New York

Hermann Nitsch

Hermann Nitsch exhibited 30 works on paper here, done in a variety of media, including lithographs—for example, Crucifixion (After Rembrandt), 1956, the earliest work in the show—pencil drawings from the late ’50s, ballpoint pen drawings from 1969 through the ’80s, works combining printmaking and drawing, and 11 mixed-media paintings on paper from 1987. The paintings embody the still-reverberating aftermath of the moment when Abstract Expressionist works were first shown in Europe. In 1959, when he was 21, Nitsch saw an exhibition curated by Alfred Barr, “The New American Painting,” which was then traveling through Europe and which contained works by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis, and others. Around that time he also saw Hans Namuth’s influential films and photographs of Pollock at work. The action painters came as a revelation to him, for they appeared to have discovered a channel into the unconscious that was more direct and went deeper than the Surrealist channel. Both the performative element of action painting and its somewhat self-sacrificial spirituality—its sense of the artist almost disemboweling himself upon the canvas—seemed to express the unconscious, or the self’s Dionysian aspect, which involves the loss of the self into the whole through ecstatic activity. In America, action painting is said to have foreshadowed the early Happenings, many of which involved the on-the-spot making of a paint-splattered environment; in Europe, it had a similar but deeper and more lasting effect on Nitsch’s work.

By the time Nitsch discovered action painting, he had already been thinking about staging elaborate, carefully organized events as the basis of a new kind of theater, which he called Orgien Mysterien Theater (Orgies Mysteries Theater). The first of these group performance events, or Aktionen, took place in 1960, and there have been more than 80 since then. From these “actions,” which involve the pouring of blood from ritually slaughtered animals over naked or nearly naked performers, Nitsch developed his Malaktionen, or “painting actions,” in which in addition to blood he uses paint—brushing, pouring, and splattering them over large stretched canvases standing against the walls or draped across the floor. In these performances, by acting out a ritual of initiation into ancient communal and sacrificial cults, he has taken action painting into three dimensions and invested it with the vast unconsciousness of nature.

Nitsch’s first Malaktion was also in 1960; since then, he has done 19 more, some of them autonomous and others in conjunction with the O. M. Theater’s performances. Each Malaktion takes place in an entire room, which Nitsch prepares by covering the floor with paper (to protect it) and then arranging the canvases around him. He goes into “a Dionysiac painting frenzy” (or a “painting orgy,” as he has also called it), pushing the blood and paint about with push brooms, smearing it with his hands, throwing it on blindfolded, lying in it and squirming around; he is helped by assistants, who do not go into full frenzy. In the process, blood, paint, handprints, and footprints cover the paper in an even more random or “Dionysiac” pattern than they do on the stretched canvases. The papers are later removed, and the more “attractive” parts are cut out for exhibition, while other parts are reworked until they too are deemed ready for exhibition. The 11 mixed-media paintings shown here are from Nitsch’s largest Malaktion, performed last year in the Wiener Secession building in Vienna. The only colors are the brown of the blood and the red of the oil paint; and, except for a cross in one work, the only recognizable images are the foot- and handprints of Nitsch and his assistants. The white smocks that Nitsch wears while painting are also sometimes exhibited (though they were not in this show), spread-armed as if in crucifixion—a symbol of the role of the artist as self-sacrificial priest and victim at once.

The drawings in this show are of two related types. Some, like anatomical or medical illustrations, strip the flesh from the body and label its inner parts. Others are like scribbled maps that represent the sites where Nitsch imagines the O. M. performances might take place—“ground-plan[s] of subterranean rooms and passages,” as he has described them—but with the forms of bodily organs entering the architectural design. Both signify the environment of the unconscious from which the O. M. Theater arises.

Nitsch describes the performances—with their combination of theater, painting, music, and choreography—as aiming at the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, a reference not only to Wagner’s music dramas but to the Greek tragedies from which Wagner derived the idea. One theory has those ancient dramas originating in rites acting out human or animal sacrifice, with a later substitution of the tragic hero for the sacrificial victim. Nitsch’s work links this structure with the existentialist martyrdom of the self-immolating Romantic artist. In his performances and paintings, Nitsch powerfully unites the Dionysiac idea of self-loss in Greek tragedy with the Modernist idea of the artist acting out self-loss through an orgiastic relationship to the materials of his art.

Thomas McEvilley