Kurt Kocherscheidt was born on the 6th of July 1943 in Klagenfurt, Austria to Friedrich and Elisabeth Mayer. After the divorce of his parents in 1946 and the move of his father back to Germany, the most formative person in his youth became his grandfather August Mayer (1885–1958) whose deep friendship with Hugo Adolf Bernatzik, a famous ethnographer and explorer, awakened Kocherscheidt’s interest in geography, zoology and art in general.
In 1961, after completion of his school years in Klagenfurt and Friesach (his mother’s hometown), Kocherscheidt moved to Vienna to study painting at the Academy of Fine Arts under Professor Sergius Pauser. As a way of supplementing his income, during the summers he would restore gothic frescos, in his words: “the thought of financial stability” led him to move to Zagreb (then Yugoslavia, now Croatia) for two years (1963–1964) to study mural painting under professor Ivo Rezek at the Akademija Likovnih Umjetnosti, before returning to Vienna and completing his academic studies in 1965. In 1967 he married and divorced his long-time partner Andjelka Feuer.
In 1968 Kocherscheidt became a founding member of the artist group “Wirklichkeiten” (Realities). At a moment when the prevailing trend in art leaned towards conceptual art, these artists were bound by their interest in traditional modes of production, such as painting and drawing, and the representational qualities they favored. During this period, Kocherscheidt was predominantly painting highly saturated imagined landscapes that included both homages to real horticulture and surreal futuristic elements rendered in a palette that recalled the Fauves. The group included several painters who were of his generation and active in Vienna at the time, including: Wolfgang Herzig, Franz Ringel, Robert Zeppel-Sperl, Martha Jungwirth (who joined in 1969), and Peter Pongratz with whose work he shared a deep affinity, as he described it:
“…Peter Pongratz, dessen Informelle Arbeiten mich sehr beeindruckten; mit ihm verband mich eine intensive Ideengemeinschaft”
(…Peter Pongratz, whose informal work deeply impressed me; with him I shared an intense conceptual connection.)
In May 1968, the group had its first exhibition in the Vienna Secession, organized by Otto Breicha, one of the most-well known and prolific art critics, authors and publishers active in Vienna at the time. Breicha was also instrumental in the creation of the group, and played an important role establishing a platform for the work of its members, Kocherscheidt in particular. This exhibition, the first of Kocherscheidt’s work, led to several important events in his career. His paintings caught the attention of the important artist and draughtsman Kurt Moldovan (1918–1977), who at the time was a member of the Jury of the Theodor Körner Prize for young artists. Kocherscheidt was awarded the prize in 1969. Moldovan also introduced him to Franz Armin Morat, a prolific art collector from Freiburg, Germany. The friendship between Kocherscheidt and Morat would become one of the most important and lasting relationships in his life.
In November 1968, he had his first solo show in the Galerie Hildebrand, Klagenfurt. In September 1969 he moved to London, where he resided until December 1971. His motivations to live abroad were, in part, to evade mandatory military service in Austria, but also he had a general affinity for England. He settled in the St. Catherine docks and it was there where he met the artist Ian McKeever, who occupied the neighboring studio. Although contact between them broke-off upon his return to Austria in 1971, they revived their friendship in the early eighties, and an intense personal and artistic relationship resulted which lasted until the end of Kocherscheidt’s life. During his time in London he took the artistic pseudonym “Kappa” because of the English mispronunciation of his surname; he would go on to use this nickname sporadically throughout his career. Among the works he produced during this time were a selection of dioramic wall-hanging collaged landscapes. These works, much like his paintings from the preceding years were saturated surreal landscapes that contain an unexpected dichotomy of hopeful elements, such as a rainbow, and unsettling scale or details that suggest a looming otherworldly danger. Both the fantastical imagery and some titles such as Flash-Gordon-Landscape (1970), illustrated the influence his time in Britain had on his work.
In early 1972 Kocherscheidt embarked on a trip through South America, which became a pivotal experience in his life and career. Leading up to this journey, the artist painted lush green landscapes foreshadowing what he might see in his travels. The sojourn lasted over a year and took him from Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, to Atacama in Chile, through the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, to the Caribbean coast of Colombia. On this voyage he spent several months in Buenos Aires, where he learned Spanish and developed friendships with several Argentinian artists, most notably Jorge Demirjian and Americo Castilla. While he visited the region during a time when military dictatorships were taking hold of many governments, the time he spent in South America would prove to be the most influential to his artistic development, deeply impacting his work until his death. The work he produced during the years following his trip present a more subdued palette that favored neutral browns, large swathes of modulated white, and earthy colors. He also began to introduce to his now more abstract compositions a recurring motif of oversized insects that make it unclear whether the viewer is looking at a close-up of a scene or whether the artist is imagining a world overrun by these creatures.
