"Rite of Passage: The Early Years of Vienna Actionism, 1960–1966"

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Otto Muehl, Material Action no. 26, Nahrungsmitteltest (Food Test) 1966
Barbora Gerny
Otto Muehl, Untitled 1961
Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich
Otto Muehl, Materialbild (Material Painting) 1961
Otto Muehl, Materialaktion Fleischer Köche Regenschirm und Arsch aus Aluminium (Material Action Butcher Chefs Umbrella and Ass out of Aluminum) from Material Action no. 16/17 1965
Jens Preusse
Otto Muehl, Zigarettenaschenkiste (Cigarette ash box) 1963
Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich
Günter Brus, Untitled, 1963
Ludwig Hoffenreich
Günter Brus, Selbstbemalung I (Kopfzumalung) [Self-Painting I (Total Head Painting)], 1964
Jens Preusse
Günter Brus, Untitled 1960
Jens Preusse
Günter Brus, Selbstbemalung (Self-Painting) 1964
Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich
Hermann Nitsch, Untitled 1960
Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich
Hermann Nitsch, Kreuzwegstation (Station of the Cross) 1961
Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich
Hermann Nitsch, Brot und Wein (Bread and Wine) 1961
Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich
Hermann Nitsch, Untitled 1960
Franziska Cibulka
Hermann Nitsch 12th action 1965
© 2014 Austrian Ludwig Foundation. Courtesy museum moderner kunst stiftung ludwig wien
Rudolf Schwarzkogler, 3rd action 1965
© 2014 Austrian Ludwig Foundation. Courtesy museum moderner kunst stiftung ludwig wien
Rudolf Schwarzkogler, 1st action, Hochzeit (Wedding) 1965

People familiar with the 1960s Vienna Actionism movement are aware of its notoriety for trangressive works—or more succinctly, acts—of art. For everyone else, this survey of paintings, collages, drawings and performance photographs curated by Hubert Klocker should provide an eye-opening introduction to a group whose outrageous reputation is well earned, if also somewhat misunderstood.

Like their German contemporaries Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Konrad Lueg, the Actionists (Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler) were in many respects reacting against the refusal by their compatriots to confront Nazism’s legacy—a denial abetted by the claim that Austria had been “Hitler’s first victim,” even though the country had been willingly annexed by the Third Reich. This undoubtedly contributed to the acute sense of alienation that erupted into the Actionists’ visceral and often bizarre antics, in which abjection, debasement and self-mutilation—as well as the prevalence of blood, bodily fluids and fecal matter—were employed both literally and figuratively. Group sex, coprophilia and animal entrails as a medium were just some of Actionism’s more outré aspects.

Overlooked, according to Klocker, are the formalist qualities of Actionist art, which was grounded in American Abstract Expressionism and European Art Informel. And indeed, the case could be made that the Actionists were taking Pollock’s approach to its logical extreme. That much is suggested here, for example, by Muehl’s shit-brown composition of snaking, intestinal twists of fabric or by Nitsch’s canvas of cascading blood-red drips. Photos of Schwarzkogler’s auto-emasculating rituals are particularly astounding in this regard and were responsible for the most apocryphal tale surrounding Actionism: The artist had died by cutting off his penis.

None of which was pretty, admittedly. Nonetheless, the Actionists articulated something about the outer edge of human experience that continues to resonate today.—Howard Halle

Event phone: 212-794-4970
Event website: http://hauserwirth.com
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