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Hermann Nitsch and some of his assistants (click to enlarge)

After seeing Lynn Maliszewski’s report from the Hermann Nitsch show at the Mike Weiss Gallery in Chelsea, I decided it was necessary that I attend at least part of the Action Painting by the veteran Viennese Actionist.

I arrived close to 11am EST to find the gallery closed — they were scheduled to open at 10am — as they were still setting up for the daylong event.

When I eventually entered, the mood was curiously relaxed, and if I didn’t know better, I would have assumed they were renovating judging by the drop cloths, plastic sheeting, and paint cans. People were crowded deep within the gallery and there were as many cameras as there were people in attendance.

The artist was seated on a folding chair and he sat off to the side of a room wallpapered with controlled splashes and swooshes of bright color. The floor was covered with layers of cloth and plastic and there were random patterns of shoe tracks and footprints (Nitsch’s assistants were barefoot).

These are some of the photos I snapped during the hour I stayed to observe. Later today Next Friday, Lynn Maliszewski will publish her second article that reflects on the two-day performance she witnessed from start to finish.

I had always heard that Nitsch’s performances borrowed heavily from religion imagery and here the “crucified” smock was an obvious allusion to Christianity.

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It wasn’t clear what I could expect when I first arrive but I was mesmerized by the fields of color all around.

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The artist’s assistants looked more like acolytes hovering around. I don’t think I ever heard them speak except to the artist himself.

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Even though the imagery was informed by Christian, Catholicism more precisely, the whole experience felt demystifying to me and not spiritual.

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The assistants worked fast and the use of their hands added a strange cult-like quality, like they were programmed minions acting out the master’s wishes.

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I was always aware that Nitsch was observing the room and he was directing traffic, so to speak. He once made eye contact with me and his look felt sharp and piercing. I wasn’t able to tell if he either wanted to get rid of me or perhaps trying to read my mind.

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Even though there were many people in the room, the only sounds I remember hearing were footsteps, cameras, whispers and the artist’s voice in German and Italian.

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His older male assistant did what felt like the most important actions while I was there.

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The religious imagery was sometimes overwhelming and ritualized — some of it felt choreographed.

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More than a performance, it often felt like we were invited into the artist’s studio. It was both informal and obviously planned.

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I wanted the action to proceed faster but it evolved at an even and controlled pace.

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A few steps away from the cluster around the artist, the gallery felt more conventional, well, for a New York art gallery anyway.

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Cameras were everywhere.

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

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Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

3 replies on “A Few Moments at Hermann Nitsch’s Chelsea Event”

  1. Saw Hermann Nitsch’s second day of aktion today–we found it very moving and rife with energy…the process of creation itself was the ritual.

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