For the two large paintings, the assistants paced down the median of the two parallel canvases. The consistent patter of footsteps seem to have lasted for 10 minutes. It was almost trance-inducing, exhibited by Nitsch’s introspective demeanor. (all photos by the author)

Hermann Nitsch’s performance at Mike Weiss Gallery on February 15th and 16th was a historical moment, summoning the exuberance of his context while disintegrating the mystery shrouding his practice. After stalking Nitsch’s every movement for close to fourteen hours, I reduced that he gets just as excited as I do over Pepperidge Farm cookies and Naked juices, predictably adores redheads, and still manages to clean up nicely at the age of 72.

All of the assistants fan out their robes. Nitsch, sitting at far right of the image, chose the best robes as he completed paintings and began the process of syncing object with aesthetic explosion. (click to enlarge)

Each assemblage of canvases progressed in a similar fashion. Repetition is a vital component of Nitsch’s practice. His wild, recurrent cascades of paint are the foundation of each image. Although the direction and extension of each outpouring varied, Nitsch seemed more concerned with the placement of bubbly puddles than the pattern created. Each canvas was speckled to Nitsch’s satisfaction then hosted a parade of assistants, plodding in a straight line. The weight of six individuals defamed the canvas’ rigidity and allowed the paint to meld in unpredictable ways. Momentum built as the canvas filled. Particularly liquid passages were skimmed with a broom or even covered over entirely in the next step of the process. Summoning Dionysian excess and hysteria, this first component is as partial to dissolution as it is to percolation.

The autumnal collection of yellow paintings in the farthest room of the gallery were procedurally unique in that they avoided the footsteps of Nitsch’s posse entirely. After Nitsch’s tempestuous groundwork, his assistants smeared marigold and aureolin yellow onto the composition. The splatters of paint from hours earlier were completely obscured, the aura jostled. Such simple destruction breeds a revitalized sensuality for Nitsch, unnerving the consciousness. The role of color, however, was a bit less clear. The golden ecstasy supports an enshrined smock, which similarly fell prey to maize blobs of paint completely obscuring its feeble beginnings. Although the wall is cohesive, the deflated yellow smock seemed blasphemous. Identified as a relic, the garb acquired a forced connection to the accompanying piece rather than maintaining its status as product of the action. It was an enforced memorial of the lemon-drop assemblage.

Left, Nitsch in the midst of his burning tornado; and, right, Nitsch works on a small, individual canvas from the leftover pigment on his gloves. There were two of these, intended to be disconnected from the whole action but extremely sell-able.

Speaking of sacrilege, who’s spiritual transcendence are we striving for? 60. Painting Action // 60. Malaktion wasn’t as explicit as the Orgies Mysteries Theatre‘s drive toward communal ascension. Nitsch fell into moments of noticeable trance at each stage of the process. Ritual, however, relies upon the presence of all involved. The procession upon the canvases became a glaring paradox. Although it calmed the room, reducing the soundtrack to the pitter-patter of moist toes on stale paint, each walk distinguished the discrepancies between the focus of the more experienced apprentices and the gallery-recruited help. Nitsch’s face read amusement and disgust as the staff photographer acquired a robe for protection on the first day, confirming my suspicion that he yearned for a collective mentality. Nitsch necessitates a united mind-frame  considering his assistants assume significant hands-on responsibility in the composition of each piece. Unfortunately, several instructional slip-ups occurred. In his separation from certain components of the process, I wonder if Nitsch finds himself tapping into the ethereal as fluidly as he used to, or even at all.

The early stages of the two massive canvases. Nitsch and Giuseppe were the predominant interlopers in the initial stage of pooling paint. (click to enlarge)

I found myself syncing up with Nitsch on several occasions during the action. His stoic stature and the unrestrained, intrepid flings of paint were a rewarding juxtaposition. I was transfixed by the cavalcade across the canvases and the tainted extremities of the assistants. The crystalized chlorophyll passages of trampled canvas balance the denser areas of stain. The canvas equates to the permeable soul, capable of a build-up and subsequent cleanse of Nitsch’s action. The paint added in the last stage reflects a similar balance. Using solely primary colors, brown, and gray, Nitsch affirms the importance of the individual as well as combined hues. He elaborates upon the value of extremes aesthetically and metaphysically.

The most difficult component of the ritual was maintaining the sanctity of the space. Nitsch frequently retired to his black fold-out chair to mull over a moment’s work and often resorted to whistling to himself. The magnitude of distractions was overwhelming. The audience fluctuated between seven and upwards of fifty-five people at any given point. Friends and artists meandered toward Nitsch’s chair at the first available transitional pause to partake in conversation. Visitors invaded the space, at one point placing approximately ten cameras and four video-cameras in his face whilst painting. Nitsch had a jovial rapport with the gallery staff and vocally checked in with them often. In these moments of leisure, the distractions disemboweled the action: it felt like a Sunday afternoon studio visit rather than a segmented expansion of self. These moments allowed the mind to wander. Optimally, the crowd would have surrendered to the silence of the action like one does to breathing in yoga: although the focus is difficult, the reward comes from attentive action and complete immersion. When the action crossed over from mental participation to an observed pageant, the intensity and excitement was lost.

Before any paint was laid down, the smocks were the focus of the morning. Each smock is a relic in itself, a contribution to the paintings and a subconscious creation. Here Nitsch converses with Giuseppe about the garment to be placed on the table, which will eventually lay beneath the coveted, framed dress of one of his assistants.

The resultant exhibition of 60. Painting Action // 60. Malaktion imbues an active aura upon the newly still gallery. Several bouquets of white roses and white lilies donate a delectable fragrance to the space. The cerebral journey coheres with the sensuality of the work. The first room spoke to the extremes of experience. The two twenty-foot red canvases were insistent expulsions, allowing the spirit to dine on primal urges. The protrusion of muddy russet on the opposite canvases is gluttonous. Its barbaric assimilation of the wall summons the feeling of a painfully low-frequency note and its subsequent distress. Video documentation of an earlier painting action and a free-standing altar are additions to this first room, providing a subtle ‘Dummy’s Guide’ to the experience. The far gallery is surrounded by relics, including a plethora of sensually swirling gowns, buckets of paint, and bags of pigment. The orientation of the room and the notable texture of the images parallel to the viewer’s entry accentuate the crusade toward the canary-yellow painting.  The corporeal, red diptych at the back of the far gallery links the intensity of the first room, assisting the mental and physical transition to the golden resurrection.

Hermann Nitsch

Nitsch’s performance, although not perfect, personified the artist living through his work. The murmurs of the crowd, however, confirmed how surprisingly easy it is to view Nitsch’s work with condescension. References to finger-painting, mindlessness, and systems were a few extreme simplifications. The discerning eye has a plethora to discover, like passages of mauve, moss green, and burnt sienna in the trampled sectors of mistaken mush. Blatant religious references were (thankfully) minimally kitschy. Nitsch’s greatest success is transporting his audience beyond the frenzy of media and technological innuendos. He reminds the viewer that surviving in a city requires a similar sense of ritual, however subconscious it may be. Social interactions and professional strides provide materialistic relics. Each extreme leap of faith, be it finding a new roommate or one’s daily blog-roll, may shift consciousness or provoke change. It was refreshing to see the rat-race as such minimized to the subjectivity of color, surrendering to action prompted by the emotional spectrum rather than material gains. In the words of the man himself: “It’s not always wild, sometimes you have to be quiet.”

This demure garment kept the yellow wall’s piece company in the far gallery.

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)


Lynn Maliszewski is a freelance art critic.

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