Pulling the canvases off the opposite walls in the far space at Mike Weiss Gallery before the first layer of paint is thrown. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

I giggled like a giddy seventh grader with a boyfriend on Valentine’s Day when I heard Hermann Nitsch, the forerunner of the Viennese Actionism movement, was showing in New York.

Nitsch working on the second set of canvases.

Since his earliest works in the 1960’s, Nitsch equalized the art-making process and spiritual ritual. The artist was head priest, facilitating an enlightened awareness through action. His earliest endeavors tarnished his reputation and led to complications with the police; alas, badass creativity knows no limitations.

The far room’s paintings are dry enough to work on and proceed to be hung back on their respective nails. All of the paintings were touched, walked on, and even manhandled at moments with unflinching ease.

Nitsch slaughtered lambs and rolled in their entrails, used blood as a standardized medium, and mutilated his nether regions all for the sake of art! Inspired by Abstract Expressionists — and Lucio Fontana in particular — Nitsch strayed from depicting or representing reality in exchange for penetration of the canvas and deliberate movements in time. By releasing inhibitions, he strove to experience the full spectrum of emotion and reanimate his own depth of feeling.

By 4:00pm, a decent sized crowd had gathered to witness Nitsch’s sacred space.

Religious imagery in this early work is unavoidable but focuses on arousing feeling rather than evoking immediate references. Art for Nitsch is a sensual experience. His taste for excess momentarily dissolves the instinctual guard on the subconscious, allowing primal urges to surge. By opening the floodgate, our mortal awareness heightens and we are sublimely renewed. Don’t be fooled by his gruesome displays, Nitsch is a noble dude. His gnarly performances led him out of Austria in the late 1960’s, but he returned in 1971 after the purchase of some serious real estate. His castle, known as Schloss Prinzendorf, facilitated the realization of his artistic goal, entitled Orgies Mysteries Theatre, in 1998. The six-day ceremony centered around his grotesque performances and their resultant nirvana. Since the early 2000’s, Nitsch has converted to paint for his actions, first working in oil then acrylic. The intensity of the action has taken a notable turn toward less nauseating, allowing organic conglomerations of color and light to combine with his ritualistic quest.

Some of the paintings found their way to Nitsch’s operating table, where they were invaded by globs of paint and kneaded by Nitsch’s fingers and knuckles.

Mike Weiss Gallery has provided Nitsch a white-washed and thoroughly protected area to perform his first Action Painting in the United States. Nitsch has shown several times with Weiss in the last decade in both the group and solo show scenarios. The piece, entitled 60. Painting Action//60. Malaktion, began yesterday at 10:00 am EST.

Nitsch glares at the same grouping in the alcove, so rapidly altered in mere moments.

Nitsch tip-toed around the gallery with six assistants, two of which have worked with him on a number of Painting Actions in Europe. Utilizing brooms, sponges, and squeegees, Nitsch cloaked the room in technicolor. Each grouping of paintings was sequentially placed on the floor, splattered, and placed back on the wall after the viscous acrylic had dried or seeped into the floor. On the wall, Nitsch added thick swirls of primary colors, gray and black with calculated spontaneity.

Nitsch sits in the middle of the far room of the gallery, taking a moment with his work. In his contemplation, there were actually quite a few moments of complete and utter silence toward the end of the day.

Today at 9:00 am EST (though the website says 10) starts Day Two of his Painting Action. There will be a slew of blank canvases, including two twenty-foot behemoths. The paintings will be exhibited starting February 19, with the opening taking place from 6-8pm.

Long live the Church of Nitsch!

Nitsch conferences with his assistants toward the end of the action.

Editor’s Note: The second part of Lynn Maliszewski’s report from the Nitsch event in New York will be published tomorrow.

Hermann Nitsch’s 60. Painting Action // 60. Malaktion Action Painting continues today and the exhibition of work from the performance will take place February 19 to March 19, 2011 at the Mike Weiss Gallery (520 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan)

Lynn Maliszewski is a freelance art critic.

3 replies on “Experiencing Hermann Nitsch’s First Live Painting Action in the US”

  1. Did Lynn get to the second part? I was looking forward to seeing the new photos to come. And hearing how things went on the second day. Has anyone went to the actual show yet…would love to see how it looks.

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