New York

Günter Brus

Gasser Grunert

Although he was one of the central figures of Vienna Actionism, Günter Brus is hardly known here; this is only his second solo exhibition in the States, and the first in New York. Initially it’s surprising that the work has taken so long to arrive—the heyday of Aktionismus was, after all, more than thirty years ago. But how receptive would New York have been to so visceral, violent, and overwrought an art as that of Brus and fellow practitioners Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler? We like an art that reflects skepticism and sobriety; Clement Greenberg was not alone in his certainty that the great artists “are the hard-headed ones.” If even the benignly utopian mystique of Joseph Beuys seemed hard to swallow, what would we have made of the queasier excesses of the Viennese?

Now that all their ritual dripping of blood, semen, and other abject fluids is safely past, however, and with the broad revival of interest in the origins of performance art (manifested most clearly by the exhibition “Out of Actions” at MoCA in Los Angeles last year), curiosity about the Actionists finally seems to be taking root here. But those who came to Brus’s recent exhibition, “Colored Brainbow,” expecting to gain further acquaintance with the movement probably went away disappointed, despite the availability for viewing of some portfolios of photographs documenting several 1964-66 performances. It turns out that Brus left off making actions after 1970, and in recent decades has focused on drawing and, to a lesser extent, painting. Included here were nineteen works on paper dating from 1982 to the present, primarily done in oil pastels, but also in colored pencil and charcoal. Several were sequences of four to eight sheets, and these the artist calls Bilddichtungen or “imagepoems,” though the designation would be just as apt for all the works, which combine writing and image-making into a unified (if sometimes almost explosive) ensemble.

Words are integral to these drawings, sometimes appearing in them discreetly, almost as captions, but just as often expanding to become equal in importance to other graphic elements, or even to overwhelm them. Rather than simply describe the imagery, they complement it through heightened specificity, metaphorical reverberation, or rhetorical force. Sometimes they crystallize into detachable aphorisms, like “One entrance, one exit, one eye—that’s enough!” or “Someone must take the blame for the beauty of the world.” This language bears the imprint of that peculiarly corrosive wit that has always been a Viennese specialty—think of Karl Kraus—though the cynical tenor of Brus’s satire, intensified to the point of becoming a kind of negative lyricism, is all his own. He has even wryly accounted for his preference for drawing over painting in terms of the deflationary aim of his undertaking: “A painting,” he has said, “presents an illusion of the space that culture appears to occupy in the world, whereas a drawing shows its real dimensions.”

Still, Brus’s draftsmanship is as apt to reflect real refinement as it is to exhibit provocative crudity. His color, likewise, can be grating or almost ridiculously voluptuous. In many ways he remains, surprisingly, a child of the Jugendstil, as close to the 1890s as to the 1990s. This can be seen in his fascination with the tension between exaltation and desperation, generation and decay, desire and repulsion, and carnality and transcendence—all familiar Symbolist themes—and in the more or less overt echoes of Klimt, Munch, and who knows which less prominent artists of a century ago. But it is also evident in the entirety of a symbolic language that reflects the idea, proclaimed by a Viennese critic of the time, that “events transpire on the nerves and their effects proceed from the nerves.” The typical Brus drawing might be described as taking the form of a nervous exhilaration giving way to an irritable outburst, or vice versa. Prolonging a rebellion whose aims we thought were accomplished long ago, Brus has transformed himself from outlaw to curmudgeon. It hasn’t harmed his art a bit.

Barry Schwabsky