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.


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.

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

 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.

 Why did they find abstract painting inadequate?

 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.

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

 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.

 He rode his bike from Vienna to Venice?

 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.

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

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.

 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.

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.

my own personal masochistic slow-growth viennese actionism. how to deal with the violence even if it’s not my violence but I take it on anyway because being alive while other people are alive makes me feel like it’s mine too. i still hurt from it, because i feel connected. where should i put all this pain that is not really my pain.

artists who want to return the body to their work. guston did it figuratively, just painting himself in that weird self-portrait form after all those years of abstract spiritual-ish art that looks like less, now, even if its’ intentions were kind of beautiful and pure. it’s not enough to just make more symbols is it. even if the symbols are somehow stepping closer to the real. Beauty and Purity are not real. i used to love guston but i don’t need him any more.

and then the viennese actionists who are reveling in it in a way that i have to respect for it’s sheer literal gutsiness even as i think it was probably abusive and wrong. like, stepping right in, these are some bodies these are our bodies look at what we can do to them, the kind of insanity of that. 

art is a layer of protection, it’s like armor. you use it as a shield. you can precede yourself, introduce yourself almost. this is what i feel and think about and must process, here is a physical representation of it, veiled, for you to deal with before you deal with me. this is my excuse.

take the armor and the body and make them one. it keeps getting closer and closer more and more present but i am still not in it yet, i’m still just watching most of the time. 

i get why the actionists were like you
know fuck all you we’re going outside
and leaving it in the streets. hermann,

get the fucking knives. bring the sheets.
that funnel over there, too. and the van.
we’re hitting the butcher shop on the way.

Thursday Documentary: If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Speaking to underground actionists, aboveground activists, and law enforcement operatives who caught the ELF, this film gives the background to the ELF actions which initiated the green scare trials. Those involved speak on the methods utilised, their motivations, the risks, and the means by which they were caught.

Every Thursday throughout the summer we are showing a documentary at 11am PST / 7pm GMT. This will be drawing to a close at the end of September. We hope you have enjoyed this series!

Character Traits (A)

abrasive (irritating; tending to annoy)

abrupt (brusque; discourteous)

abusive (using harsh words or ill-treatment)

absent-minded (forgetful of one’s immediate surroundings; preoccupied)

accommodating (easy to deal with; obliging)

acquiescent (disposed to acquiesce or yield; submissive)

actionist (a zealous worker for a cause, particularly one who is constructive in their approach)

active (constantly engaged in action; busy)

activist (a zealous worker for a cause, especially a political cause; agitator)

adaptable (able to adapt oneself easily to new conditions)

adept (highly skilled; proficient; expert)

admirable (worthy of admiration; exciting approval, reverence or affection; excellent)

adorable (worthy of being adored; arousing strong liking)

adventurous (inclined or willing to engage in adventures)

affable (easy to talk to or to approach; polite; friendly)

affectionate (characterised by or manifesting affection; possessing or indicating love; tender; having great love or affection; warmly attached)

aggravating (annoying: irritating)

aggressive (characterised by or prone to aggression)

agreeable (willing or ready to agree or consent)

alluring (tempting; enticing; seductive; fascinating; charming)

aloof (reserved; unsympathetic; disinterested)

ambitious (having ambition; eagerly desirous of obtaining power, superiority, or distinction)

amusing (pleasantly entertaining or diverting)

analytical (inclined towards analysis)

androgynous (being both male and female; hermaphroditic; having both masculine and feminine characteristics; not conforming to a male or a female stereotype in appearance or behaviour)

angry (feeling or showing anger or resentment; characterised by anger; wrathful)

annoying (causing annoyance)

anxious (full of anxiety or solicitude; greatly troubled or solicitous; earnestly desirous)

apathetic (having or exhibiting little or no emotion or energy; indifferent)

appreciative (capable of appreciating; feeling or manifesting appreciation)

approachable (easy to approach)

argumentative (given to argument; disputatious)

arrogant (making unwarrantable claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights; overbearingly assuming; insolently proud)

artistic (naturally gifted to be an artist)

asocial (avoiding or withdrawn from the environment; not social; inconsiderate of others; selfish; not scrupulous)

assertive (given to asserting; positive; dogmatic)

associative (tending to associate or unite)

athletic (physically active and strong; of a physical type characterised by long limbs, a large build, and well-developed muscles)

audacious (bold or daring; spirited; adventurous; reckless or bold in wrongdoing; impudent and presumptuous)

authoritative (having an air of authority; positive; peremptory; dictatorial)

awful (extremely bad; unpleasant; ugly; inspiring fear; dreadful; terrible; inspiring reverential awe; solemnly impressive)

awkward (lacking dexterity or skill; clumsy; bungling; ungraceful; ungainly; uncouth)


The sexual, violent and scatological performances of the Vienna Actionists are among the art world’s most notorious. Dissatisfied with the limits of painting and photography, the group of artist-activists sought a medium by which to convey their political and psychic condition, tapping into their city’s deep psychoanalytic and artistic avant-garde roots (home to Sigmund Freud, Egon Schiele…). The enduring impact and shock-factor of their art is a testament to the unique power of art to raise social awareness and trigger a human connection.