New York

Hermann Nitsch, Schüttbild (Splatter Painting), 2011, acrylic on canvas and cotton shirts, wood, 17' 8 1/2“ × 13' 1 1/2” × 3'.

Hermann Nitsch, Schüttbild (Splatter Painting), 2011, acrylic on canvas and cotton shirts, wood, 17' 8 1/2“ × 13' 1 1/2” × 3'.

Hermann Nitsch

MARC STRAUS

Hermann Nitsch, Schüttbild (Splatter Painting), 2011, acrylic on canvas and cotton shirts, wood, 17' 8 1/2“ × 13' 1 1/2” × 3'.

In the decades following World War II, Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch and his contemporaries pursued an approach to artmaking that—like those of so many artists around the globe at midcentury—attempted to deal with the underlying psychological depths of human existence. The particular avant-garde methods of the Viennese Actionists emphasized the body as a challenge to pictorial traditions and conservative cultural and political systems (specifically, Austria’s Second Republic in the early 1960s). Their work was raw, materially driven, scatological, performative, and ceremonial, at times toying with blasphemy and flouting social taboos. Fifty-five years later, Nitsch continues his full-throttle expressionistic practice, and this exhibition—which brought together seventeen canvases made between 1983 and 2014—demonstrated the artist’s sustained focus as a choreographer of ritual.

The seventeen gesturally abstract Schüttbilds (Splatter Paintings) are the products of carefully staged actions (crucifixions, simulated sacrifices, engagements with animal carcasses, etc.) and, as performance ephemera, evince the traces of these actions through accidental compositions, the occasional bare footprint, and materials such as shirts, animal blood, and altar-like structures. Their energy is direct and visceral, rendered in a palette of gory crimsons, browns, and blacks that charged each of the exhibition’s four gallery spaces with a corporeal presence. Smaller-scale works such as the Schüttbilds from 2008 and 2013, installed side by side in the second-floor space, are each layered with a red wash covered by thick gobs of blackish acrylic paint; the paint strokes are hand-scaled, intimating a primal and physical form of mark-making with a color suggestive of excrement. A cornerstone of this exhibition, a Schüttbild from 2011, occupied nearly the entire back wall of the third gallery and resembled a nearly-eighteen-foot-tall waterfall of blood; in front of the canvas, a sculptural wood structure framed two paint-smeared shirts, as if they were a stand-in for some officiating priest. Flanked by large red-splattered Schüttbilds on adjacent walls, the installation brought to mind a chapel or ceremonial site. Their presentation seemed luridly theatrical, yet there is nonetheless a seriousness to these works and the processes of their making.

Though the invocation of pseudo-religious content is the most visible way in which Nitsch’s work deals with the repressive structures of Western civilization, he has also long employed depth psychology—a therapeutic approach for dealing with the unconscious mind that draws upon Freud, Jung, literature, and mythology—as an underlying motivation for his performance-driven artmaking. And for a culture that has largely replaced religion with science, the use of therapy does feel appropriate: It is as if Nitsch were attempting to treat the trauma caused by atheism. Yet a strange cross-contamination—between animalistic ritual and anthropocentric thought, religion and science, action and its material product—is nonetheless captured in these canvases; the question remains whether it is universal enough to address the evolving technological, political, and economic realities of the twenty-first century or if Nitsch is bound to the by-now outmoded thinking of the twentieth. Think, for example, of how the significance of blood in art has changed post-AIDS. Moreover, his attitudes toward gender and sexuality can sometimes seem dated, to put it charitably, in a manner familiar from other ’60s works that were progressive in other ways. In this respect, Nitsch’s most contemporary Schüttbilds fail to account for the evolving fluidity of human subjectivity today, instead representing an important and powerful affront to a specific time, place, and culture.

Catherine Taft