An artist at the intersection of Modernism: The Leopold Museum honors the sculptor Josef Pillhofer

In a dialogue with Cézanne, Degas, Giacometti, Maillol, Picasso, Rodin, and many others

Marking the 100th birthday of one of the most eminent Austrian sculptors and draftsmen, the Leopold Museum dedicates a comprehensive retrospective to Josef Pillhofer (1921–2010). Featuring more than 180 exhibits, the presentation places his oeuvre into a dialogue with select works by protagonists of sculptural modernism, including Edgar Degas, Auguste Rodin, Aristide Maillol, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Henri Laurens, Alberto Giacometti, Joannis Avramidis and Fritz Wotruba. Pillhofer’s artistic work spanned six decades and took into account pre-modern pioneering achievements as well as the accomplishments of the avant-garde. Following his in-depth study of the oeuvre of international role-models, the artist was able to develop his own independent design vocabulary on the path towards abstraction.

Paris encounters

As Fritz Wotruba’s student at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, Josef Pillhofer received a state scholarship in 1950 that allowed him to move to Paris. There, he worked at the studio of the Cubist sculptor Ossip Zadkine at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and was inspired by various forms of Cubism. Pillhofer met the luminaries of sculptural art, including Jacques Lipchitz, Alexander Archipenko and Henri Laurens, and entered into an exchange with sculptors such as Constantin Brâncuși and Alberto Giacometti, whom he had the chance to visit in his studio. The artist further derived inspiration from museums like the Louvre, which he visited in 1951 with Fritz Wotruba, as well as from visits to galleries and studios with his friends, through whom he also met Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann.

“This in-depth examination of art history and his encounters in Paris with the greats of his time allowed Pillhofer to develop an autonomous design vocabulary which made him the first non-representational sculptor in Austria. In his exploration of abstract concepts, however, he never deviated from basing his work on nature. It is not least this dichotomy that accounted for his highly variable and exciting design vocabulary, making the study of his oeuvre – characterized by a pluralism of styles – full of surprises.”

Hans-Peter Wipplinger, curator

Josef Pillhofer met the sculptor Joannis Avramidis in Vienna in 1949, and the two artists forged a life-long friendship. In 1954 and 1956 he represented Austria at the Venice Biennale. He joined the artists’ association Art Club in 1952 and became a member of the Vienna Secession in 1955. The apartment of Josef and Waltraut Pillhofer was frequented by artists including Herbert Boeckl, Maria Lassnig, Arnulf Rainer, Josef Mikl and Fritz Wotruba.

The exhibition –Josef Pillhofer’s oeuvre. A work of wide range

The exhibition begins with large-scale photographs showing Josef Pillhofer as a working sculptor, hewing stone with a chisel, while affording interesting insights into the artist’s studio. The exhibited sculptures illustrate the spectrum of his oeuvre, ranging from the walnut double figure Lovers (1965) to the aluminum sculpture from his late oeuvre Spatial Architecture (c. 2000). The presentation highlights the thematic emphases of his oeuvre, and through select examples shows the inspiration he derived from Paul Cézanne, from the pioneers of modern sculpture Auguste Rodin and Medardo Rosso, from Expressionists like Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Alexander Archipenko, and from Cubists including Ossip Zadkine and Pablo Picasso.

Influence of antiquity

Pillhofer’s interest in Greco-Roman antiquity, and especially in Etruscan art, was sparked during his 1957 scholarship stay in Rome. Influences of antique art are reflected in Pillhofer’s quest for archaizing simplification. His works often feature unfinished, withered or fragmentary elements, for instance Roman Head (1960), which is reminiscent of an archeological find, and Caryatid (1962), fashioned from lime wood. Further references to antiquity can be found in the bronze sculpture Anaxagoras (1970), named after a Greek philosopher, in the drawing of a Western Greek temple in Sicily (1983) and in the block-like sandstone sculpture, using Cubist-simplified forms, named after the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (1990-98).

Ideal proportions

The dialogue between Pillhofer’s bronze Bather (1981), Maillol’s Flore (1909/10) and Cézanne’s Bathers (1890-90) in the exhibition shows the artists’ intergenerational affinities for classical themes and shapes, combined with their quest for ideal proportions and modern reduction.

