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