Hermann Nitsch at MCA Denver

by Sarah Vaeth, May 2011

The paintings in Bloodlines are what remains, “relics” or “relicts” of Nitsch’s aktionen. In these Schüttbilder (poured paintings), always the act of painting is foregrounded.

The actions performed in Nitsch’s Orgien Mysterien Theater are abreaction events, used as a psychological tool for liberating repressed drives in himself and the many participants in his plays. The action is sensually indulgent and gory with imitated violence: paint, blood and offal are poured and splattered over participants and the canvas. Central acts include a mock crucifixion and the tearing-apart of a slaughtered animal representing Dionysus: both are death-and-rebirth motifs, but Nitsch maintains that, underlying both is a primitive human urge to abreaction, to release censored sadomasochistic drives. Humans need to exercise these violent impulses in a sanctioned space because they are the source of creative vitality, without which art is stilted and spiritual love is inhibited. Although the play is staged, Nitsch calls it a “real event”: an actual psychoanalytic cure is presumed.

In the aftermath, in the museum, how do the paintings function? Indexically? Nitsch has used the words “relict” and “seismographic” to refer to these paintings, meaning they are evidence, after-the-fact, pointing to real events. However, as indices, they are overcompensatory: carrying real traces of the ritual action, but also carrying additive material supplied to “finish” the piece. This is acknowledged in Überarbeitetes Schüttbild (2007), in which collaged materials—pieces of vestment, bandages, a Man of Sorrows—are applied over the action painting. A more typical Schüttbild from 1998 featuresfootprints, bare and sneaker-shod, tracked in dried blood and red paint. Blotchy pools of paint are dried to an enamel-like slick. These, as well as drips and spatters and solid clots, are resolutely formless—pure trace—but under these is a grid (or repeated cruciform) in the same red paint. Overpainted but not smeared: perhaps serving as a bounding of sacred space, this is an assertion of form at the work’s inception.

Arguably, the least premeditated Schüttbilder accrue under strategic conditions. The pours and splashes hit the canvas spontaneously, but the surface is positioned carefully to receive these marks (e.g., in Nitsch’s February action at Mike Weiss Gallery). Nitsch calls paint “substance” and chooses the color for associations with substances, but he’s also concerned with effect: even the choice of one red hue over another is “motivated by considerations of color harmony.”

Schüttbild mit Hemd (1990), reflects the increased emphasis on harmony in his later (expanded) palette.  Red paint is pasted thickly on a mounted outstretched shirt: macabrely evoking the flayed sternum and lungs of a crucified figure. A three-hued green is poured in a liquid veil from the top, then worked in swirls of thick paste. There is something life-embracing in all this verdure. The juxtaposition can be understood as death and rebirth, color harmony identified with spiritual harmony. The rich hand-working of the impasto denotes a joy in creation, in bringing something new into the world. This investment in the painting as object contradicts its status as relict, more so because of the derogatory way Nitsch uses the word elsewhere. Referring to the stage, to language and to symbols generally, Nitsch calls the relict a “memory” and a “barrier for sensual intense experience” (Hermann Nitsch, et. al., Museum Herman Nitsch, 2007).

If the painting is a relict, it is surely something more as well. This exhibit contextualizes the paintings as relics. Here they are accompanied by satin vestments arrayed on biers. Somber music is audible in the entry to the exhibit: not the ecstatic noise of the play, this score suggests contemplation, reverence. The framing is misleading in respect to the work’s origins—too sanitized, precious and monotheist, but, taken another way, it points to a destination. Frenzied Dionysian reunites with cool-headed Apollonian: reintegration, the goal of the abreaction cure. The cure perhaps constitutes a rationalization of the double-status of the painting, otherwise a nagging inconsistency: evidence or form? Through reintegration, the way is cleared to consciously work the painting, certain of the psychological and spiritual soundness of the endeavor. The painting retains its analogy to a miraculous, spontaneously-conceived object, and we make pilgrimage to the museum to catch a whiff of the sacred.

Bloodlines: Paintings by Hermann Nitsch
4 February—29 May 2011
Museum of Contemporary Art
1285 Delgany Street, Denver