actionists

Fall 2014 Editor’s Pick
Opens Tues, Sept 9, 6-8p:

RITE OF PASSAGE: The Early Years of Vienna Actionism, 1960 – 1966”
 Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler

Hauser & Wirth, 32 East 69th St., NYC

the first major New York City exhibition to explore, through rare paintings, collages, and photographs, the emergence of a critical 20th-century avant-garde movement. Various artistic developments in the second half of the 20th century have been influenced by a performative paradigm that emphasizes a move away from formal, static objects and toward more directly experiential, event-like, and sensorial gestures. In the early 1960s, the Vienna Actionists defined their radical style through a critique of painting, specifically that of European Art Informel and the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School. Under Austria’s Second Republic, Brus, Muehl, Nitsch, and Schwarzkogler sought out new possibilities for expression that could transcend the shadow of World War II. Motivated by material experimentation, they developed their art around radical body-centric performances through which authentic experiences of reality and incisive political statements could be directly and intensely perceived.

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JUST GIVE ME SOME ACTION: VIENNA ACTIONISTS COME TO NEW YORK

Text by Kerry Gaertner Gerbracht; courtesy Art in America

The sexual, violent and scatological performances of the Vienna Actionists, a group of artists whose operations began in the 1960s, are among the art world’s most notorious. Members Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler were active among the ruins of the Austrian capital after World War II, tapping into their city’s deep psychoanalytic and artistic avant-garde roots—the city was also home to Sigmund Freud, Egon Schiele and the Vienna Secession artists.

Dissatisfied with the limits of painting and photography, the Actionists sought a medium by which to convey their political and psychic condition, a mission which led to the performative use of their own bodies. While they never abandoned traditional mediums, they pushed the limits of performance—they often employed blood and feces; pain and sexuality were recurrent themes. The group’s works grew out of Austrian circumstances but parallel the works of contemporaries including the French Situationists, the Japanese Gutai, Fluxus and international Happenings.

"Rite Of Passage: The Early Years of Vienna Actionism, 1960-1966," an exhibition of paintings, collages and photographs, will be on view at Hauser & Wirth’s Upper East Side location (Sept. 9-Oct. 25). The show’s curator, Hubert Klocker, director of Sammlung Friedrichshof, in Zurndorf, Austria, spoke with A.i.A. by phone last week about postwar Vienna and the Actionists’ critique of abstract painting.

KERRY GAERTNER GERBRACHT
 The Actionists worked separately; they were not joined as any sort of collective. What is the unifying theme of this exhibition?

HUBERT KLOCKER
 When we talk about the Actionists, it’s important that we talk about a group situation in the ’60s that started to become more and more political as the decade continued, especially in combination with other contemporaneous developments both in Europe and all over the world. What the four main Viennese Actionists—Nitsch, Brus, Muehl and Schwarzkogler—had in common in the first half of the decade was their critical reaction to the Parisian manner of abstract painting.

GERBRACHT
 Why did they find abstract painting inadequate?

KLOCKER
 They found that it would not allow them to put across what they really wanted to express. They wanted to put their finger on certain issues, such as Austrian postwar political developments. It was not an iconoclastic movement, however. They always stuck with painting and the object. When they started to do performance, they still thought about the picture and the icon. They tried to use photography in order to create new kinds of images, and contributed quite early on to staged photography.

GERBRACHT
 How aware were the Actionists of their New York contemporaries, namely the Abstract Expressionists and Pop artists?

KLOCKER
 They were aware to a certain degree. There was the presentation of the New York School at the second Documenta (1959) and at the Venice Biennale (1960). Brus rode a bike to Venice to see Franz Kline’s paintings at the U.S. Pavilion.

GERBRACHT
 He rode his bike from Vienna to Venice?

KLOCKER
 He had no money. Vienna was shattered and the artists did not have many possibilities. There had been information coming in from Paris in the late ’40s and early ’50s. The Surrealists had been in Vienna, and there had been some underground clubs. At the time there was Galerie nächst St. Stephan, which did not exhibit New York artists but did show Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni and others like them.

GERBRACHT
 Was the Actionists’ use of violence a sort of penance for Austria’s enmeshment with the Third Reich?

KLOCKER 
As youths they all had been confronted with the war. Muehl was a little bit older and he actually had to go to war in the last two years. They talk about healing, thinking about psychoanalysis, psychophysical experiences, freeing themselves. Of course, that’s only one part of the picture. They all connected strongly with the art of early 20th-century Vienna.

GERBRACHT
 Vienna at the turn of the century was an international art hub, home to Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, the Wiener Werkstaette and the Vienna Secession. With the two World Wars, it was almost as if it froze and had its reawakening in the ’60s.

KLOCKER 
The late avant-garde in Austria connected with the early-20th-century modernist situation. Only now can it be seen more clearly how they relate to each other. That’s an interesting aspect of this show. There are highly aesthetic, highly expressionist, very strong formal works in this exhibition and I try to make the situation in Austria clear—this was a kind of a late avant-garde.

ACTIONS

 

“I was never a performer. A performer is that kind of shallow modern guy, who puts a scotch tape on his ears, paints his face like a decadent lamb and makes pantomimic with a few ugly dancers. A performer can also be a kind of fake artist that breaks an old vase and pretending to be a transgressor (when in fact is a product of the prevailing conformism, and only can bother to a few old members of a committee). A performer (with some rare exception, is a mediocre actor playing the role of an avant-garde artist). I think the word actionist is more precisely to describe my attitude. I was always a man in motion, because I am just a living being, but I was never an actor. I am not acting for spectators. I am walking to the unknown, expressing for nobody things that I myself was unaware before their expression. I am made of the verbs from my nature: I am not a member of the club.”

