Actionists

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.

LONDON: The @ICALondon exhibit the remarkable #BauMagazine and it’s archive. Bau: the magazine for architecture and contemporary culture began in 1925 as a trade publication, and later found its editorship taken over in 1965 by a group of pioneering Austrian architects. Visual and theoretical essays brought the editors’ alternative outlook on architecture a wider audience and they were the first to communicate the work of younger radical architects along with international works (such as designs by architect #BuckminsterFuller and even artists such as #ClaesOldenburg also). “Everything is Architecture” is exhibited in the Fox Reading Room until 27th September. Last notes for a wider outlook on the everyday: “architect #HansHollein boldly claimed that ‘Everything is Architecture’ - from a lipstick, a pill and a portrait of Che Guevara to an astronaut suit and the radical performances of the Viennese Actionists, all could be considered architectural”. #icalondon #Bau #EverythingIsArchitecture (at ICA Institute Of Contemporary Art)

Austrian artist angers activists with dead animal show
Animal rights activists have filed a complaint against Austrian enfant terrible Hermann Nitsch over his current exhibition in Sicily featuring dead animals on crucifixes, a spokeswoman for the artist said Thursday.
Nitsch is one of Vienna’s famed “Actionists”, a radical 1960s avant-garde movement whose members are known for skinning animal carcasses, tying up human bodies and using blood, mud and urine in their works.
The 76-year-old is best known for his long-running Orgies Mysteries Theatre, a performance-based show representing slaughters and religious sacrifices.
The latest edition of the exhibition, which opened in the city of Palermo in Sicily last Friday, sparked outrage among animal rights groups who accused Nitsch of blasphemy and inciting violence.
The exhibition was a “shame” for Palermo and in violation of the 1978 UN Declaration of Animal Rights, said Italian activist Antonio Leto who filed the complaint.
An online petition started by Leto has so far collected 70,000 signatures asking for the show to be shut down ahead of its official closing date on July 20.
But Nitsch’s wife rejected the protests as “blown out of proportion”.
“I have been married to my husband for 30 years now and I can tell you that this kind of small ruckus is always part of (his work),” Rita Nitsch told AFP.
“But quality has triumphed over the polemic. The show is a huge success and it annoys me when the media pick up this sort of thing instead of focusing on all the positive reviews we have received.”
Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando who attended last week’s launch has also endorsed the show.
Nitsch has at least three museums devoted to his work in Austria and in Italy.