“Bruno Gironcoli: Shy at Work” at Mumok, installation view: center: Bruno Gironcoli, “Untitled” (1997), Bruno Gironcoli Werk Verwaltung, Wien, © Mumok, photo: Stephan Wyckoff (all images courtesy Mumok [Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien)

VIENNA — Bruno Gironcoli: Shy at Work is the unassuming title of a sprawling spectacle of an exhibition, alternately dour and delirious, that chronicles the stains of history while wandering a postwar mindscape of guilt, atonement, and existential dread.

Gironcoli (1936-2010) cut a curious figure among the artists of his generation — namely, the wild men of the Vienna Actionists, whose pagan, blood-soaked performances acted out the rage of sons against the depravity of their fathers. Gironcoli parted from their company less in attitude than in medium. He never abandoned the object for ritual, though ritual, in the form of repetition and theatricality, played a distinct role in the making of his objects.

The retrospective, on display at Mumok (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien) through June 3, is a Viennese homecoming, eight years after his death, for an artistic and social outsider. Born three years after Hitler’s rise to power, Gironcoli grew up in the town of Villach, in the southern state of Carinthia, where Austria meets Italy and Slovenia, his earliest years formed by the Anschluss and its devastating consequences. (Carinthia was among the most pro-Nazi areas of the country, and it remains deeply conservative — the founder of the far-right Freedom Party, Jörg Haider, was also born there, serving twice as governor.) Trained as a gold-, silver-, and coppersmith, Gironcoli didn’t begin to draw seriously until he was 20. In 1957, at 21, he decided to become a painter, studying at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts until 1959.

“Bruno Gironcoli: Shy at Work” at Mumok, installation view, © Mumok, photo: Stephan Wyckoff

Between 1960 and ’61, he lived in Paris, where he was seized with a passion for the sculpture and drawings of Alberto Giacometti. Among the first works in the retrospective is a set of portrait heads done in obsessively reworked, Giacometti-esque lines. Around this time he began to make sculpture, transferring his meticulous smithing skills to the realm of avant-garde art, where he would ultimately propagate a tribe (to call it a family would be too benign) of forms and motifs that are at once blunt, polished, savage, and naïve.

A number of the artist’s early efforts, especially the beguiling “Figure Standing on a Single Spot (Mood-Maker)” (ca.1965-69), a phallic, copper-colored monolith impossibly balanced on a relatively small, thumb-like knob, could be seen in kinship with Giacometti’s “Disagreeable Object” (1931) and “Woman with Her Throat Cut” (1932), their rounded forms writ large in Gironcoli’s work. His sculptures of the 1970s — assemblages on stage-like platforms — seem to take their cues from “The Palace at 4 a.m.” (1932), while his Brobdingnagian late works, with their sleekly stylized star babies, architectural struts, and bulbous, botanical outgrowths, retain trace DNA from “Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)” (1934). And yet, in her expansive catalogue essay, the exhibition’s curator, Manuela Ammer, barely mentions Giacometti beyond acknowledging Gironcoli’s youthful enthusiasm for his art.

Rather, she begins her text with a page-long discussion of the novel Murphy (1938) by Samuel Beckett, whose writing Gironcoli discovered in Paris (where he was also exposed to the Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre). Murphy is a valid point of departure due to the decisive role it played in Gironcoli’s evolution — he adopted its title for one of his early sculptures, a cast aluminum piece with a silver finish inside of a black vitrine, which includes the stylized forms of a figure, a bed or chaise, and an inverted umbrella (“Model in Vitrine, Design for a Figure [Murphy],” 1968). He also has used the name Murphy, along with “Robert” and “the Apprentice,” to identify the blue-suited men squirreling through many of his works on paper.

Bruno Gironcoli, “Model in Showcase, Design for a Figure (Murphy)” (1968), 7 copies, cast aluminium, silver finish, different showcases, 195 x 40 x 75 cm, photo: © Galerie Elisabeth & Klaus Thoman, Innsbruck / Vienna,
© Köhn Collection, Vienna

When he first appeared on the scene, Ammer writes, Gironcoli “made a name for himself as Austria’s very own, if enigmatic, Pop Art hopeful.” But he never based his work on the mass media and, despite his linear, comic-book drawing style, never cultivated the sense of facile irony found in American Pop. Rather, his mechanized forms and ambient alienation bear a distinct relationship to the robotic stylizations of the German-American painter Richard Linder, while his slab-like, dysfunctional furniture and hermetic, emphatically graphical imagery bring to mind the work of the unclassifiable American artist Richard Artschwager.