-Gustavo Charif, extract from a reply to a question from the audience, during his talk at the Balai Seni Visual Negara (National Visual Arts Gallery of Malaysia), 2013.-

Many events in Charif’s life could be considered live art or “actions”.

That was the spirit, in some way, when he made a pilgrimage with numerous believers to Basilica of Our Lady of Luján. Or when attends Theosophical Society’s sessions but, at the same time, to meetings of the Trotskyist party. Or, even, when he made a series of interventions on some Old Masters (Poussin, Rembrandt and Zurbarán among others).

We may also see an art action when, around 1985, he destroyed thirty books written before 1980, and when wrote under the pseudonyms of Melissa Larta, Césare Cartago and Emmanuelle Vaere as if he were respectively a young Rumanian poet, a mature Italian pornographer and a middle-aged Dutch experimental novelist. Or when in 1999 starts a parallel life as Victorio Lenz, and when collaborates in different projects as a “hidden musician” under different names.

Beyond this, we can further distinguish among the events of his life some specific live art actions.

 

1998

In November, he institutes the prize Charif pintado de oro (Charif painted in gold). The prize-giving ceremony is held at the door of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) to León Ferrari (career), Alfredo Benavidez Bedoya (engraving), Ricardo Longhini (sculptor), Enrique César Lerena de la Serna ‘Ithacar Jalí’ (sciences), Claudio Caldini (filmmaker), Roberto Bertero (painter) and Daniel Alva (friend). Charif also awards his couple in those days, dancer and choreographer Vanina Serra (woman) and one of his lovers, Muriel (lover).

1999

He founds a religion that does not accept followers, and writes a series of precepts that, being an indecipherable writing, he himself is unable to follow. This writing was sent, via fax and e-mail, to 99 intellectuals from different countries.

2000

He prints a false cover of Le Figaro magazine that distributes through all Paris announcing his “invasion to conquest the barbarian French people”. There Gustavo Charif meets Alejandro Jodorowsky who invites him to a public dialogue about his works and his future -with the help of tarot- at Le père tranquille.

2002

In July Charif publishes the Manifiesto Encarnado (Incarnated Manifesto) in the catalogue-book Alquimia Profana (Profane Alchemy, Nexos, Bs. As.-New York) that came with the big individual exhibition at Daniel Maman Fine Arts and that was visited by 5,000 people. For the opening he organizes an impressive procession with hundreds of personalities (poets, scientists, chess players) that follow the instruction of inventing their own personal religion and dress according with it. They started from Macedonio Fernandez’s house where he lived with his son (the remembered Adolfo de Obieta, friend of Charif and recently lost) ending at the gallery with the canonization of Arrabal as San Fando.

Video with some images from Daniel Maman Fine Arts (procession, opening exhibition, conference): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PvXsD7H2T-Y

Conference-action in Paris with Arrabal presenting Mishima’s film Yûkoku (aka The Rite of Love and Death).

Series of photographic interventions with Aoi, a young Japanese friend, at the FIAC (International Fair of Contemporary Art, París): AstroBoy.

On December 15th Charif canonizes Luce Moreau Arrabal at the front door on Notre-Dame, giving her the title of Saint Lis in front of 2,000 people like the president of the Republic of Frioul, the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, the Dream Team Cinématographique, Adjani, Antoine, Aoi, Krist B, Marc Brenner, Jean-Marc and Carla Debenedetti, Albert Delpy, Ante Glibota, Maxime Godard, Harold, Laurence Imbert, Grégoire Lacroix, Léo Bernard Léonard, Gabriel Matzneff, Olivier O. Olivier, Anita Seawright, Christophe Stycinski, Michel Talheimer, and a group of “incarnated artists, Italian alchemists, people of arts, insects, Japanese students, French editors, Brazilian attorneys, young collectors, chess players, scientists and mystic policemen”.

2005

He is invited by the magazine Ramona to make an intervention on a cover, in a collective exhibition organized by the same magazine. Because the magazine represented pretty well what that Charif sees as “the big swindle of the contemporary art”, he sends Pequeño ataúd (Little Coffin), a parody of the magazine inside a funeral box, where he changes, for example, the motto “visual arts magazine” (“revista de artes visuales”, in Spanish) by “magazine of wordiness without vision” (revista de palabrería sin visión).

2006

Charif creates some fictional characters, most of them musicians with different MySpace accounts, each one with a personal biography, pictures and tunes. Two of them are Chico Trompo (a jazz pianist who “died on 1945”) and Tita Puch (parody of Marilyn Manson but in Argentinian style, the name is a combination with the actress Tita Merello and the killer Robledo Puch).

After 2006

On last years, Charif was walked away from public life more and more. When some years ago, during a conference, somebody asked him about his next live action, he answered: “I don’t know… enter the silence, maybe”.

Blood and Iron in the Temple of Menses

  “I’ve surely made mistakes in the community, but certainly not in sexuality.” – Otto Muehl   By Brad Feuerhelm, ASX, January 2015 The Vienna Actionists of 1960’s…

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