When asked about his work, Hermann Nitsch will use the word “intensity.” It is what he strives to create in order to awaken people to the reality of life. Often using animal carcasses and entrails and bloodied, bound, or penetrated human bodies, the themes of sacrifice, death, and birth run throughout Nitsch’s multisensory performance pieces, known as actions, and the stained and painted relics these actions leave behind.
As might be expected, Nitsch’s provocative choice of media has provoked controversy, which has landed him in jail multiple times and raised the ire of animal rights groups and activists around the globe throughout his long career. This year, at the Museum of Old and New Art’s yearly Dark Mofo music festival, held in Hobart, Tasmania, Nitsch’s 150. Action drew such backlash from animal rights activists—due to the performance’s particular use of a slaughtered bull—the festival organizers were forced to stage the performance at a secret location.
Interestingly, however, Nitsch has always been deeply inspired by quite classical art and music and traditional religious mythology. Born in Vienna in 1938, Nitsch grew up in the Catholic tradition, which has had a direct influence on his work—as evidenced by his repeated use of the crucifixion pose and act. When he was a young man he avidly studied such old masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Ruben, and he has mentioned being specifically influenced by Fra Angelico’s painting of Jesus blindfolded.
Although he came of age as Rock-n- Roll was taking over the airwaves, Nitsch has cited Mozart as the composer who first sparked his appreciation for music. Nitsch went on to enjoy Bach, Beethoven, and most notably Wagner—a composer who became fascinated with Gesamtkunstwerk, a term which refers to a complete or total work of art where multiple art forms come together to create one synthesized piece.
It is the premise of Gesamtkunstwerk upon which Nitsch’s world-famous Orgien Mysterien Theatre or Theater of Orgies and Mysteries is founded. Committed to staging reality through the stimulation of all five senses, Nitsch began seriously developing the theater in the 1950’s and continues to develop it at Prinzendorf Castle, his home, and workspace bought from the Catholic Church in 1971, located on southern Austria’s Zaya River.
Not long before securing his Austrian Castle, however, in 1966, Nitsch exhibited a painting involving menstrual blood—Die Erste Heilige Kommunion or The First Holy Communion—which left him unwelcome in his homeland. Between 1966 and 1971, Nitsch lived in Germany and spent some time in the states. In 1968, Nitsch performed his 25th and 26th actions at New York’s Cinématheque and landed on the cover of the Village Voice.
Nitsch has maintained his New York ties and is now on view at Marc Straus for his second solo exhibition there. Two floors are currently devoted to his work. The top floor houses his recent 75th Painting Action, dedicated to Marc and Livia Straus.
75th Painting Action is dominated by red, but it is oil, not blood, which covers its canvases. Cacophonous chords fill the room. Out of eyesight upon first entering, a video of the 75th Painting Action plays on a small monitor in the back corner of the room. It becomes apparent that this is the visual which the sound accompanies. In white, lab-like coats, Nitsch and his assistant work the canvases. Nitsch digs his hand deep into a paint bucket his assistant holds and pulls it out again to thickly smear paint. The viewer is surrounded by the large paintings seen in progress on screen.
Though no entrails were used to make these pieces, curving, finger-wide, intestinal-like patterns can be seen swirling into the paint throughout the room. Several white T-shirts with sleeves outstretched are hung, almost skewered, on strips of wood attached to large canvases which reach down far below the shirts’ bottoms, echoing crucifixion.
While these equally sized 79 x 59 inch T-shirt pieces appear to start with the same basic materials, each one elicits something quite different. One features two shades of red paint, one browner than the other, bringing to mind both fresh and dried blood. Markings at the right-center of the shirt recall representations of Jesus’ fifth holy wound as blood appears to pour straight down the shirt from a slit-shaped opening there. Some intestinal-like swirls cover the chest area. Both death and rebirth may be associated with this piece.
Two other T-shirt pieces, exhibited on the same wall side by side, may be seen to depict two ends of a spectrum of violence. The one on the left—with smudges of red, black, and even a little yellow—may read like a scuffle; the one on the right—almost completely covered in the darker, browner red—evokes a complete obliteration of the body.
A piece across from the video monitor may relate to Nitsch’s fascination with the cosmos. Yellow and blue can be seen at its center, surrounded by the repeated intestinal-like swirls of red. Green paint appears to swirl out rightward from the yellow and blue at the center. The painting feels both sky high and cloud-like while being made up of colors that represent not only the celestial sun, but water, land, and blood—in other words, life as we know it.
Hermann Nitsch is not for everyone, but I would say he does what he sets out to do: demonstrate the reality and intensity of life.
September 9th – October 15th
Marc Straus Gallery
299 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002