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VIENNA, AUSTRIA — Achtung, baby! The time has come for a comprehensive examination of the wildly diverse, voluminous oeuvre of the Austrian modern artist Oswald Oberhuber. So it is that 21er Haus in Vienna is offering a large retrospective survey of the creative tidal wave that has distinguished this indefatigable, 85-year-old art-maker’s long career. Designed and installed with the artist’s close collaboration, Oswald Oberhuber has been curated by Luisa Ziaja and Alfred Weidinger.
Located at the edge of a park near Vienna’s main train station, 21er Haus (pronounced “Einundzwanziger Haus” in German, meaning “Twenty-first House” or “House 21,” referring to the 21st century) is the smaller, sister venue of the nearby Belvedere Museum. Housed in two 18th-century palaces, the Belvedere is a repository of Austrian art, whose holdings date back to the Middle Ages; they include paintings by Gustav Klimt, and works by Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Biedermeier-period designers.
Offering a stripped-down, architectural contrast, 21er Haus occupies a plain-box, modernist pavilion designed by Karl Schwanzer for the 1958 Brussels World Expo, which was later moved, renovated and repurposed for its current use. It opened in 2011 as the Belvedere’s venue for the presentation of art dating from the end of World War II to the present, with programming accentuating interdisciplinary approaches to looking at and thinking about modern and postmodern art.
21er Haus provides a good setting for Oberhuber’s wide-ranging artistic output, which the current exhibition’s curators describe in its wall texts and catalog, and in a booklet containing excerpts from an interview with the artist, as “postmodernist avant la lettre.” Whether or not Oberhuber’s approach to making art over a period of some seven decades has been style-probing, style-and-genre-subverting or genuinely groundbreaking in a pomo way, or whether it may be seen as somewhat dilettantish — that is something viewers can decide for themselves. What is certain, though, is that, in the past, Oberhuber often served as a vital conduit between new ideas about art and art-making that percolated beyond the borders of his homeland and Austria’s relatively small art establishment. It was a role that was especially valuable in a pre-Internet era, when information and ideas often circulated among artists who exchanged letters and in-person visits, creating their own living, news-sharing networks. Over the years, Oberhuber was also influential in his work as an exhibition organizer, art teacher, and rector of Vienna’s University for Applied Arts.
Oberhuber was born in 1931 in Meran (“Merano” in Italian), a multilingual city in South Tyrol in the far north of Italy, close to Austria’s southwestern border. In 1940, his family moved to Innsbruck, in western Austria, under the terms of a treaty that allowed German-speaking inhabitants of South Tyrol to relocate to Germany’s Hitler-controlled, European “empire.” In Innsbruck, in 1945, young Oswald began attending a vocational school, where he studied a style of clean, reductivist sculpture influenced by Ernst Barlach, a German-Expressionist sculptor and printmaker who had become known for his criticism of World War I. (Eventually the Nazis seized most of Barlach’s works as examples of “degenerate” art.”)
In Innsbruck, Oberhuber frequented the French Cultural Institute and a bookstore specializing in French-language books. From such sources he learned about the development in France of what was being called “art informel” (literally “informal art” or, in this case, art without recognizable form). The term referred to various kinds of abstract art-making, including gestural painting, so-called lyrical abstraction, and the “staining” (tachisme) of canvases with color. Some observers regarded art informel as Europe’s answer to American Abstract Expressionism. In 1952, the French critic Michel Tapié dubbed the whole, technique-happy shooting match of art informel and its related tendencies “un art autre” (“an other art”). Oberhuber savored its experimental energy. He was also influenced by the work of Picasso and of the Surrealists André Masson and Max Ernst.
