“Vienna Actionism”

Museum für Angewandte Kunst / Graphische Sammlung Albertina / Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts

An all-encompassing exhibition of Viennese actionism still lies ahead, even though Vienna has just witnessed a rapid succession of three partially overlapping shows on this subject. “Von der Aktionsmalerei zum Aktionismus” (From action painting to actionism), conceived by Veit Loers and Dieter Schwarz and already mounted in Kassel and Winterthur last year, reached the Museum für Angewandte Kunst, albeit with a few changes. At the same time, “Der zertrümmerte Spiegel” (The shattered mirror), a show concentrating on graphic works, ran at the Graphische Sammlung Albertina. And, finally, the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts offered a Hermann Nitsch retrospective. This threesome demonstrated that actionism still exists in a confusing context and that sympathy and understanding of that context are needed in order to come to terms with Austria’s most radical artistic movement—a movement that has trampled on so many bourgeois taboos.

Actionism wanted to jettison the entire museum world (indeed, any mediation) and, instead, pursue a “direct art,” an immediacy of experience that focused either on the artist’s body (Günter Brus) or on collective and cosmic orgiastic fusions (Nitsch, Otto Mühl). Models of social participation and interaction, as developed in happenings, were generally alien to such attitudes. Loers and Schwarz conceived of a critical examination of the loosely knit group, which, along with Brus, Mühl, Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, also included Adolf Frohner and Alfons Schilling. In the presentation here, which aimed at “attaining” actionism but not really presenting it, the show turned into a museum offering of early works. I am not faulting their quality: Mühl’s and Frohner’s “junk” sculptures are excellent, while Brus and Schilling have mined art informel for very specific intensities that were previously undreamt of—at least in Europe. The museum context for the early works, however, does not live up to actionism itself.

The Albertina exhibition, curated by Hubert Klocker, came a lot closer to the phenomenon of actionism. It showed action scores, Brus’ drawings in the expressive tradition of Egon Schiele, Schwarzkogler’s ritualistically staged photo series, Nitsch’s early relics, as well as Mühls wild assaults on Picasso and Andy Warhol—simultaneously, of course. This show emphasized the intrinsic nature of actionism, its link with Catholic and politically reactionary, as well as radical and libertarian, traditions. The Albertina’s antiquated glass vitrines, which normally display facsimiles of Raphael and Dürer, added to this peculiar dichotomy. The anxiety and obsessiveness, the intensity and lechery, the grossness and cruelty of the work achieve an authenticity that is outdone only by Kurt Krens’ highly original films.

The Nitsch retrospective at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, a presentation of an artist who is still the most resolute actionist working today, couldn’t hold a candle to the Albertina show. The endless reiteration of supreme ecstasies in Nitsch’s glossy photos was too far removed from the emotionalizing of the days of festivities at the Orgien Mysterien Theater. Isolation may be an essential factor in the development of actionism, but the movement’s future will, no doubt, depend on how much it manages to free itself from the mandate of reclusiveness.

Helmut Draxler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.