February 2011, Hermann Nitsch @ Mike Weiss Gallery

Hermann Nitsch: 60. Painting Action // 60. Malaktion at Mike Weiss Gallery, 2011, acrylic on jute, tables, framed t-shirt,
vestment, vase, flowers. 88 x 232 inches. Photo courtesy of Mike Weiss Gallery.


Hermann Nitsch: 60. Painting Action / / 60. Malaktion
Mike Weiss Gallery
520 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011
19 February, through 19 March 2011

Monastical Mystery Tour at Mike Weiss Gallery

When I arrive on-site at Mike Weiss Gallery on Wednesday, February 16th around 2pm, it is exactly halfway through the second and final day of Hermann Nitsch’s historic action painting performance – and his first ever in the United States. Upon entering the space, I follow the rainbow-colored footprints on the tarp-covered floor to the back room of the gallery where I find several painting assistants barefoot and wearing white, now paint-splotched, robes shuffling around a giant canvas placed in the center of the floor. By now, the canvas is thoroughly drenched in red pigment applied through various methods such a pouring, direct hand to canvas contact, and feet scurrying from one end to another. I am viscerally struck by the beauty and magnitude of this piece, which manages to have an ethereal quality while simultaneously evoking the blood and guts of the artist’s earlier works.

Hermann Nitsch: 60. Painting Action // 60. Malaktion at Mike Weiss Gallery. February 15 – February 16, 2011.
Courtesy of Mike Weiss Gallery. Photo by Brooke Eastburn.

Austrian-born and based Hermann Nitsch rose to notoriety in the 1960s for his performance pieces, which often revolved around the ritualistic slaughtering of live animals and dissection of carcasses in front of a participatory audience, calling into question the ethics of religious sacrifice while also alluding to more pertinent questions of the time regarding war, human rights, and violence in the media. While Nitsch switched from blood to acrylic paint in 1989, allowing him to focus on the qualities of light and color, his intense pigments and visible techniques recall the themes addressed in earlier work. Whether Nitsch works with bodily fluids or man-made material, his pieces are always created in a very careful, methodical but not necessarily calculated, ceremonial manner.

After a few moments of art-induced hypnosis, I look around, eager to spot the man of the hour. “Where’s Nitsch?” I ask a bystander stationed to my right. She peers around my shoulder and points to one of the several photographers in the room. “Over there, behind that cameraman.” I gape befuddled for a second, until my eye is drawn downward to the plump man hunched over a folding chair (and really under, as opposed to behind, the cameraman). His warm eyes beam from under his long, scraggly white beard - just Dumbledore enough to put a huge smile on my face.

Taking in the scene, I then understood. Nitsch was the shaman, his assistants his monks, the gallery his temple. A ceremony was taking place, though not one necessarily tied to any particular religion, or religion at all for that matter. It was a new religion, every religion, and yet no religion - just art, human emotion, primitive expression, a site at which to feel, think, meditate. Nitsch was just there to facilitate this state of being.

While I missed most of the action, the aftermath was so palpable in those moments that you could almost hold on to it, a thick summer humidity on a cold winter’s day in New York City. Not only do the heel’s slide marks in the paint suggest presence, but the dimensionality of the material is so thick it nearly simmers. There was so much energy rising from that red canvas and pulsing out from the yellow painting hung on the wall behind it, adorned with a matching yellow t-shirt crucified by a wooden cross.

Hermann Nitsch: 60. Painting Action // 60. Malaktion at Mike Weiss Gallery. February 15 – February 16, 2011. Courtesy of
Mike Weiss Gallery. Photo by Brooke Eastburn.

Soon, Nitsch is helped up by several assistants and the sea of bystanders parts like reeds to make way for the artist to traverse into the next room, ready to begin his next round of creative genius. But while the people follow, gathering in the next arena, I take this opportunity to slink back to where it all just happened, to take in the reverberation of the artistic tornado that just tore through the space, and contemplate what it all might mean.

From Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein to Carolee Schneeman, Joseph Beuys, Marina Abromovic and beyond, performance art and action painting have speckled the second half of twentieth century art history like spots on a leopard, taking on all forms around the globe through various movements that played off one another, inspiring creativity and subjectivity. But when viewing Hermann Nitsch’s oeuvre in the context of the Vienna Actionists, the avant-garde group he is most closely linked to, I cannot help but analyze it’s axioms in relation to two similar movements of the same post-war period: Abstract Expressionism and the Gutai Art Association. Each of these artistic movements spring up in the wake of the Second World War, in the United States and Japan respectively, signing their canvases with the spirit of the time, encapsulating and reacting to what was taking place in the artists’ socio-political environment.

Whereas many American action painters turned anger into agency, dynamism, and power, the Japanese Gutai artists attempted to rejuvenate their silenced voices and broken spirits through unbridled creativity, unrestrained movement and material in their whole-body works. In yet another vein, the Vienna Actionists, which included the likes of Otto Mühl, Günter Brus, and Rudolph Schwarzkogler, used this active mode of creating art to react in a very different way to their environment- one that is much more violent and rebellious. Many Viennese Actionists were even jailed at one point or another for their subversive work. Nitsch in particular, though, while utilizing forms of violence at times more liberally than others, achieves catharsis through the spontaneity of gesture by using the act of painting as ritual. With the exception of the Gutai artists though, which were united through Jiro Yoshihara’s Gutai Manifesto of 1954, neither the Abstract Expressionists nor the Vienna Actionists were ever part of a truly cohesive group; the titles merely used to classify the similar types of work these artists were doing during this period. Nonetheless, if we read the work of Jackson Pollock as virility, and Kazuo Shiraga as discovery, I would assign the term meditation to Hermann Nitsch.

Hermann Nitsch: 60. Painting Action // 60. Malaktion at Mike Weiss Gallery. February 15 – February 16, 2011. Courtesy of
Mike Weiss Gallery. Photo by Brooke Eastburn

After two days of working in front of an audience, Nitsch takes the few more before his show opens to add some finishing touches in private while the gallery staff diligently accomplishes the tedious task of removing the tarps and re-hanging Nitsch’s menacing works. When I come back on Saturday night for the opening reception, Mike Weiss looks like a new space entirely. Gregorian chants fill the room as I walk in, and while those less familiar with Nitsch’s magna opera might be confused or even off-put by this soundtrack, I smile to myself and commend this curatorial choice. The music sets the tone in the gallery to view the works as they are meant to be contemplated, in the modern and historical contexts of ritual, religion, and sacrifice.

So does Nitsch think he’s Jesus Christ or Andres Serrano? Probably neither, though I might argue for both.

Hermann Nitsch: 60. Painting Action // 60. Malaktion at Mike Weiss Gallery. February 15 – February 16, 2011.
Courtesy of Mike Weiss Gallery. Photo by Brooke Eastburn.


Rebecca Rothberg

California native Rebecca Rothberg graduated from Washington University in St. Louis where she received a B.A. in Art History. She worked in several museums and galleries specializing in modern and contemporary art including the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Beverly Hills, White Flag Projects in St. Louis, and The Israel Museum in Jerusalem. She has also worked with fashion photographers Ash Gupta and Guiliano Bekor. Rebecca currently resides in New York City. Contact her at rebeccarothberg@gmail.com.

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