Animated expression

The vitalization of expression through animated surface modeling began with Rodin, and was intensified by artists including Medardo Rosso, Edgar Degas and Alberto Giacometti. Breaking up the smooth, cohesive appearance allowed for the human figure to appear more animated and led to a dynamization of the surface. Juxtapositions of Rosso’s Behold the Boy (1906), Giacometti’s Bust of Diego (1955) and Pillhofer’s heads, such as his Portrait of Sir Karl Popper (1995/96), illustrate the many variants on the theme of animated surface treatment.

Pluralism of modernist sculpture

The pluralism of trends within modernist sculpture is illustrated by an impressive sculpture installation, in which Pillhofer’s Dancers (1951-54) encounter Henri Lauren’s The Mother, Zadkine’s Female Forms (1922) and Jacques Lipchitz’s Bather (1917), among others.

The exhibition shows Pillhofer’s exploration of Cubism, juxtaposes his Round Head (1958) with an Asymmetrical Head (1962-65) by his friend and fellow artist Joannis Avramidis, and further incorporates Pablo Picasso’s Cubist painting The Orange Blouse – Dora Maar (1940) into the staging. The exhibition also presents Pillhofer’s investigations on the themes of movement and dance, for instance through the relief series The Dance (1980-82), and his search for the form, illustrated by his Monoforms, which show clear references to objects created by Constantin Brâncuși.

Penetrating the essence of landscape

In Pillhofer’s oeuvre, drawing played an autonomous role that went far beyond sketching. Like Cézanne, Pillhofer was not interested in visible reality, much in keeping with his declared aim: “I want to penetrate the essence of the landscape in an encompassing sense.” Landscape drawings, such as Rock Formation (1996), may be regarded as explorations of spatial features. The artist’s perception focused on the lines of force of a bigger picture – of a mountainous landscape or an urban architecture. His pictorial messages are reduced to their essence, compacted through omissions, and impress with their clarity and stringency.

Spatial Architectures

An extraordinary aspect of Josef Pillhofer’s oeuvre are his constructivist, geometricizing and restrainedly balanced compositions made from sheet metal, which he called Spatial Architectures. Pillhofer created ever new variations of these “spatial concepts”. The model-like sheet metal sculptures became veritable architectures, which he would revisit in a modified form in his large-scale sculptures of the early 1990s, for instance in Hurricane in Manhattan (1996). Pillhofer realized his last monumental sculpture, which is also his most spectacular work, in 2008 for the Museum Liaunig in Carinthia – the Spatial Development made from steel and measuring almost six meters tall and nine meters wide. In this impressive monument, Pillhofer invested the strength of the material with a spiritual power, and abstraction with a poetical and sensual guise.

For the first exhibition opening after the Lockdown – which, owing to the pandemic, took place in a small setting, the Leopold Museum’s Director Hans-Peter Wipplinger welcomed the daughter of Josef Pillhofer and lender Susanna Tabaka-Pillhofer and her husband Jan Tabaka, as well as the artist’s sons Markus and Ulrich Pillhofer. Further in attendance were the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Leopold Museum Private Foundation Josef Ostermayer, board member Elisabeth Leopold, the President of the Association of Friends of the Leopold Museum Hans Raumauf (Vienna Insurance Group), the artists Regina Götz, Michael Kienzer, Lukas Pusch, Giovanni Rindler and Werner Würtinger, Michael Duscher (CEO NÖ Werbung) and Katrin Duscher (OMV communications), Waltraud Leopold, Saskia Leopold (CMS Reich-Rohrwig Hainz), the lenders Julia Avramidis, Helmut Klewan and Peter Liaunig (Museum Liaunig), curator Günther Holler-Schuster (Neue Galerie Graz), the gallery owners Dagmar Chobot, Christa Zetter, Katherina Zetter and Eberhard Kohlbacher (Wienerroither & Kohlbacher), the photography expert Monika Faber, the historian Siegwald Ganglmair, and many others.


18th June–10th Oct. 2021

Digital exhibition

Press material

For questions, please contact:

Leopold Museum Private Foundation
Mag. Klaus Pokorny and Veronika Werkner, BA
Press/Public Relations
0043 1 525 70 - 1507 or 1541


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