By EKIN ERKAN December 28, 2023
Galerie Gmurzynska’s ongoing exhibition, “ATTERSEE - Schön wie seine Bilder – Beautiful Like His Paintings” (November 16, 2023 – January 31, 2024) is genuinely one of the most interesting exhibition I have viewed in 2023. Attersee’s paintings, and a curious 1965 sculpture titled Würfelbüstenhalter (translation: Dice bust holder), span the breadth of the artist’s career. The show is a proper retrospective and the first of its kind to reach America. A Viennese artist who was born in Pressburg (1940) and briefly associated with Wiener Aktionismus, Attersee paints associational images that strike fever-pitched slippages. Attersee's early life was colorful, including bouts as a sailor and even a contribution to the "Luna Luna" 1987 Hamburg amusement park, which is currently undergoing a revitalization effort: the original “Luna Luna” featured an archway designed by Sonia Delaunay, Keith Haring's painted carousel, Jean-Michel Basquiat's Ferris Wheel, and a fairground “pirate ship” designed by Attersee, with the artist drawing from his time on the water. Although Attersee, alongside Actionists like Günter Brus and Jörg Immendorf, contributed Luna Luna, he branched off from the group during the 1970s, spearheading “Neuen Österreichischen Malerei” (“New Austrian Painting").
Concurrent to the artists’ development, the Galerie Gmurznska show begins with Attersee’s ribald anthromorphisms and concludes with his vivid expressionist thrashings. Upon entering Galerie Gmurzynska, the viewer is struck by a trio of bawdy narrative paintings. The recurrent cast making up this triad are decadent-cum-degenerate kittens engaged in the most Epicurean of fancies. They eat and orgasm, dressed in lavish garb. These three “kitten paintings” are befitted with titles that service narrative exposition, albeit not enough to fully ground the figurative goings-on. The paintings, which are all part of the 1971 Kinderzimmertriptychon (nursery triptych) are titled as follows: Brüderlein und Schwesterlein (1971), Kätzchenjause (1971), and Was Omi nicht leiden kann (1971). The titles translate as: Little brother and sister, Kitten's snack, and What Grandma doesn’t like. One can spend a proper hour just parsing these paintings, which get as close to the cinematic moving image as a painting can. Unlike his later, more expressive abstract work of the mid-to-late 2010s—fitted with acrylic skeins and throbbing brushwork that bleeds beyond the canvas edges and onto the artist frame—the Attersee of the early 70s eschews abstraction. These are proper stories—libidinal, libertine stories, the makings of a feline Justine ou Les Malheurs de la vertu. In one of Attersee’s “cat stories”, a tawny Abyssinian fans his female tomcat partner with a gargantuan rose. The lady-cat’s sheer blouse is sundered at the breasts, revealing a buoyant bosom framed by a flaming fox. On the lower-right corner is a stray fowl-phallus, Attersee’s motif par excellence throughout this trio. The corpulent plumb prods David Lynch’s animated Eraserhead chickens into the heights of semiotic association. This fowl-phallus is a grocery chicken plucked nude, pink legs careening where testicles ought to be and a bead of vicious sperm beading from the urethra like a tear. The aforementioned flaming fox, cast in an orange blaze and dotted with nipples for eyes, roars towards the fowl-phallus. This fowl-phallus is carried on to the second and third painting. Transmogrified to serve as a dinner item, it is perched atop a fork wielded by a kitten whose ears are fitted with flaxen bells for earrings. The dinner table, which three frenzied feline friends crowd, is populated with other oddities, including sauce-soaked seahorses and pearlescent stray peas.
