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Its Wikipedia entry calls it “a short and violent movement,” and even compared with the aesthetic extremes of the 1960s, the unrelenting art of Vienna Actionism stands apart. After the passage of fifty years, the questions it raised about the limits and origins of art remain no less troubling or closer to resolution.
The four artists who made up the core of the movement — Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler — witnessed the ravages of World War II and its aftermath, though only one of them, Muehl, was old enough to fight, entering the Wehrmacht in 1943 at the age of 18.
In the decades following the war, they pursued an idiom that evolved from Abstract Expressionist-influenced paintings to blood-drenched rituals that inverted every sexual, social and hygienic taboo. Their art directly confronted the savagery of war and made a mockery of the entrenched political and religious conservatism that clung to Viennese life despite the cataclysms of Fascism and the Anschluss.
In many ways, their art is of a piece with the tragicomic grotesqueries rampant in the work of generational peers such as the dramatist Fernando Arrabal, the composers Krzysztof Penderecki and Peter Maxwell Davies, the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and the choreographer Hijikata Tatsumi.
But the Actionists were the most brazenly literal in their excavation of the terrors at the heart of creation. Their performances — Nitsch’s in particular, which involved slaughtered animals, viscera and crucifixions — evoked Dionysian rites, medieval Passion Plays, Mayan human sacrifice and the twinned generative-destructive powers of Shiva.
In a 2010 interview with Jonas Vogt for the online magazine, VICE, Nitsch, who continued to stage performances of his Orgien Mysterien Theater (Orgies Mysteries Theater) into the late 1990s, states that his intention was “to deal with immediate color, real flesh, real entrails, the human body. In addition, my work is also more or less a psychoanalytic realization of subconscious associations. I am a great admirer of Freud and Jung. Myths of all times play an important role in my work.”
The transition that the Actionists made from objects to reality is the premise of RITE OF PASSAGE: The Early Years of Vienna Actionism, 1960 – 1966, curated by Hubert Klocker, which opened this week at the Upper East Side outpost of Hauser & Wirth. In his remarks at the press preview, Klocker noted that the exhibition covers the period when the Actionists (who were loosely affiliated as a group and generally did not engage in collective or collaborative activities) were attempting to move beyond the mode of abstract painting current at the time and return the figure to their art.
But instead of representing the figure, the artists’ own bodies — as well as those of others — became their medium of expression. Through elaborately staged performances, or “actions,” which were documented, as Klocker informed us, by Ludwig Hoffenreich, a veteran photojournalist befriended by the group, they strove to break down the defenses, rationalizations and inhibitions of the audience as much as remove the barriers between art and life. It was an art, as Nitsch says in the VICE interview, “which can be experienced with all five senses, thus being an artistic synthesis.”
This of course brings to mind Richard Wagner, whose idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork, hovers over the Actionists’ ethos as much as his music is historically linked to the cultural ideals of Nazism. And this is the most unsettling part of the Actionists’ enterprise, in that (as with the example of Wagner, whom Friedrich Nietzsche condemned as “a disease”) the primal forces they sought to unleash could go either way, toward staggering works of art or unheard-of barbarities. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they go both ways, uncontrollably.
Blut und Boden, or Blood and Soil, was a credo that traces back, like Gesamtkunstwerk, to 19th-century Romanticism, but it was later adopted by the Nazis as a racist slogan. Initially meant to signify the mystical connection between peasants and the land they tilled, it became a Germany-for-the-Germans propaganda tool for the spread of anti-Semitism.
The works in RITE OF PASSAGE time and again reflect both a fascination with and a travesty of those two elements, with soil used more as a verb than a noun. The primarily red palette of Nitsch’s drippy, emotion-laden paintings morphs into a pair of assemblages featuring sanitary towels and actual blood, which has dried into a gray, clay-like cake — an accidental alchemy of body fluids and earth. These two pieces, both untitled and dating from 1964, flank a tabletop sculpture by Otto Muehl called “Zigarettenaschenkiste (Cigarette Ash Box)” (1963), which resembles a scorched, war-torn landscape made out of cigarette butts, cardboard, matches, horsehair and dispersion paint: soil desecrated and infertile.
The works of Günter Brus, such as an untitled, lyrically scribbled graphite from 1960 or the blackish, muscular “Aktionsmalerei (Action Painting)” (1962), done in acrylic and dispersion on packing paper, are torn and battered, with an antipathy toward material refinement that matches the disregard redolent in Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, which were made around the same time. They also point toward a compulsion for defilement that would surface later in Brus’s performances.
Rudolf Schwarzkogler is the only artist of the four without a painting, drawing, collage or sculpture on display. Other than a suite of five facsimile prints from 1975 featuring texts and drawings for a 1965 action titled “Hochzeit (Wedding),” his work is manifested entirely in the form of documentary black-and-white and color photographs that explore various configurations of bodily abjection, simulated castration, bandages and bondage.
These themes are carried through the performance photos of the other artists, most of which focus on one or two individuals engaging in surrealist-tinged scenarios or cadaver-like tableaux, intimate goings-on in private spaces. The communal exercises involving scores of followers were yet to come.
Members of the Vienna Actionists were arrested more than once for their artwork, most notably Günter Brus, whose transgressions included masturbating while singing the Austrian national anthem, smearing himself with his own feces and drinking his own urine (all in the same performance — “Kunst und Revolution (Art and Revolution),” 1968 — which also included the participation of Otto Muehl). In this regard, they followed their Austrian Expressionist forebear, Egon Schiele, who was sent to jail for public immorality.
Muehl, however, was convicted of a more egregious offense — sexual relations with underage girls who were members of the Kommune Friedrichs-hof, a utopian community he founded in the early 1970s — and imprisoned for nearly seven years. He publicly apologized for the crime in 2010, three years before his death.
The personal failings of artists are inevitably brought to bear on the assessment of their art, some appropriately, some not so much. The transgressive code of the Actionists never gave Muehl a pass for amoral behavior — nothing could — but it did turn a blind eye to aspects of their art, such as the gratuitous slaughter of animals, that are appalling to contemporary sensibilities. It is not the kind of exorcism, we can rightfully declare, that we truly need.
In the obituary that The New York Times ran for Muehl in May 2013, he is quoted as saying, “The aesthetics of the dung heap are the moral means against conformism, materialism and stupidity.” That the Actionists used debasement, the same weapon wielded by the Nazis against their racial and political enemies, as a “moral means” to rid society of “consumerism, materialism and stupidity” is a paradox that can be endlessly parsed, with equally compelling arguments for and against their tactics.
None of this would be worthy of speculation if the Actionists, as this beautifully mounted exhibition attests, weren’t formidable artists in a material and formal sense — especially Muehl, whose uncompromising, aggressively tactile paintings hold a singular power. But their rage against the imbecility of existence was uncontainable by mere signifiers; something more incendiary was called for, an amalgam of the bestial and the sublime, and they pressed the limits of sanity and endurance to find it.
RITE OF PASSAGE: The Early Years of Vienna Actionism, 1960 – 1966 continues at Hauser & Wirth (32 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 25.