Hermann Nitsch, a pioneer of Austrian Actionism with a flair for the macabre, has died at 83. Nitsch’s wife, Rita, told the Austria Press Agency that he died in the Austrian town of Mistelbach after battling a serious illness. An exhibition of the artist’s landmark body of work, 20th painting action, comprising a series of red paint-splattered canvases, opened this week on the Venetian island Giudecca during the 59th Venice Biennale.
In a statement, the Hermann Nitsch Foundation lamented that the artist “could no longer personally experience one of his great successes” in Venice. It is the first time the works have been gathered since their creation.
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“We deeply mourn the death of Hermann Nitsch. With him not only an actionist, painter, graphic artist and composer has passed away, but also a husband, father, friend, mentor and companion,” the Foundation said.
Exemplary of his renowned — and to some, reviled — practice, 20th painting action is a facsimile of liquid gore sprayed, squirted, and smeared from floor to ceiling of a sacral white installation. The presence of art, he said, should “evoke a sensorily intense arousal in the viewer,” not just a cerebral exchange.
Nitsch was born in n Vienna in 1938, the year the Nazi regime annexed Austria. “There were traumatic incidents that nurtured my expressive disposition, but I don’t feel like a damaged man,” he told Vice in 2010. “I feel more like a man raised around two horrible world wars. My parents and grandparents lived through the first, and then I lived through the second.”
As a young man, Nitsch helped cultivate an intense brand of Actionism, a loose movement that sought to emulate the violent, primal facet of humanity. At the height of the movement in the 1960s and 1970s, Niche and his peers, including Alfons Schilling and Wiener Aktionismus, staged disruptive, expressive performances across Vienna. Niche was particularly notorious for his mock-religious rituals that incorporated nudity, cacophonous sound, and the entrails of animals for “a total work of art”.
“[The public] found my work to be blasphemous, pornographic, and whatnot,” he said. “We had actually planned two sequential performances. A dead sheep was needed for mine, but the whole thing was broken off by the police after about 45 minutes,” he said, adding that both artists were sentenced to 14-days in prison. “Back then, I was kind of proud of that. My work agitated the people, and I saw myself in the same league as other great misunderstood artists.”
The sixty-year performance series, titled Orgien Mysterien Theater (Orgy Mystery Theater) remained a target of protests. In 2017, he staged 150. Action, a three-hour performance held at the Dark Mofo festival in Tasmania, in which a freshly slaughtered bull carcass was ripped apart while performers dressed in white bathed in the bull’s blood and flung it around the stage. In the days leading to the event, over 2,000 people signed a petition calling for the performance to be canceled. In 2015, Museo Jumex in Mexico City canceled a performance by Nitsch after facing public backlash and, later that same year, Italian activists protested Nitsch’s scheduled performance in Palermo.
Nitsch was largely unbothered by the criticism and this February he joined global enterprise Pace Gallery, and continued to be represented by the Nitsch Foundation and Galerie Kandlhofer in Vienna. In a statement at the time, Pace president and CEO Marc Glimcher praised Nitsch’s “hugely important contributions to the history of performance through his audacious, multifaceted, and transportive productions.”
Pace is set to stage his first solo exhibition in New York next year. This summer, his performance 6-Day-Play will be restaged at Austria’s Prinzendorf Castle, which Nitsch bought in 1971 and had used as a frequent backdrop for his practice, for the first time since 1998.
His work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Tate in London, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, among other institutions.