Attersee has often been regarded as a Pop Artist, which seems like a clumsy characterization. The Viennese-German Pop Art of Kiki Kogelnik, Christa Dichgans, and Konrad Lkapcheck are worlds apart from Attersee, though, like Dichgans, Attersee has a penchant for repeating motifs. But, unlike Dichgans, with each act of repetition, Attersee also imparts eerie notes of difference upon his images: a stray seedling here, golden effluvium there, a cherry-pierced nipple elsewhere; and the fowl-phallus never quite stays the same, erupting longer and fiercer streams while expanding into an alien fleshy force. Despite the eroticism in these works, they are too churlish to incite bawdy reverie. The anthropomorphized nature of Attersee’s sexual scenes renders the venereal into a wanton device from which the artist can unspool new images. I am tempted to say that Attersee’s work, particularly that from the early 1970s, presages the machinations of net.art and post-internet art. However, unlike Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, Attersee’s large-scale ensembles are neither confessional nor directed towards media criticism. Rather, like the amateur net artists who create anthropomorphic DeviantArt avatars prompted by their online personas, Attersee’s prescience is in how he goes about his “world-making”, taking cues from the connotative edges and associative shadows where images stop making sense. It is from the margins of the ineffable that Attersee sifts and winnows new admixtures. Ambiguous blue organs force themselves out of shadows, cherry stems become earring hooks, and kittens masturbate, their tributaries spilling into the shape of a cyclone. With these paintings, Attersee forms a language wholly his own and outside the bounds of sentential structure.
The thorough-going thread in Attersee’s early work is this vitality, which strings along his characters into deviant affairs, and the use of food. In his works from the mid-to-late 1960s, such as Speisekugeln mit Zierschleife (Trauerschleife) (1966), Serviert mit Speisekugeln (1968) and Torte mit Speisekugeln und Speiseblau (Backe, Backe Kuchen) (1966), variegated striped candies and chrome-sheened slices of cake glow in celestial fashion, winnows of cryptic maroon and honey-gold sliding and dripping down their edges. Seeing these works, one understands why some viewers may have been tempted to taxonomize Attersee as a “Pop” artist. Undoubtedly, there is a pristine, commercial-like gloss to these works. The images are framed over a background of hazy stripes that remind viewers of the canvas and muslin used for commercial photoshoot backdrops. Works like Mopsbüstenhalter (1967) even engage the typographic flights of American Pop, recalling Ed Ruscha and Robert Indiana’s hard-edge font paintings. But there is ultimately too much complexity for Attersee’s images to be squared away as Pop, proper. Attersee’s entanglement is rooted in the generative nature of slipping, tripping, and sliding along the fray edges where ordinary images would rest. Attersee’s eponymous “tortes” in Torte mit Speisekugeln und Speiseblau (Backe, Backe Kuchen) even don kaleidoscopic “evil eyes”, their generative traipsing a portend of Alexander Mordvintsev's "DeepDream" convolutional neural network which, relatedly, litters input images with a plaster of melting eyes. These “deep network” images and their successors, such as OpenAI’s “DALL-E”, herald psychedelic outputs where panoramic textures are tinged with the abject. Such abjection is at the heart of Attersee’s Das Süsseste vom Süssen (1966), where a trio of magma-red cherubs float on cloudy tufts of heavy cream. The image is wrapped in a beryl bow, its edges spelling “ATTERSEE”. Attersee’s work from this period does have a proclivity for turning his spelled name into a motif, with Geküsste Frühlingsmayonnaise (1966) veering close to turning it into a commercial advertisement. In the acrylic-and-lacquer painting, an open lipstick tube wades along an inky pool, making use of just enough noir-steeped irony to be at a significant remove from the “Cool School” of American Pop. The “ATTERSEE” letters’ shadow billows into a smokestack and a meaty-mayonnaise slab flags its borders.
