PRINT March 2022

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Alfons Schilling, untitled, 1960, dispersion paint, sand, plaster, and copper on jute, 50 × 39 3⁄8". © Archive Alfons Schilling.

NEITHER GÜNTER BRUS NOR ALFONS SCHILLING were very good custodians of their early work, much of which is lost. For the financially secure Schilling, this was the consequence of a nomadic and adventurous lifestyle. From 1960 to 1964, the Swiss artist lived in Vienna and Paris, before moving to New York, though he continued to travel extensively, including stays in Mexico, Greece, Mallorca, and Mali. In contrast, the same time span saw Brus enmeshed in personal hardships, from his mandatory military service in Austria in 1961 to his discovery, in 1964, that after a winter spent washing dishes and polishing shoes to make ends meet, his most recent painting project had been piled into the corner of a Viennese gallery and left to rot. In 1968, the year Schilling was in Chicago photographing the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention, Brus was sentenced to six months in prison for his leading role in Kunst und Revolution (Art and Revolution), a raucous Actionist Happening at the University of Vienna that scandalized the Austrian public. To avoid imprisonment, the artist fled to West Berlin the following year, leaving behind much of what remained of his material practice.

So for a show like “Günter Brus and Alfons Schilling Around 1960: Dropping Out of the Picture,” curator and bruseum director Roman Grabner had to render tangible a lacuna. Grabner met this daunting challenge head-on, including only works produced between 1958 and 1964. The exhibition marked a fruitful collaboration between the bruseum, an offshoot of Austria’s Neue Galerie Graz, which has been home to Brus’s archive and to many of his extant works since 2011, and the Estate Alfons Schilling, which was founded in 2013 in Vienna. It took as its point of departure the unlikely friendship Brus and Schilling forged as painting students at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna in the late 1950s, when they were both in dialogue with art informel and Abstract Expressionist painting. Drawing on, without ever explicitly referencing, Laszlo Glozer’s famous phrase “der Ausstieg aus dem Bild” (the exit from the picture)—coined for the exhibition “Westkunst: Zeit­ genössische Kunst seit 1939” (Westkunst: Contemporary Art Since 1939), which he curated alongside Kaspar König in Cologne in 1981—Grabner proposed that each artist defiantly “dropped out,” or exited painting, circa 1960. They did this, however, in strikingly different ways. For Brus, the shift would involve an introspective analysis of physical proximity and confinement; for Schilling, an exploration of optics and motion.

Günter Brus, untitled, 1960, dispersion paint on paper, 17 3⁄4 × 24 3⁄4".

To flesh out his argument, Grabner culled from private and local collections a selection of works on paper by Brus a number of which had never before been publicly exhibited. These drawings charted Brus’s astonishing first attempts to pictorially distill the implications of body and space—of the ins and outs of corporeal functioning within the apertures and embrasures of one’s surroundings—which would become a hallmark of the later performances he called “body analyses.” The most exciting galleries juxtaposed a handful of remarkable paintings by both artists, offering insight into how their practices came to diverge even more vividly in the second half of the decade, as Brus grew increasingly concerned with positioning the body in space and Schilling with technologies of vision.

The first gallery introduced the artists’ respective understandings of the medium of painting as shaped by their varying access to materials. One wall was covered with twenty-five of Brus’s untitled sketches, whose abstract forms suggested voluminous rectangular blocks and what looked like flattened window lattices rendered in charcoal or pencil on paper. While technically simple spatial studies, these drawings featured occasional creases, rubbings, and surface punctures that indirectly record Brus’s accelerating pace and increased physical pressure. Mounted on the adjacent and opposing walls were four hefty paintings by Schilling, all untitled, that integrated copper, slate, sand, and jute on roughly woven cotton canvas. With their starkly contrasting materials, these works emphasized the process of making; they invited the viewer to linger, to look from different angles at the varied textures and techniques. An untitled canvas from 1960 embedded shards of slate in a glob of plaster on a background of white paint that bore muddied traces of clawing fingers. The piece was signed in three corners, indicating Schilling’s early interest in the mobility of the artwork and the strategic disorientation of the viewer.

