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.
There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist - a nonviolent resister. She was willing to accept scorn and abuse until the truth she saw was revealed to the millions. At the turn of the century she went into the slums and set up a birth control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions. She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions. Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning. Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her. Negroes have no mere academic nor ordinary interest in family planning. They have a special and urgent concern.
You were my well-aged Gottlieb Stroked by one too many false art students In a museum with security That wasn’t even sure where calligraphy Met ancient painting.
And I was your machine rendered Sol le Witt Only purchased in pattern To be drawn or materialized or whatever By the buyer.
We kept circling the same point over and over again Drawing lines and boundaries around What was “okay”
We were our own twisted nightmares (Those things you’re most afraid of Because you can see yourself in them) The minimalist in the color fieldist The actionist in the ascetic.
And still we circled that point Greeted out by the burnt marks Of too many eraser nubs The paper wearing the scars Of tracings and retracing from an age ago.
Somewhere in my head A pencil pauses and stops Determines our starting point and returns To its jar Somewhere in my head Knuckles crack and a smirk tells me “It’s time”
But I open my eyes And I know that we’ve already redrawn and rewritten and reworked too many things Lies we’ve told each other and ourselves Inked into the skin of our upper lips Thoroughly bred and designed to beat each other into circles Round and round we go
And me? And you? And us? Distant questions from lap numbers One through four With no hope of future answers After crashing and burning and breaking legs and being put down
There is nothing for us here Except circles Except lines To retrace and redraw Hoping that at one point We will eventually find a center.