employing the format of the grid as found in readymade geometric shapes within her chosen architecture. While preparing for a skinning, she would methodically divide the areas of the room into carefully delineated sections. She would then select which parts of the geometric shapes to cast, as seen in the Herrenzimmer, and the tiled surfaces of Borg. Bucher’s subversion is characterised by the perpendicular lines of the architectural features receding into the tattered edges and the captured imperfections on the surface of the latex, revealing remnants of human traces. Although the geometric and linear shapes of the parquet and tiled floors are faithfully replicated, Bucher’s work rejects the pure geometry and rationality celebrated by Minimalist artists. So, whilst Judd’s boxes extend into space and Andre’s floor pieces act as an additional layer to the floor, protruding from it, Bucher’s skinnings can be understood as works that recede into space. In some ways, Bucher’s engagement with geometry presents a skeleton or ghost of the Minimalist grid.
Furthermore, the artist’s favoured medium – latex – is used to render space permanently in this impermanent material, capturing minute details and revealing imperfections, thus satirising the industrial materials used by the Minimalists. Bucher overwhelmed the grid with a bodily and performative presence, displaying a sophisticated conflation between the analytical and emotional realms. Latex records the inevitable presence of the human body on the surface, revealing scratches and fingerprints. Through the use of latex, Bucher subtly comments on the sterile appearance of manufactured materials associated with Minimalism, such as concrete and metals. Thus, Bucher’s works are pieces that revel in and manipulate the grid by using the very tactility and contouring that Minimalists sought to eliminate. The desiccated and wrinkled latex skinnings work to simultaneously capture memories and temporality; for example, the rough and varied layers of her quilts and aprons recall and reflect the multisensorial identity of the objects. Bucher connected this to the way in which human beings become aware of skin’s phenomenological function to visibly record the passing of time. The deteriorative characteristic of latex, which, despite its initial resilience, eventually darkens and wrinkles over time, can be understood as mimicking the wear and tear nature of human skin. Although skin is a protective layer for the inner organs of a human being, over time it too ages, scars and wears down.4 Moreover, the very concept of temporality and material transformation was a core element of the artist’s work; Bucher’s notion of space was in a state of impermanent flux. Indeed, the recurring inclusion of water, fish and dragonflies points to the themes in Bucher’s oeuvre that relate to metamorphoses and transitory states. The dragonfly lives most of its life-cycle under water in a larval state — to then experience only a few days of a most enthralling aerial existence. The shed skin becomes the relic of an earlier time, a metaphor for setting the past free.
Bucher’s work reveals that she was deeply drawn to the notion that architecture functioned as a living membrane, as a second skin. She was familiar with the writings of the German architect Gottfried Semper (1803–1879), who argued that the origin of architecture lay in weaving.5 With structures composed of methodically interconnected parts, architecture, much like weaving, upholds gridded patterns within its very infrastructures. It is thus unsurprising that Bucher saw connections between the architectural composition of her room skinnings and the casts of her quilts. Bucher references Semper’s theories by combining architecture, textiles and skin.6 She explicitly referred to him when she paraded the skinning of the room of her ancestor’s house through Winterthur and past its Town House, built by Semper (1865–1870).
I, and by that I really mean we, all women, have a quite primeval relationship to textiles. You see, we’ve made it all ourselves... We’re constantly dealing with fabrics. They surround us, envelop us, they’re our skin.7
Upon her death, Bucher’s work was somewhat neglected until 2004, when The Migros Museum of Contemporary Art in Zurich staged a solo exhibition of her work. Conceivably, this obscurity was partially due to the fragile and mutable nature of latex. Whilst a broader appreciation of Bucher’s work is long overdue, it is crucial not to limit her practice within a gendered discourse. Bucher’s practice has often been described through the lens of her delicate hues, with a focus on her use of ethereal and hermetic materials.8 Recent literature has placed much importance on the symbolism of the textiles employed, such as aprons and quilts. While these items certainly link to domesticity, it is equally significant to highlight that they came into close contact with human skin. Similarly, rather than being limited to simple domestic objects, Bucher’s quilts, like much of her work, should be understood as enclosing a corporeal presence. By way of Bucher’s alchemy, they are converted into sculptural geometric objects. Bucher’s quilts are not flat and methodical as their respective originals were. Instead, the cast textiles are voluptuous works, offering volume, depth and texture that defy their two-dimensionality.
