“Arte Austriaca 1960–1984”

Galleria communale d'arte moderna

Vienna’s fondly preserved tradition of intrigue is shocking only to outsiders. For the native art folk, unraveling the feuds within a very argumentative, intellectually close family is savored as a natural ingredient of daily creativity. Under such circumstances, the mere fact of this exhibition is an accomplishment for curator Peter Weiermair. The show united several generations and factions for the first time in a single survey; moreover, its overly generous (because overly localized) selection of 35 artists made for a pleasing, almost pastoral exhibition. Missing from Weiermair’s museum harmony, however,were the decisive accents that would have made something of Vienna’s extreme artistic climate palpable rather than just present.

The protective wing of art history particularly robbed Viennese Actionism of some of its explosiveness. In the ’60s, when Actionism was current, such artists as Günter Brus and Rudolf Schwarzkogler pushed psychophysical boundaries to the point of self-mutilation and extreme self-risk, as the drawings and photodocumentation here of Brus’ Zerreissprobe (Experiment with Ripping, 1970), and of Schwarzkogler’s esthetic rituals performed solely for the camera, demonstrate. Even when Brus and Otto Mühl ended their work in this mode, around 1970 (Schwarzkogler had committed suicide in 1969), the concept of intense, sensual experience of the self, of psychic catharsis through the acting out of unconscious or repressed drives, was far from exhausted, as witness Hermann Nitsch’s continuing orgies/mysteries work. Actionism is descended from Informel, but it differs from such parallel developments as Nouveau Réalisme, Happenings, and Fluxus in its extraordinary radicality; it is comprehensible only in the context of the repressive climate of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) in postwar Vienna. The Actionists rebelled against the suppression of sexuality, of cruelty, of the inevitability of death—the threatening, unsettling side of life—and sought a sense of reality, the raising up of what had been repressed, the unmasking of taboos. Isolated and bitterly opposed, they found sympathetic models in a handful of older living artists, including Arnulf Rainer and Adolf Frohner; they were also interested in early-20th-century Austrian expressionism, the art of the declining Empire—for example, Egon Schiele’s exhibitionistic body language and his mix of pain and esthetics.

This teasing interplay of beauty and pain, eros and death, threaded its way like a leitmotif through Weiermair’s exhibition. It may have something to do with what Friedrich Nietzsche described as the “psychology of orgy,” an “overflowing feeling of vitality and power in the throes of which even pain is experienced as a stimulant.” It may also reflect a peculiarly Austrian sense of reality as harsh, and in need of esthetic heightening. This sense of reality is entirely compatible with utopianism, and anchors itself in the archaic, as in the work of Nitsch and others. Despite the feasibility of its execution, the concept of Nitsch’s Orgies Mysteries Theatre remains unrealized, as do the early archaicizing architectural plans of Hans Hollein, Walter Pichler, and Raimund Abraham, who represent the other main thrust of the Austrian avant-garde. Hollein, a champion of post-Modern ideas as long ago as the early ’60s, proclaimed a nonutilitarian architecture “non-purposive in the sense that it has no predetermined practical use”; the kind of cultic, ritual architecture that he more heralded than actually built was instead constructed by Pichler, in a community-cum-religious space in the country near St. Martin, in southern Burgenland. Each of Pichler’s idollike, wounded sculptures has its own building (documented here in color photographs), differing from the indigenous rural style only in sophistication of detail.

Some of the younger artists in the show have managed to break with the view of life as sickness-unto-death that characterizes Pichler’s work and also Bruno Gironcoli’s obsessive apparatuses. With multidimensional installations or just with video, the two filmmakers Valie Export and Peter Weibel strive for an Actionism-like heighten ing of the viewer’s capacity for sensual and conscious experience. Export showed here an installation she exhibited in the 1980 Venice Biennale; woman is seen as passive, exploited, a sacrifice, and it remains open whether the barking German Shepherd dogs seen on the TV monitors symbolize the threat or merely call attention to it. Hubert Schmalix and the team of Brigitte Kowanz and Franz Graf are the odd birds in the Austrian nest: his complex, expressive paintings and their tableaux, which change from positive to negative as you move in front of them, could easily have been created in Germany. The works of Siegfried Anzinger and of Alois Mosbacher, by contrast, are clearly rooted in Austrian Expressionism. Not on view here were Anzinger’s recent sculptures, perhaps a sign of that duality of talent common in Austria: Nitsch, Brus, and Hollein are all proficient in artistic fields other than those for which they are known.

Ingrid Rein

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.