Alfons Schilling, untitled, 1962, dispersion paint on kraft paper mounted on canvas, 89 3⁄4 × 89 3⁄4". © Archive Alfons Schilling.

In one of the exhibition’s most compelling juxtapositions, a work by Brus related to his immersive Malerei in einem labyrinthischen Raum (Painting in a Labyrinthine Room, 1963) hung near an untitled 1961 assemblage of Schilling’s, a window screen of wire mesh set in a wooden frame that had been splattered with dispersion paint. To create the former, Brus strung up packing paper and cheap cotton canvases in a basement and then bound his arms and legs to inhibit the range of his own movement. Such conditions of constraint, evidenced in the dense paint crudely smothering the canvas, would also define his subsequent performance practice. In contrast with the palpable claustrophobia manifested in Brus’s painting, Schilling’s piece, beautifully lit so as to cast intricate shadows with its wire mesh and flecked paint on the wall behind it, exemplified his developing concern with techniques of optical interference and mediation. Having experimented in Vienna with a manually rotating disk that set his canvases in motion while he was painting them, in Paris the artist constructed a mechanical rotation device on which he could mount large circles of canvas or paper. He would then throw paint at them as they spun. The window piece can thus be seen as his final, playful citation of the traditional window frame of painting—and the expectations about orientation and perspective associated with it.

Günter Brus, Aktion mit Diana (Action with Diana) (detail), 1967, thirty-five gelatin silver prints, each 11 3⁄4 × 8 1⁄4". Photo: Kurt Kren.

In the final gallery, two of Schilling’s massive 1962 “rotation-paintings,” both untitled, leaned precariously against a wall, facing a gridded installation of photographs of Brus’s first documented performance, Ana, 1964. In collaboration with the Estate Alfons Schilling, Grabner included Schilling’s rotation device and installed a third painting on it. Museum staff could activate the device, transforming the object into a multisensorial stimulant at once visually engulfing, acoustically grating, and physically disorienting. The works made on this device would be his final paintings; those that followed could sooner be classified as holography, stereoscopy, or what Schilling called “Sehmaschinen” (vision machines). The photographs of Ana, Brus’s first collaboration with Anni Steiner (his future wife), seemed Luddite in contrast, capturing a performance that uncannily rehearsed, while displacing, one of painting’s oldest conventions: the veritable duel between figure and ground, body and space.

In their nearly conflicting exit strategies “around 1960,” Brus and Schilling figured as captivating if hesitant protagonists.

The title of the show, which was also the title of this last gallery, invited an intriguing art-historical conjecture, for Schilling was not included in Glozer’s Westkunst project. His was an idiosyncratic “exit” from the European canon altogether—at least at the time. Brus, however, was included, albeit as an exponent of “Viennese Actionism,” and thus affiliated with (and subordinated to) the more aggressive Actionist tendencies of Hermann Nitsch and Otto Muehl. With its attention to the obfuscated early work of Brus and Schilling, the exhibition in Graz charted new territory by foregrounding their differing attitudes toward the vestiges of the pictorial space of painting. In their nearly conflicting exit strategies “around 1960,” Brus and Schilling figured as captivating if hesitant protagonists. How would this story continue? By 1966, Schilling was experimenting with lenticular photography in New York and had been hired by Billy Klüver of Bell Telephone Laboratories to film 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering, comprising performances by, among others, John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, and Robert Rauschenberg. The following year in Vienna, Brus composed with Anni and the couple’s baby daughter, Diana, Aktion mit Diana (Action with Diana), a performance in the family’s apartment that reconfigured the possibilities of human relations within the bohemian interior. While Diana rested on a pillow in the center of the room, her father, doused entirely in white paint, moved carefully about the white-painted space, facing the wall, curling up into a ball in a corner, or sprawling out supine next to her—never actually touching her in a performance that is, touchingly, about being together. Schilling exploded painting; Brus inhabited it.

Caroline Lillian Schopp teaches modern and contemporary art at the University of Vienna and will be a guest professor of art history at Berlin University of the Arts this summer.