This article contains graphic images that may be disturbing to some readers.
For most, the idea of leaving behind a legacy of blood invokes the less-than desirous wakes of deviants and dictators alike. For nearly 60 years, Hermann Nitsch has made it his artform, and amid the televised bloodbaths marking the better part of the 21st century, his work has never been more important.
At a special critics panel in celebration of Nitsch's new opening at the Lower East Side Marc Straus Gallery, the crowd of about 50 spoke in the same hushed tones reserved for the antechambers of churches. We were, after all, surrounded by sacred objects: canvases covered in blood-red oil paint and dried animal blood (purchased from slaughterhouses—Nitsch does not kill the animals used in his work, as opponents of his work may suggest), wall-sized records of sacrifice, sex, and the cosmic intensity Nitsch imbues into every work.
In the 50s, Nitsch, a trained graphic painter, began work on what would become his Orgien Mysterien Theater, an ongoing series of Dionysian performance art spectacles best described simply by the word which now defines this type of practice: action. Nitsch, alongside droves of devoted performers, stages days-long rituals. Set to music he composes—soaring symphonies resonating with the size and scope of Wagner—these Aktionen, as he calls them, are at once orchestras, orgies, crucifixions, and feasts. At the center of it all, bedecked in the plain white painting smocks that often make their ways onto the canvases that serve as floors and walls during these spectacles, Nitsch acts as judge, jury, and ringleader, an oracle, in the most Greek sense, for the intensity of our modern condition.
"There's no difference between the 20th century and the 21st," Nitsch tells me through his thick Viennese accent. "For me, it's the same." An early comer to the press preview, I have been granted a rare sit-down with the artist. We discuss the role his work plays in a world where butchery tours and beheadings are a mouse-click away. "It's not the work of artists," he assures me. "It's of stupid politics.
Even if the intensity, the aura, feels the same? "That's a very interesting, very difficult-to-answer question. What is intensity?" He asks himself. "Intensity is not a war. Intensity is not a killing. Intensity is a painting by Cézanne. That's intensity. A performance with blood and meat. That is intensity."
Looking around at walls adorned with Schüttbilds, Nitsch's word for the works that contain the records of his actions (schüttbild roughly translates to "bulk image"), I understand what he means by intensity, and what he means later when he differentiates the word "aggressive" from "intensive"—this is not art that is meant to be understood in a classical sense, but rather, touched, tasted, heard, smelled, experienced. With the cheerful devotion one might expect from a Sunday school teacher, Nitsch's wife Rita details performances of the Orgien Mysterien Theater that have lasted up to six days and six nights at Prinzendorf Castle, their home, where Nitsch holds the majority of his actions. She no longer attends the spectacles, but facilitates in the coordination and execution of each one. As Nitsch shows me through his new book, the mega-tome Hermann Nitsch – The Gesamtkunstwerk of the Orgien Mysterien Theater, a 968-page compendium detailing decades of blood, guts, and crucifixions, that took the artist three years to make, she snaps a photo of us and sends it off to her friends. "You look like young Bob Dylan," she says. "I told my friends, 'Hermann is being interviewed by Bob Dylan.'"
I'm not sure if I should laugh or cry—it's almost too much. Then again, maybe that's the point: amid the opus of carnage that is the all-consuming art of Hermann Nitsch, the blood-drinking, the entrail-adorned genitals, the live sex, raw and animalistic, is a pure and unfiltered devotion to celebrating life in nothing less than all of its agony and ecstacy. Birth, death, orgasm, sacrifice, love, lust, purity of feeling; intensity. To borrow the term, his is not the work of the "lukewarm artists" he sees the world crawling with.
There's a reason why there are already three whole museums strictly devoted to the work of Hermann Nitsch. In short, in the total art of one 77-year-old Austrian transgressor, is the compounded feeling of everything at once. Being, in and of itself: action.
The work of Hermann Nitsch will be on display at Marc Straus Gallery through October 18, 2015. Click here for more info.