A week after his return to Vienna from South America in March 1973, he met the photographer Elfie Semotan, and in Autumn of the same year they were married.
The first comprehensive solo exhibition of Kocherscheidt’s work took place in Freiburg, in May 1973, at the house of Armin Morat. Showcasing work from 1966 onwards, it was importantly the first time he displayed work from his South American travels. This exhibition was also significant, as it marked the first meeting between Kocherscheidt and the German composer Wolfgang Rihm, who has since become regarded as one of the most important and influential contemporary classical composers in the German-speaking world. This initial meeting developed into a close collaborative and personal friendship, each of them creating several works influenced by and dedicated to the other. The series of works created in honor of each artist as a result of their collaboration formed the basis for a symposium organized by the Morat Institute in 1997 and the publication Brustrauschen, zum Werkdialog von Kurt Kocherscheidt und Wolfgang Rihm, edited by Heinz Liesbrock, in 2001.
Early 1974 Kocherscheidt bought a farmhouse in Jennersdorf in the south of Burgenland, Austria’s easternmost province located in close proximity to the borders of Hungary and Slovenia. He chose this region in part because several artists, such as Walter Pichler and Christian Ludwig Attersee, whom Kocherscheidt knew from Vienna, had also acquired properties in the area, and thus an artistic community was formed and has endured in one form or another until the present day. On July 25, 1974 Kocherscheidt’s first son Ivo was born in Vienna. During the following years Kocherscheidt began renovating the house in Jennersdorf; he rebuilt and extended the property, largely acting as his own architect. In recognition of his work, the property was included in the Österreichische Architektur im 20. Jahrhundert/Austrian Architecture in the 20th Century by Friedrich Achleitner published by Museum moderner Kunst Wien or Architekturzentrum Wien (vol. III/3) in 1983. Kocherscheidt began to split his time equally between Vienna and Burgenland. His then-new studio (and later the larger iteration added to the rear of the building) became the location where he produced a large part of his later work. The expanded studio space made it possible for him to work on larger formats shifting the scale of his paintings from previous decades.
In April 1978 Kocherscheidt suffered a major heart attack. This condition, as later examinations would show, was the result of a metabolic disease, which had already resulted in his father’s death a few years earlier. In order to alleviate the constant threat of a renewed heart attack, it was decided that he undergo a bypass operation, which at that time was still a very new procedure, particularly rare in Europe. The operation was carried out in Bad Krozingen south of Freiburg, Germany on October 16, 1978. He remained at the Institution for post-operational therapy for the next two months.
After his release from the hospital, from early January 1979 until after Easter of the same year, Kocherscheidt and his family stayed in Boissano, Italy, where the Morat Institute maintained a studio in co-operation with Marie-Luise Jeanneret, a Swiss collector. This location would prove to be very important in the development of Kocherscheidt’s work, as it was there where for the first time he started to work in oil. In his earliest oil paintings, he retained and pushed further many of the interests that emerged after his travels to South America. He relied heavily on brown, gray, and white paint to produce brushy abstract still life paintings with dispersed and unrealistically proportioned assortments of strange objects including: hats, shoes, sink faucets, table settings, and insects. The significantly different atmosphere and attitude towards art and artists in Italy also had a profound effect on him, prompting him to return for one or two months around Easter every year for the following 10 years.
Over the next years Kocherscheidt expanded his home in the Austrian countryside, adding a large building with guest rooms, workshop and garage. He began spending about half the year (late Spring, Summer and early Autumn) there, and colder times of the year in Vienna (where he also maintained a studio in the Karolinengasse in the 4th district). It was also during this time that Kocherscheidt began to shift his focus to large canvas formats and switched completely from tempera to oil. Emblematic of this scale shift was his interest in multi-panel works, including many diptychs, each panel of which were often the size of individual works from previous years. His compositions moved from figurative to abstraction, developing a personal and unique style that became characteristic for his work from then on. He continued to favor compositions with sketchily painted backgrounds with diffuse objects scattered across the surface, but these details became increasingly less discernible abstracted objects and were instead biomorphic and unrecognizable shapes, characterized by highly expressive brushwork.
