Otto Muehl’s prolific practice is marked by an eccentric drive towards overwhelming experiences and the breaking of taboos. In 1961, in the ruins of Freudian and Reichian psychoanalysis, Muehl embarked – with fellow Vienna Actionists Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler – on a search for the cognitive foundations of artistic existence, asserting the need to move beyond easel painting and declaring the body as art’s playground. In their home city the group was isolated, criminalized and prosecuted; but in London, at the 1966 ‘Destruction in Art’ symposium organized by Gustav Metzger, they were celebrated as the ‘heroes of Vienna’.
By 1991, however, Muehl’s role as charismatic entertainer-in-chief and motivator for around 600 members of the Friedrichshof Commune in Austria (of which I was a member from 1973–90), all sworn to the principles of ‘free sexuality, common property, direct democracy and freedom of self-expression’, had got out of control. He was sentenced to seven years in prison for the sexual abuse of teenage girls and drug-law violations. The fusion of art and life that had dominated the art world of the late 1960s, and that Muehl had fully embraced, resulted in a disastrous meltdown.
The executors of the commune subsequently found themselves in a precarious financial situation; in 1996 they commissioned Viennese gallerist Hubert Klocker to sell off their valuable collection of Fluxus and Actionist works by artists including Joseph Beuys and Dieter Roth. None of Vienna’s state museums – such as MUMOK, which had earlier acquired Schwarzkogler’s estate, or the Belvedere Gallery of Austrian art – responded. Neither, initially, did Rudolf Leopold, a private collector and founder–director of the Leopold Museum, home to one of the world’s largest collections of works from fin-de-siècle Viennese art (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele etc.). Interested in colour, composition, the erotic and the patriotic, in Actionism Leopold saw only destruction and aggression. He viewed the works, but decided not to buy. On the way back to his car, however, he noticed a pile of seven paintings by Muehl from the commune period which he immediately purchased. Over the course of several return visits, he eventually bought a total of 240 canvases, watercolours, screen prints and drawings.
Eighty of these works are now being shown for the first time at the Leopold Museum. Prior to the exhibition, there was some debate as to whether Muehl’s pictures from the commune period should be exhibited: opponents declared the images ‘criminal material’ and thus inappropriate for a state museum. As a consequence, Leopold’s son, Diethard, who assumed the role of curator after his father (who died in June) fell ill, explicitly avoided works from the series ‘Unfälle im Haushalt’ (Accidents in the Home, 1986), which contains candy-hued scenes of sexual violence for which Muehl’s teenage victims posed as models.
Also conspicuously absent from this exhibition are Muehl’s early material pictures (1961–4), the communist-style propaganda scenes of the late 1970s, and his ‘12 Aktionen’ series (12 Actions, 1970–1), which marked the true end of Actionism and which would have provided a logical starting-point for a presentation of the paintings from the 1970s and ’80s. As Muehl once said: ‘What I have tried to do here using the means of painting is to portray aspects of human cruelty and perfidy that could not be portrayed in the form of an action. The “12 Actions” are to be understood as a kind of “Stations of the Cross” of human inadequacy and baseness.’
Of the works that are included in the show, the curatorial decision to group them thematically (heads, figures, couples, etc.) does not do justice to Muehl’s actual intentions. These works were made according to a range of premises: painting as the endpoint of Actionism; painting as an academic study of the techniques of the Old Masters; painting in the form of ‘propaganda panels’ to illustrate ideas about a future ‘communal’ society; and painting simply as painting.
Works from the artist’s ‘Van Gogh’ series (1984) provide some of the show’s strongest visual moments. For Terese Schulmeister’s experimental movie Vincent (1984) about the inner life of Vincent van Gogh, shot at Friedrichshof, Muehl painted the works attributed to the main character – a portrait, for example, of Hermann Nitsch as Claude Monet. Parallel to the making of the film, Muehl painted a series in which visions of a crazed maniac are implanted into Van Gogh’s sun-drenched landscapes and nocturnal café scenes. These works make plain why Muehl’s influence on artists such as Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger, Paul McCarthy and Albert Oehlen is not limited to his Actionist practice.
Although the Leopold Museum exhibition is a bold attempt to offer insight into Muehl’s practice, it leaves gaps in important phases in the artist’s career and, as mentioned, the grouping of works is at times misleading. But maybe it is impossible to do justice to the artist’s entire oeuvre in a single exhibition. After all, Muehl (who, now aged 85 and very ill, lives a secluded life with a small number of loyal followers in southern Portugal) embodies the full schizophrenia of the 20th century: anarchy and monarchy, communism and fascism, artist and petit-bourgeois, taboo-breaker and paranoiac, victim and perpetrator. As a person, Muehl failed spectacularly. But as an artist and visionary, he made an important contribution to widening our concept of freedom.