For an artistic movement that has exerted such a palpable influence upon successive generations of performance and body-based artists – from Marina Abramovic´to Paul McCarthy – Viennese Actionism has received relatively little attention in Anglo-American scholarship (and equally scant gallery space). Curated by Hubert Klocker, this exhibition, titled RITE OF PASSAGE: The Early Years of Vienna Actionism, 1960-1966, goes some way towards redressing that gap, presenting three floors of images and objects from the movement’s most vital years, produced by its principal agents: Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. Rather than simply produce, the Actionists set out to disfigure various objects and to spark situations in vehement and often violent gatherings, beginning in 1960 before dispersing into individual ventures as the decade closed. Perhaps the group’s principal activity (and legacy) entailed assaults upon painting – or at least upon the notion of a decorous, contained canvas that disciplines paint into compositional propriety.
There’s a certain irony, then, in the museumification of the Actionists’ counter-cultural interventions, most of which took time, rather than fixed spaces, as their integral medium. This gallery’s pristine, even antiseptic, space seems to abjure the messier dimensions of Actionism. Paintings, photographs and film stills interspersed through-out at least convey something of the works’ original context. Slashed, torn, or dripped with wax, many of the works bear the scars of eponymous ‘actions’ in their own right. Greeting visitors upon entry was a two-sided work by Muehl from 1961. While its front bears a seemingly straightforward abstract painting, its verso reveals an accretion of tangled rags, steel wool, and other detritus, covered in pigment and baptized as a Materialbild (Material Painting). The work inaugurates the show’s presentation of the Actionists at large, particularly their emphatic departure from the picture plane as something fixed and static, toward an activation of aesthetic (and decidedly vulgar) material in real time.
Wafting across the Atlantic to numerous European artistic centres by the early 1960s, Alan Kaprow’s legendary 1958 text The Legacy of Jackson Pollock clearly had an effect in Vienna. Nitsch’s Schüttbilder (Pour Paintings, 1960), for example, emerged as direct descendants of Pollock’s drips, further galvanized by Kaprow’s extra-pictorial imperatives. As Benjamin Buchloh has noted, however, Oswald Wiener – a theoretical lightning rod for the Actionists with whom they were loosely allied – had already insisted in his 1954 cooles manifest (‘cool manifesto’) upon the privileging of events over objects in art. Austria’s recent, traumatic history under Nazism (and homegrown Austrian fascists) undoubtedly informed the Actionists’ ritualized and stylized violence, involving naked bodies, blood, animal carcasses, beer, and – in at least one instance – shit. A few of the works on display here appeared to stand in for skin, that is, as an effigy of something fragile and violable, as in Brus’s Untitled (1961): here the yellowed, torn paper evokes nothing if not the bodies that formed the crux of Actionist events. With blood-red pigment dripping down its face, and canvas nailed to the front of the stretcher, Nitsch’s Kreuzwegstation (Station of the Cross) (1961), too, takes pains to embody its Christological allusions.
Like so many modernist ventures, Actionism made explicit its use of primitivist phenomena – from prehistoric and pagan rituals to the more familiar formalities of Catholic ceremony – profaned into new acts of defilement and redemption. Part of the redemption, for the Actionists, entailed rendering aesthetic experience scrappy and unwieldy, incapable of circumscription to gallery walls, plinth, or frame. Still, it was striking to consider how many of the artists’ works oblige – perhaps even invite – their re-presentation as aesthetic objects. Even the numerous photographs shot in the artists’ studios in 1965 – whether Brus’s Marais series, Muehl’s Material Actions, or Schwarzkogler’s 3rd Action – reveal a staging and framing geared for the camera. In this vein, consider Muehl’s 1965 Materialaktion Fleischer Köche Regenschirm und Arsch aus Aluminium (Material Action Butcher Chefs Umbrella and Ass out of Aluminium, 1965), extant only as a video/photograph of a woman’s naked backside, doused in some dark liquid (blood? paint?) with an umbrella wedged between her buttocks. Despite an air of spontaneity, the work recalls Man Ray’s 1930 photograph, La Prière, and all the attendant sexual politics of Surrealism: a male artist availing himself of female form as a kind of primal and psychic matter to be moulded at will. In nearly all of the Actionists’ gatherings, women appear as the most abundant raw (and naked) material; tampons and lipstick even grace two of Nitsch’s untitled paintings from 1964. The ‘radical desublimation’ implied or intended in the orgy of writhing bodies seems to have been the projection of male, hetero-sexual fantasies.
In his short essay for the exhibition’s lovely and detailed catalogue, Klocker helpfully grounds some of the Actionists’ seemingly excessive gestures in a genealogy of Viennese modernist bodies such as those painted by Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl in the early 20th century. The exhibition’s numerous, varied objects succeed as catalysts for recalling the Actionists’ performative gestures. Yet the sensory and temporal dimensions of their duration require a certain mental revivification, lest these works become, in turn, hieratic relics weighed down by their own nostalgia.