In 1981 Kocherscheidt traveled to the west coast of United States, traveling from San Francisco to New Mexico. While in San Diego, he encountered the still life by Juan Sanchez Cotan, Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602), and Francisco de Zurbaran’s Agnus Dei (1640). Seeing those works left a lasting impression on him and distinctly influenced aspects of his own work. In both of these 17th century still life paintings, the artists rendered black backgrounds with isolated hyper-realistic objects that feel as if they are floating in space. Those objects, overripe produce and a slaughtered lamb, serve as memento mori warnings of death, decay, and loss of innocence. Though the overt subject matter was distinct from Kocherscheidt’s enigmatic work, the compositions clearly influenced him and pushed his work towards a darker palette with similarly floating or suspended painted elements as in his triptych Schwarzmacht (1981). He developed a group of paintings throughout 1982 that introduced golden yellow backgrounds, and in some cases specifically reference the phrase memento mori in their titles.
On the January 7, 1982, Kocherscheidt’s younger son August was born in Vienna. In 1983 he moved his studio in Vienna from the Karolinengasse in the 4th district to the Lehargasse in the 6th district. The new larger studio was importantly on the top floor of the building and therefore had a big skylight. Access to daylight made working in Vienna much more appealing, which was helpful considering his older son was in school and open-ended stays on the countryside were not always possible. Using this space, now working under substantial daylight in the city, he produced works such as Die Colonnade (1982) a diptych in which the viewer seems to be looking through the lattice of a stained glass or shattered window to distorted columnar architecture beyond. In late May 1985, a second heart attack necessitated a further bypass operation. This time the operation was carried out in Geneva, Switzerland.
In November of the following year, Kocherscheidt had the first comprehensive show of his oil paintings at the Museum of the 20th Century in Vienna. Subsequently the show traveled to Graz, Salzburg, Karlsruhe and Eindhoven. During the 1980s, his painting style also began to change. His visual language became simpler and his brushwork more complex. He introduced irregular circles, often evoking the cycles of the moon as a recurring element, and reduced the floating biomorphic shapes per composition so that only a few larger elements now featured on the background plane.
In late Summer of 1986, Kocherscheidt also made a large-scale wooden sculpture, the first of fifteen he would complete before his death in 1992. The first of these sculptures, Englische Acht (1986) is comprised of a more than eight foot high rectangular slab of wood, leaned agains the wall on two legs. The entire surface painted a brick red and incised with eight floating angular shapes, each outlined with a thick white border floating around it. In this sculpture and the 14 that would follow, Kocherscheidt maintained a clear formal relationship across media. His sculptures, though expansive, were always nearly two-dimensional; pieces of wood cut into irregular, almost geometric shapes, displayed either leaning against or hung upon the wall.
A further expansion of the property in the countryside took place in 1987–1988. At that point, a considerably larger studio was added to the rear of the building, connected to the old studio with a tower. This development also led Kocherscheidt to expand the scale of his works further, including his later wooden sculptures such as The Boys Of Colchis, which is approximately four by four meters. In October of 1988, Kocherscheidt opened a solo-exhibition of paintings, Sommararbeit at the Museum für Angewandte in Vienna. Here he chose to install paintings directly next to and on top of one another with no space between their edges. Though painted on individual large-scale canvases, the effect was similar to that of a modular mural with the entire wall covered in his abstract compositions. He made clear with this hanging his interest in the environmental and immersive possibilities of his two-dimensional works.
A drastic decline in health due to his heart disease made yet a third bypass operation necessary; this was again undertaken in Geneva on June 1, 1989. The operation was a success, and Kocherscheidt quickly regained his strength, yet it was made clear by his surgeon Dr. Martin Schmutziger, who had performed all three operations up to this point, that this was the last bypass operation Kocherscheidts body could sustain. Should further complications arise, the only viable option would be a heart transplant.
In the Summer of 1991, Jan Hoet, the director of the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Ghent, Belgium, organized a solo show of Kocherscheidt’s work in the museum. At the same time, he announced that he would include Kocherscheidt in Documenta IX, of which he was to be chief curator. In January 1992 the Vienna Secession opened a solo show of Kocherscheidt. This exhibition marked two critical moments; it was the first time that one of his wooden sculptures, the massive Boys of Kolchis, was prominently featured, and a classical music piece composed by Wolfgang Rihm especially for this occasion, was performed at the opening. The positive reception of the sculptural piece encouraged him to include the sculpture Aufwärts Gleitend in the selection of works he would present at the Documenta IX.