Commentators like Lóránd Hegyi have underscored Attersee’s generative pictorial formations and couched this in a kind of elegiac, literary Romanticism. Others, like Rudi Fuchs, have lionized Attersee’s lexicon of tables, yachts, and “the plum, the fish, the branch and thorn, the triangle, the beautiful white buttocks”, while arguing that “what's more important is the hurricane of brushstrokes (blue, pink, pale grey, incarnate red), these brushstrokes so vivid, aggressive, but also musical”. While this figuration guides Attersee’s early paintings, it is this great choir of brushwork that takes centerstage in his later work. Where associations once meandered, thick brushwork now does the soaring. Starting in the early 1980s, with roseate-brushed works like Ziegelröten (1980), Holz ist das schönste Geschenk (1982) and Naturbursc (1982), fleshy orbular heaves injure the canvas in the manner of Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville. The remnants of Attersee’s fowl-phallus are still here but fainter. Attersee’s corpuscular affair is dissolved in Grünstück (1983), as Attersee’s lapis blue background coats the entirety of the frame, lilac-mauve planes and daffodil strokes drifting beyond the borders. There is little that is bodily here beyond the palette. In his late career, exemplified by works like Gralstunde (2016), Attersee has kept up the expressivist act, with his motifs—in this case, flora—growing flatter and his reds reaching bold, bloody vermillion.
Given the dearth of English-language scholarship on Attersee, I followed up this review with an interview with the artist. I have included the interview, translated from German to English, below.
What was your commitment to Viennese Actionism? How did it begin and end?
The Viennese Actionists were my generation of artists, and I was good friends with them, but I tried to find my own way. In other words, I wasn't concerned with death and destruction, but with the content of everyday life and the improvement and renewal of the world of objects and the world of love and eroticism. To put it differently, I was always interested in a positive path. I have returned ‘Eat Art’, which at the time was also an important artform from the Fluxus generation and reached Austria, reaching towards everyday life. All my objects in the world of food are usable, such as my Attersteck with the food plow, the soup sponge spoon and the drawing fork, or blue food as a great opponent of ketchup.
How would you characterize your work in relation to Pop Art in the mid-20th century in Great Britain (Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi) and in the USA (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Wesselmann, Strider)? Do you see this as an adoption or rejection of the motifs of Pop Art?
My art did not arise from my knowledge of American or English Pop Art, but from personal interest in my life in order to improve my quality of life. The whole matter is presented in a striking form, like posters, which are the quickest way to reach people. I've always enjoyed designing stamps and wine labels because they reach people faster than museum art. What I liked about Pop Art were works by Andy Warhol. For example, the car crash, the dollar bill or the electric chair. It's interesting, it's socially critical, it belongs in the public eye and that's how I see art. What Pop art in Great Britain and the USA primarily depicted, for me, was always about inventing and creating new worlds, about integrating them into people's everyday lives.
Many of your works from the 1960s and 1970s are precursors of the aesthetics of Internet culture and its playful, ironic motifs. What cultural symbols did you respond to during this period?
My art has as its starting point the world of landscape calendars, local history novels, medical novels and trashy magazines in general. My first collages were created from the cover images of this trashy literature. The playful, ironic moment is omnipresent today, which is wonderful; the 60s and 70s were still very much characterized by the problems of the post-war period, and many things were very quickly misunderstood as cultural symbols. It was all the more important to me to break with these encrusted structures.
You often paint the frames of your works. Can you explain your painting process and tell us how and why you started?
As long as I could afford it financially, I always painted my frames in order to create a transition into the space around them. My pictures are only excerpts from large worlds and have to be considered further to the right, left, above and below.
Your work has developed into a much more painterly mode, beginning with the 1980s, through the early 2000s and up to the present day. Can you explain the development of your aesthetic approach from the mid-20th century to the present day?
I originally studied stage design and then came to painting out of boredom from designing baroque armchairs. For me, painting was initially only a part of my life, as I am also a writer and have composed a lot of music. My painting consists of the triangle; landscape, people and animals. These are my motifs. I use the animals as observers of people, who have to take note of how we deal with our world as "stage guards". This result in new definitions of our lives. In the beginning, my pictures were somewhat poetically exaggerated, but I then withdrew to the to the possibilities of painting; however, the painterly cannot omit the value of the narrative. WM
Ekin Erkan is a writer, researcher, and instructor in New York City.view all articles from this author