Taking her argument beyond Pop, Ammer stakes a seemingly counterintuitive claim for “an explicit engagement with [Marcel] Duchamp [while] bearing in mind that Gironcoli never once mentioned him as an influence.” She bases her thesis on the conjecture that Gironcoli was aware of the 1975 touring exhibition Bachelor Machines, organized by the legendary curator Harald Szeemann, which made its final stop in Vienna in 1977 at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts.

While mentioning that “in the mid-seventies Gironcoli, in a typical blend of the obscure and the explicit, ‘quoted’ The Large Glass, in which Duchamp programmatically interlinks production, consumption, and desire,” Ammer goes on to state:

Duchamp’s oeuvre provides numerous points of reference for reflection on Gironcoli’s works on paper—from the logic of the commodity to systems of perspective and measuring to the topos of the machine célibataire [bachelor machine].

Bruno Gironcoli, “Design for Variation on Column with Skull” (1971), metal powder paint, ink,and gouache on paper, 61.8 x 89 cm, courtesy Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München, © Estate Bruno Gironcoli / Geschäftsführerin Christine Gironcoli

She ends up, however, by delineating a “crucial difference” between the two artists, which, like Gironcoli’s divergences from the conventions of Pop Art, served to set him apart from the fashionable conversations of his time. She writes:

[While Duchamp] cultivated an ironically distanced self-image as an artist, [Gironcoli] regarded himself most emphatically as the auteur […] of his work. This has nothing whatsoever to do with any crude notions of “self-expression,” which were just as suspect to Gironcoli as they were to Duchamp […]. Nor should it be counted among those autobiographical allusions—to a childhood spent under Nazi rule, to people and places that had some special meaning for him—which are indeed strewn throughout his works on paper and whose status as factual information does not differ from that provided on his works’ dimensions and materials. Gironcoli’s perception of himself as auteur was rather born of his insistence that his “art form” […] was in fact a “life form,” by which he meant that reckless “self-fulfillment” that goes hand in hand with the experience of “freedom” and even “happiness.”

[The words within quotation marks are Gironcoli’s own, taken from a journal article published in 1984.]

This distinction, that “art form” equals “life form,” gets to the core of Gironcoli’s inimitable vision. His process is not focused on producing standalone works, but rather, again quoting Ammer, on “the wholesale repetition and variation of past compositions and the constant recombination of prefabricated-looking visual elements, […] slowed down to a kind of never-ending stop-and-go to eternity.”

Cycles turn within cycles. Many of the drawings can be interpreted, although this notion is repudiated time and again in the essay, as preparations for the sculptures, and the sculptures, in turn, sometimes seem to be awaiting enlivenment by an imaginary performance to take place in, on, or around them.

Bruno Gironcoli, “Fadenspiel” (“Thread Game,” 1974), metal powder paint, India ink, colored chalk, and pencil on graph paper, 82 x 107.3 cm, Collection Carl Pruscha, photo: Mumok, © Estate Bruno Gironcoli / Geschäftsführerin Christine Gironcoli

And as if they were closing an argument, there are other drawings that reiterate the artist’s sculptural forms while adding a cast of characters — blue-suited men (Murphy, Robert, and the Apprentice, cited above), bandaged mummies, skull-topped totems, copulating dogs, and onanistic baboons, among others — who use those forms as a setting for often unpleasant acts.

The alienating effects of Gironcoli’s art — the imagery redolent of authoritarianism, dehumanization, and torture, as well as the reflective surfaces, created with metallic paint to conjure a distinctly anti-sensual, if coldly erotic, atmosphere — are of a piece with his outsider persona; unwilling or unable to ingratiate himself with the right people in Vienna’s cultural elite, he lived in desperate poverty until 1977, when he was unexpectedly awarded a lifetime appointment as professor and head of the Master School of Sculpture at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. His first shows were at the Galerie nächst St. Stephen, an art space run by Otto Mauer, a Roman Catholic priest who spent every penny he had on art — a Viennese version of Dorothy and Herb Vogel — and eventually amassed a collection of 3000 works by then unknown or unwanted modern and contemporary artists, from Gustav Klimt and Alfred Kubin to Maria Lassnig, Kiki Kogelnik, Arnulf Rainer, and Joseph Beuys.