In time, buoyed by the idea of art informel, Oberhuber created his own formless-form sculptures using clay or plaster, culminating, in 1951, with “Ende” (“End”), a spooky wire rim of an old lampshade, with fragments of fabric dangling from it like shreds of meat on a scrap of bone, all of which he dipped in plaster and then mounted on a wood-block base. He went on to further explore the use of wire in his sculptures, which, as he notes in the interview in the current exhibition’s accompanying booklet, “were completely free, without any particular subject.” He also recalls that he once used a set of mattress springs his mother had thrown away to make a sculpture. Around that same time, Oberhuber was producing his own paintings in the spirit of art informel, such as “Zerstörte Formen” (“Destroyed Forms,” 1949), a thicket of wiry skeins of paint in an earth-toned palette that create an abstract, texture-rich topography.
In the exhibition booklet, he remembers that, as a young person in Innsbruck, he had seen works by Masson and the German-born art informel painter Hans Hartung at the French Cultural Institute. He notes, “I liked the fact that [Masson] worked with different materials, like Max Ernst. The dripping technique was developed by Ernst, and not by Pollock. Masson and Ernst were very important for me and helped me to progress.”
In fact, Oberhuber charged on with his exploration of art-making modes and languages, rarely pausing to look back. With this in mind, the 21er Haus exhibition offers evidence of the artist’s unwaning energy in his search for new forms and his materials’ expressive potential. In many of his works, he seems to enthusiastically allow his materials to speak for themselves, endowing them with a sense of urgency that becomes as much a subject of his art as the visible, tangible ways in which he deliberately shapes it.
Oberhuber even came up with a name for the spirit of his forward-charging creative process — the “principle of permanent change” — the recognition of which, he states in his interview, is “essential.” He adds, “You have to keep taking a fresh approach because continuity doesn’t exist. You can only stop. It’s completely wrong to claim that there is continuity within which something can develop and evolve. There is no development. There are only the high points of a particular phase, and that’s it.”
With this in mind, Oswald Oberhuber covers some pretty broad creative territory, touching down on everything from the artist’s early abstractions in various media on paper and other support surfaces to his phantom-like, delicately outlined self-portrait and other portraits of the 1960s. It showcases, too, an unusual series of brightly colored, often large, oil-on-canvas pictures of teeth; assorted mixed-media sculptures, including “Doppelbirne (2 Birnen)” (“Double Pear (2 Pears),” 1989), a whitewashed, string-tied pair of twisted tree branches; and a selection of mixed-media collages and box assemblages.
There is more: Oberhuber’s enamel-on-wood-panel pictures consisting of simple mathematical calculations; assorted sculptures made of found and painted cardboard and other materials; an oil-on-canvas composition of bold, drippy, vertical lines, “Hommage à Willi Baumeister” (“Homage to Willi Baumeister,” 1989), which honors a German modern artist who died in 1955; some mural-size, mixed-media-on-canvas, geometric abstractions, which Oberhuber showed in 1972 at the Venice Biennale (where, with Hans Hollein, he represented Austria); and a poster titled “Wir tragen diese Mode nicht, Österreichs Kleid, Waldheims Kleid” (“We Do Not Wear This Fashion, Austria’s Clothes, Waldheim’s Clothes”).
Produced in 1986, that poster features a simple drawing of a long shirt decorated with swastikas. With its unabashedly political message, this piece, which bore the signatures of numerous supporters, called attention to the dubious past of the politician Kurt Waldheim, details of which had surfaced during the former United Nations Secretary-General’s campaign for Austria’s presidency that same year. (As it turned out, Waldheim had worked in the Nazis’ intelligence service during World War II.)
In its own ways, Oswald Oberhuber’s clever installation design, like the exhibition itself, celebrates the unstoppable outpouring of artistic creations that has flowed from its subject’s hands and studio for many years. Numerous drawings, paintings and other works are hung on freestanding wooden panels stained a soft off-white. Subdued and unobtrusive, they allow works to appear to float in space, as images and objects from various sections of the exhibition come into a visitor’s peripheral vision, gently evoking the affinities among them. The exhibition is designed so that a viewer may enter just about anywhere, a fitting touch for a presentation whose central theme is the vastness of the imagination and its unmistakable reflection: the magic of artistic creativity itself.
Oswald Oberhuber continues at 21er Haus (Arsenalstrasse 1, Vienna, Austria) through June 26.