By the early 1990s, Bucher had developed and perfected her distinctive technique, involving the layering of latex, rubber and gauze in order to trace the histories of buildings and interior spaces. The sensuous application of mother-of-pearl gloss appears frequently, like a signature, its 3-D effect at odds with the strict grooves that define many of the pieces. Simultaneously, her performances — both in the creation of the works, and those implied by the everyday use of the chosen objects — all contribute to Bucher’s unique visual language. Bucher intoxicates her audience with a uniquely violent yet poetic portrayal of permanence and impermanence. In doing so, she gives objects the ability to record and accumulate the passing of time. By fusing architecture, skin and the body, Bucher successfully conveys, preserves and activates memories. The latex works inevitably draw upon a reading of the psychoanalysis of skin as a metaphor for enclosing the human psyche.
Bucher grappled with the themes and the artistic climate presented by her contemporaries, most notably gendered domesticity and the male-dominated group known as the Minimalists. In her own way, as a Swiss woman living variously in Zurich, New York City, Los Angeles, as well as Canada and Lanzarote, she looked closely at structures, both concrete and conceptual. She preserved them with latex, and used the same material to literally tear them down, and away from their functions. One can see her work as constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing the literal framework of her identity as it shifted from daughter to wife to mother, to finally what she saw and we can see: artist. To be an artist she broke down her surroundings and then took possession of them – either as a cape or as fragments that she hung around her, like tokens. This confidence and unwavering dedication to a very precise line of investigation, which never shies away from the personal, has a totally unexpected and searing result. This is what brings her readily into the canon of great artists of the second half of the 20th century.
- Documented by HansNamuth.
- It is unclear which other artists from these groups Bucher was acquainted with at the time, but it seems likely that she was exposed to their work in California or in New York City.
- Bucher’s studio when she moved back to Zurich in 1973.
- Sigmund Freud psychoanalytically studied the skin and lay thefounda-tions for theorising the importance of the experience of touch as essential in the formation of one’s self. One of the multiple examples of Bucher’s wor- ks referencing psychoanalysis includes her playfully wrapping herself in the skinnings of the Bellevue Sanatorium. The Bellevue Sanatorium was owned by the Binswanger family, who were very involved with the development of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud was a friend of the Director. The peeled-off casts of Bellevue constitute a dual exorcism – of the ghosts of art history and of psychoanalysis. Bucher skinned various rooms of the sanatorium as well as the bathroom of the psychiatric ward, which consisted of a tiled round room with a small central pool equipped with some instruments. A 1990 film by Michael Koechlin records Bucher skinning the Bellevue Sanatorium. The camera displays Bucher strenuously pulling off large sections of latex from the building as she forcefully bunches up the materials in her hands, leaning in opposition to the structure with the weight of her body. Subsequent frames portray Bucher wrapping her body in the skinning, resembling an oversized cloak or a second skin, as she walks through the vacant rooms, dragging the material behind her.
- Gottfried Semper,Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts, or, Practical Ae-sthetics (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2004), 237–248.
- There are close similarities in the etymological roots of the German word for ‘house,’ ‘hut’ and ‘skin.’ Furthermore, the German word for ‘wall’ wasdeve- loped from the words ‘winding’ and ‘wrapping.’
- HeikeMunder,Heidi Bucher: Mother of Pearl (Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2004), 56.
- The essay written by WillyRotzlerand translated by Stanley Mason for Bucher’s exhibition titled A Touch of Mother of Pearl at the Galerie Maeght in Zurich in 1977, conveys this by describing Bucher’s fantastical and dre- am-like world as one that “is a delicate and very vulnerable world that needs protection” and “regarded as specifically feminine in its subject matter as, for instance, in its colouring and tactile character, and thus as rather unusual in the age of female emancipation”. Willy Rotzler, A Touch of Mother of Pearl, Translated by Stanley Mason (Zurich: Galerie Maeght, 1977).