The TV monitor that greets visitors when they enter the exhibition Karl Neubacher. Medienkünstler, 1926–1978 at the Kunsthaus Graz looks as if it has been randomly set down on the floor. Onscreen, a hand from off-camera sets a clock back from five past twelve to twelve o’clock. The Austrian artist and commercial graphic designer Karl Neubacher called this video Der Selbstbetrug (Self-Deception, c.1977), a title that might be an apt description of the entire exhibition. Can Neubacher’s commercial exploitation of his artistic works in the 1960s and 1970s be understood as the self-deception of an artist who erroneously believed that he could express his ideas through advertising as well as through art? Or did advertising in fact enable Neubacher to reach a broader audience than the art world?
On several partition walls, photo collages were placed together with advertising posters. Neubacher often used his collages as the basis for his advertising posters, frequently drawing the same motifs. A photo of the artist’s smiling face – head buried in the sand and his gaze directed at the camera – appears both in the collage …freundlich (Friendly, 1971) and on a poster advertising a product called Thermoputz. Neubacher even adapted the text from the self-portrait to incorporate it into the advertisement. These descriptions of the ‘friendly’ person, with adjectives ranging from the contradictory to the absurd – ‘emperor-friendly’, ‘hate-friendly’, ‘love-friendly’, etc. – was turned into an ‘environmentally friendly’ brand. The self identity-seeking tensions that are explored in the collage are lost in the advertising poster in favour of a purely positive appraisal of a product. Despite the formal similarities, there are undoubtedly clear limits to the transferral of artistic issues to a commercial assignment.
The commissioned works that were not designed to market products in a strict sense also raise the question of how much creative freedom the artist was granted – posters for the Styrian Autumn Festival, the Catholic Church and the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), for example. A poster for the 1972 regional party convention of the ÖVP combines the red white red triband of the Austrian flag with green of the Styrian regional flag in abstract shapes. The work’s formal rigour may well have been something radical for political party advertising in the 1970s, but the poster does not reveal any trace of Neubacher’s highly critical attitude towards his client.
The letters that Neubacher wrote to the ÖVP, however, which are reproduced in the exhibition catalogue, leave no doubt about his stance. In the letters, he not only calls for policy which ‘adopt a slightly irrational approach to society today’, but also pleads for citizens to show agency. While Neubacher’s opportunities to express himself were limited in the case of political advertising, his commissions for the Styrian Autumn cultural festival allowed him more freedom to address his audience directly. In a poster for the 1971 Styrian Autumn, Neubacher assumes the role of the active citizen himself. In four retouched self-portraits reminiscent of Arnulf Rainer’s overpaintings, arrows point to the artist’s mouth, nose, eyes and ears. The poster relates to the photo collage Der offene aktive Mensch (The Open and Active Person, 1971), which features text stating that a person is ‘open to’ and ‘is penetrating their surroundings.’
The artist’s almost obsessive engagement with his self-perception and self-image stands in close proximity to the various performance and video practices of the 1970s, from Peter Weibel to Bruce Nauman. In the installation Selbstdarstellung in Halbkleidung (1973, Self-Portrait in Half-Clothing), Neubacher’s life-size photographic doubles appear multiplied in flipbook style, in various states of dress and undress. It seems questionable whether Neubacher was able to win over clients such as the ÖVP with this kind of work. From today’s perspective it is such contradictions in Neubacher’s practice that make him a historical figure very much worth rediscovering.
Translated by Jane Yager