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.
“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.”
That was my answer, today, when a member of the audience asked me about my work as “performer”.
Forthwith I thought that is too difficult speak my mind and don’t be misunderstood. Because most people never listen to you with their own ears, with their own nature. Normal people listen to you from their education and their preconceptions, with the ears from any other.
But I think this is a problem of the spoken language. When I write I am more free than when I talk, because when I’m writing I am connected with my own nature… and when I talk I am completely alone with a lot of people in front of me that can’t listen, people underscoring my loneliness.