Among the perks of Gironcoli’s position at the Academy were high-ceilinged studios in which he would build increasingly massive sculptures, while filling his apartment, also provided by the school, with an expanding collection of what Charlotte Matter, a contributor to the exhibition catalogue, described as “sub-Saharan masks, figures, and textiles” as well as “Asian porcelain and cabinets [and] Southeast Asian Buddhas,” along with “cheap Art Deco pressed glass.”

Bruno Gironcoli, “Untitled” (ca. 1964), metal-powder color, india ink and gouache on paper, 121.5 x 76.5 cm; private collection, Vienna, © Estate Bruno Gironcoli / Geschäftsführerin Christine Gironcoli

These collectibles are reflected in one way or another in his art: “Gironcoli,” Matter writes, “evidently desired not only to possess these foreign artifacts but also to appropriate them, in sometimes brutal fashion. In a sense, however, he did justice in precisely this way to the (already decontextualized) objects by not locking them up in display cases […] but grasping them as something living […].”

These items are also distinctive in the way they bridge the gap between art and function — originally serving a broader social purpose, in rituals or in daily life, than art typically does in Western culture. Similarly, Gironcoli’s pictorial motifs, found objects, assemblages, and fabrications — which include power cables, brooms, fresh flowers, needle-sharp spikes, bedsprings, bowls embossed with swastikas, and stylized, tub-like bidets or toilets, presented in facing pairs that are much too close for comfort — embrace what the artist (quoted by Ammer) once termed “grotesque forms of representation” in which he was able to attain “better […] grips with reality as I experience it today.”

Delving into the gist of Gironcoli’s works, which can be best defined by what they are not — not paintings, despite their fully realized forms and bracing color combinations; not plans for sculpture, even though they are often charted on graph paper and can be read as in situ renderings; and not standalone works, in spite of their singular, unnerving presence — it might be telling to compare him to an artist I did not think about while looking at the show, but should have, because the parallels are so compelling.

Francis Bacon, who was 27 years Gironcoli’s senior, began to paint more than 15 years before the latter decided to become an artist. And his imagery included many of the motifs Gironcoli would later employ (mainly through the technique of transfer drawing, which added another layer of repetition and ritual to his practice) as markers along his continuum of ideas: men in suits; distorted bodies; architectural enclosures; free-floating smears and splotches; directional arrows; umbrellas; even baboons — all presented within a frontal, proscenium-like space.

Bruno Gironcoli, “Turnstunde” (“Gym Lesson,” 1970), gouache, ink and pencil on paper, 62.3 x 89.7 cm, Mumok (Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien), on loan from the Artothek des Bundes since 1976, photo: Mumok, © Estate Bruno Gironcoli / Geschäftsführerin Christine Gironcoli

And yet the two artists seem to operate in separate universes, a distinction made clear through Ammer’s connection of Gironcoli to Duchamp, their equation of art and life and their suspicion of self-expression. Gironcoli’s thingness — the cold, metallic paint and aggregation of precisely defined, recombinant forms (some of which are cut out and collaged into the composition, augmenting their tactility) — is a thoroughgoing contradiction of Bacon’s painterly expressionism (though both oeuvres can be seen as suffused with Sartre’s Nausea).

Such conventional emotional tropes as loaded brushstrokes and anguished gestures — Bacon’s stock-in-trade — are entirely absent in Gironcoli’s basement-level views of mankind’s defects. We have nothing familiar to hold on to; no excuses for nihilism or come-ons toward redemption; and no escape from mute narratives leading nowhere, except perhaps through the fantasy of extraterrestrial flight.

The exhibition’s introductory wall text describes Gironcoli’s art as raising “the possibility of self-determined action in a post-fascist consumer and competition-driven society.” When I read it, the term “post-fascist” leapt out as if it were in red neon. Now that the Freedom Party, on the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss, has joined a governing coalition with the center-right People’s Party — one of the more troubling developments of the global reactionary wave — “post-fascist” has suddenly become an arguable conceit.

The soul-sinking dread seeping through Gironcoli’s imagery, propelled by the force of history and underscored by the occasional swastika, cropping up like a horsefly in your pastry, amid the tableaux of dogs, men, and baboons, is emphatically more now than then. As our claims to postwar enlightenment or exceptionalism grow more tenuous by the day, Gironcoli offers a reverse angle shot conflating a past he knew too well with a future he wouldn’t live to see. It’s a pitiless vision of who we are, crowded with grim hallucinations and grimmer jokes that nevertheless — through startling combinations of color and form in the service of unfettered imaginings — manage to feel lighter than air.

Bruno Gironcoli: Shy at Work continues at Mumok (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Museumsplatz 1, Vienna) through June 3.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.