PRINT October 2013


Otto Mühl

Otto Mühl (center front) with Action Analytical commune members, Friedrichshof, Austria, 1974.

OTTO MÜHL WAS CALLED MANY THINGS IN HIS LIFE, but never a prophet. Yet his first manifesto, “The Blood Organ: The M-Apparatus,” written in 1962 when Mühl was in his late thirties, proved curiously farsighted, for he characterized himself as a synthesis “of two asocial types, the saint and the sexual murderer.” As if in a vision, he mapped out the entire range of images that dominate the discourse on him to this day: from the art therapist he was then and, in many minds, remained till the end, to the demon who cofounded Aktionismus (Actionism)—probably the most intense art movement of the century, which laid down the paradigms for all body art to come—by “killing the picture” and willfully snapping people’s minds.

Mühl had fought in World War II (his recollections of this time in his autobiography, Weg aus dem Sumpf [Way Out of the Mire, 1977], make for fascinating reading), trained as a teacher, and studied art; after meeting artists Günter Brus and Hermann Nitsch, he moved from painting paintings to destroying them. “Daubing a canvas is itself half-witted,” he wrote in 1969. “I fetched a kitchen knife, slashed the canvas, tore it apart with both hands.” He soon incorporated refuse into the contorted canvas, then expanded it into space to form “junk sculptures.”

In 1963, Mühl embarked on his first “material action,” Degradation of a Venus, featuring a live model, rubbish, paint, and sheets, and the artist as a leonine master of ceremonies. The idea was ingenious: Mühl made equal use of naked people (later very explicitly their genitals), trash, powdered colors, foodstuffs, and all manner of liquids as media, thus sidestepping the hierarchies instilled in them by society and upbringing. The result was by turns glorious, ravishing, and utterly unpalatable for the stolid citizens of Vienna. Intentionally so, of course, because as his next manifesto stated in 1963, “Through my ‘self-sacrifice’ the audience will be purified of its secret dirty doings.” Mühl was aiming at release from the straitjacket of morals, at “flush[ing] innermost cravings out into the open”—although the word self-sacrifice suggests he had talked too much with Nitsch, who wore the priestly mantle more convincingly.

As the actions developed—almost one a month from 1963 to early 1971, from Mühl working with models to Mühl as part of a group of autonomous performers—it became clear that by simultaneously presenting the intolerable and the bewitching, the naive and the knowing, the repressed and the humorous, Mühl the art therapist introduced a devious, unsettling level to his actions that penetrated the underlying ambivalences of society and physical being. Moving from abstraction to a strangely satirical brand of mimesis, he presented society’s “illnesses,” unseated viewers’ inner sense of security, and “opened the gates of the unconscious.” Mühl’s work, created amid the provincial isolation of postwar Vienna and with little chance of being influenced by art developments outisde Austria, was characterized by an extreme concentration on the body and its functions, and by psychoanalytic exorcisms; it contrasted vividly with Joseph Beuys’s performances at the time, fraught as they were with symbolism and pathos, and with the almost genteel Happenings and Fluxus events in Germany and the US.

Moreover, Mühl’s work was marked by devilish glee and humor, for wit was one of his true strengths, not only in his actions but also his writings: manifestos, often-impossible action scores, and Zock, 1966/1971, a blueprint for society that simultaneously reached dizzying utopian heights and plumbed hilariously dystopian depths.

In the late 1960s, Mühl’s actions evolved into bizarre sociodramas with performers playing identifiable roles. Life entered the arena, as did sex. Mühl’s growing fascination with the latter is already apparent in the book Mama & Papa: Materialaktion 63–69 (1969), in which his caption accompanying a photo of a naked woman from a 1964 action reads, “This must make every museum idiot hot.” Evidently he had moved on from his early, distanced viewpoint as a fine artist that “the human being is not seen as a human being, a person, but as a body with certain properties.” The action was to become all-encompassing, no longer a discrete event but a way of life.

Mühl’s turn in 1970 to his Action Analytical commune, located first in Vienna and later amid the bucolic splendors of Friedrichshof, some thirty-seven miles off, was the next logical step. Spearheaded by a group of intrepid friends (and even garnering the tacit blessing of Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky), the AA commune was a bold venture winged by free love, communal property, three-year maternity leave for mothers—and a small town that arose with its own apartments, studios, bakery, swimming pool, and elementary school. And when work was over, the members met in a communal hall for all-important self-therapy sessions, inspired by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and the primal-therapy theories of Arthur Janov. The patient was placed center stage and the mama and papa in his brain exorcised so that his creative self-healing powers might awaken.

But an über-papa remained, one who did not need any self-therapy but increasingly dictated what was acceptable. Art, for instance, had been branded a hangover from a sick bourgeois society, but Mühl restyled it as his own “personal illness” and returned to the easel, taking inspiration from van Gogh, Richard Gerstl, Picasso, and his earlier actions. The members of the commune dutifully painted Ottoesque odalisques and fauns and made films, small gems about—what else?—Mühl’s favorite subject (sex) and favorite artists.

However, the commune decades, from 1970 to 1991, left a surprising mark on Mühl’s painting. In the mid-’80s he produced some of his finest works, such as the series “Unfälle im Haushalt” (Domestic Accidents), 1986: large canvases with flat, confident fields of color and strident outlines depicting nude communards in the throes of trivial mishaps, done in a bright Patrick Caulfield style that contrasted with his normal mix of Pop and Expressionism. Among these paintings we find, for example, Flo, 1986, a portrait of rare intimacy and tenderness.

But by the late ’80s, the commune was whirling out of control as sheer size, internal wrangles, and a Mühl-centric hierarchy rendered it unmanageable. More famously, charges were filed against the artist by fellow communards, which led to Mühl receiving a seven-year prison sentence for statutory rape, abuse of authority, and drug charges. Mühl shrugged it off and his friends tried to play it all down, but he nevertheless served his sentence. Despite steadily declining health, he remained active while doing his time: He read Proust, philosophized on van Gogh, Duchamp, and Picasso, organized clandestine sex during visiting hours when the wardens could be distracted, and made some three hundred artworks. And however much he protested that he had turned his back on the commune, he was planning the next step in undermining society. As he once told me, “Friedrichshof was too big and I am too authoritarian.” The answer was to “create networks of small autonomous communes that are connected together.”

Mühl was released from prison at the age of seventy-three, and he clearly wasn’t worried about his career or contrition when he replied to a reporter’s question regarding how he felt by saying: “Hornier than ever.” (It would be more than ten years before he apologized publicly for his misdeeds.) Mühl left shortly after for Portugal and the small Artlife commune, where art and love were again the central concerns. But the artist never found his way back to the immediacy and beauty of some of his paintings of the ’80s. The canvases that flowed into the big retrospectives of the 2000s were crude satires and pastiches, gaudy homages to his chosen influences, and—above all—paeans to sex. But a hint of the actions of the ’60s, by now a vital touchstone for all who charted the realms of body art, performance, and Happenings in the decades that followed, was always to be found: Glinting all too often behind the coupling figures in his paintings is an unnerving knife—the one with which he “killed the picture” and heralded Actionism, the one he used to slaughter a goose in his 1970 action Oh Sensibility, the one he transformed into a new art and then desublimated into free sex to kill Papa once and for all.

Malcolm Green cofounded Atlas Press, which published his 1999 anthology Writings of the Vienna Actionists.