New York

Hermann Nitsch

Mike Weiss Gallery

There are many paths to ecstasy. Some, pace Blake, lead down the road of excess, while others go the way of asceticism. The relationship between heightened states of mind and the process of artmaking has always been close, with the construction of icons, their erasure, and the hard contemplation of color serving as perennial avenues to revelation.

The latest evidence of a nascent trend in the art world toward gnomic, incantatory, and psychedelic ways of creating—alongside the rekindled interest in elder visionaries such as Joan Jonas and Charlemagne Palestine can be seen the generally mystical disposition of many younger artists these days—was a new show by Hermann Nitsch, one of the arch-progenitors of Viennese Actionism, whose gory practice, which now spans forty years, is perhaps only distantly related to that of his American peers but, at the same time, cosmically filial.

In his first appearance in New York since a 1999 minisurvey with Günter Brus at White Box, Nitsch presented two rooms of gestural abstract paintings (all 2003) accompanied by chiming music and (during the opening) freshly cut flowers. The front room was all yellow—eight serial panels of whorls and sunbursts and two larger canvases featuring thick impastos of lemon-colored paint applied largely by brush, with T-shirts flattened into the goo as if crucified. The back room was all red—fourteen large, multi-paneled works sporting big (thrown?) splashes of crimson over garnet ground. Also in the back room was a large wooden apparatus, part easel, part crucifix, holding sheets of linen soiled with a brownish red fluid—the remains, apparently, of some offstage blood rite. Stacked in neat rows on smaller, sawhorse-type structures throughout the gallery were sugar cubes and paper napkins and two heavily embroidered ceremonial robes.

Though there was something a little shameless in Nitsch’s open theatricality—the brash, singular colors mashed on the walls, the religious paraphernalia, the clamoring sound track and props—there was also a kind of honesty and clarity of purpose at work, a true showman’s broadness of expression. The effect Nitsch achieved was purgative, nearly homiletic: “You will have a God feeling now,” one can imagine him exhorting his audience, shaking its lapels. The droning bells and huge swaths of color, for all their bombast, did manage to induce, at least in this viewer, a crude mental movement toward transcendence.

Why does Nitsch’s work seem vaguely au courant? Perhaps the last decade’s technological patina (or pallor) has finally worn off, and people want more earth in their art. Or maybe the political exigencies of the day call for more primal, bellowing expressions of angst. In any case, the search for transcendent meaning has gathered fresh urgency, and the energy Nitsch brings to his hoary practice can’t be denied. Whatever path this man has followed, it seems to be working.

Jonathan Raymond