Kocherscheidt and his family spent the month of April of that year on Gomera, part of the Canary Islands. There he was able to work in the studios of then already defunct Mühl commune and produced a series of 50 watercolors entitled “El bananero enamorado.” In the last week of April Kocherscheidt traveled to Freiburg, Germany, where he arranged the permanent installation of his work in the Kocherscheidt room of the Morat Institute. On the occasion of the opening on May 2, Wolfgang Rihm gave a speech about the artistic relationship between the two men. On the June 10 Kocherscheidt took part in the opening of the Documenta IX in Kassel.
In late October 1992 Kocherscheidt visited his long-time friend Michel Whürthle on his property on Syros (Cyclades) in Greece. On the land owned by Whürthle, Kocherscheidt built his only site-specific sculpture Das Tor der Winde, a 6 meter-high door frame with several wooden doors, which because of its location on a hilltop, would open and close with the movement of the wind.
During the last days of his stay on Syros, Kocherscheidt’s health began to deteriorate, which necessitated his return to Vienna on November 4, where he was immediately hospitalized and transferred to the hospital in Wels, Austria. On November 8, after a temporary improvement of his condition, he was released and returned to Vienna. As soon as he returned, he went back to the studio and on November 9 and 10 worked on a series of etchings with Ian McKeever in the workshop of Kurt Zein. The following day he completed his last painting, Ohne Titel (1992), in his studio in the Lehargasse in Vienna. That work, his 45th completed painting of that year is a large vertical canvas with a background of grayish brown through which yellow streaks peak out from below horizontal brushstrokes. The same yellow paint is applied in a sparse scattering of drippy vertical lines overtop the grey brown, and a sheer matte black form revels as a diagonal portion of the background. Finally, Kocherscheidt added a thickly painted dense glossy black ring of paint overtop, the brush marks and his sweeping gesture clearly visible in the painting’s foreground layer.
In the early morning of November 12, his heart condition deteriorated rapidly and, as a further heart attack seemed imminent, he was transferred once again to the hospital in Wels to undergo a fourth bypass operation. During the preparation for the emergency procedure, Kocherscheidt passed away in the early hours of November 13, 1992. The funeral took place one week later, on November 20 at the local cemetery in Jennersdorf, Austria.
Since his passing his work has been the subject of the exhibitions Retrospektive, Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin (2013); Sammlung Essl, Klosterneuburg, Austria (2013); Im Fluss der Bilder. Malerei, Josef Albers Museum, Bottrop, Germany (2013); Augenecho with Elfie Semotan, Arp Museum – Bahnhof Rolandseck, Remagen, Germany (2013); Das fortlaufende Bild, Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna (2008–09); Vom Fluss der Bilder, Kunstverein Würzburg, Wurzburg, Germany (1999); Wechselwirkungen – Crossings. Bilder und Skulpturen, Eine Retrospektive aller Arbeiten in Holz von Kurt Kappa Kocherscheidt, Morat-Institut, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany (1997–98); Malerei – Skulptur – Graphik, Neue Galerie, Staatliche Museen, Kassel, Germany (1995); Bilder 1987-1992, Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster, Germany (1994); Neues Museum Weserburg, Bremen, Germany (1993). His work was most recently on view in a solo-exhibition at the W&K Palais in Vienna (2017–18).
His work is part of many public and private collections including: the Sammlung Deutsche Bank, Frankfurt, Germany; Morat-Institut für Kunst und Kunstwissenschaft, Freiburg, Germany; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Netherlands; The Würth Collection, Chur, Switzerland; MUMOK Vienna, Austria; Sammlung Essl at the Albertina, Vienna, Austria; Leopold Museum, Vienna, Austria; Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz, Austria; Museum Liaunig, Carinthia, Austria; Museum of Modern Art, Karnten, Carinthia, Austria; Belvedere 21, Vienna, Austria; among others.
Kurt Kocherscheidt is regarded as one of the most important artists of his generation in Austria. His work has greatly influenced younger painters such as Tobias Pils and Nikola Sturm. His deep understanding and tireless examination of painting as medium and subject continues to elicit study and reflections from scholars and curators in continental Europe. Until his last painting, he aimed to deconstruct painting by understanding the medium as an accumulation of ideas that are dissected to generate new meaning through form. In his words: “The completion of a picture is much more difficult than its beginning, in fact impossible. I understand the development of a picture as a flow of pictures, which is stopped almost arbitrarily. An idea or even a thought is torn open, condensed and superimposed, fragmented and regrouped, adjusted. The moment a brief loss of control occurs, a small turn is made to interrupt the paralyzing fixation, in a word, when the picture becomes independent, finds an opportunity to strike back, a good moment has come to stop.” (Kurt Kocherscheidt, December 1991).