Mit Schlag: Post War Abstraction in Vienna
If Vasari were to update his “Lives of the Artists” for the 20th Century, Marta Jungwirth and Günter Brus would serve well as the Janus faces of painterly abstraction in Vienna in the period 1945-2000. Both Jungwirth and Brus, born in 1940 and 1938, respectively, have some basic similarities. For all intents and purposes they missed the ravages of World War II and spent their formative years in Vienna. And, if we assess their actual paintings, both fall neatly into the parameters of an open and gestural abstract expressionism. It’s amazing how many paths can lead to a similar result, some of which can include a spell in prison for publicly masturbating while singing the Austrian national anthem while covered in feces (Brus). The exhibition “Unrest After the Storm,” at the Belvedere 21 (February 2 to August 12), is revelatory in its illustration of Brus’s brave, political, and rebellious practice up to the point where he brings brush to canvas, offering exhaustive but never dull documentation of his actions in the form of hundreds of sequential photographs and the brilliant films of Kurt Kren. The Jungwirth retrospective at the Albertina (March 2 to June 3), a relatively staid affair in keeping with this bourgeois painter’s life, presents for the first time a much-needed visual history of this artist’s work. Her politics were subtler, questioning gender in terms of subject matter and medium.
Jungwirth, on display at the oppressively aristocratic Albertina, weaves in and out of representational and abstract imagery, finding herself most comfortable on the cusp of recognizeability as in the series “Spittelauer Lände,” based on the topography of Vienna. While almost pure abstraction, they have a barely discernible, almost secret visual model. Over the past 40 years Jungwirth shows a remarkable consistency of gesture, and while her aesthetic is that of brief markings, short slashes, and almost text-like gestures, reminiscent of Cy Twombly and early Philip Guston, her primary abstract concern is the density of her marks. This seems related both to her devotion to paper as a substrate (with gouache and oil), a medium that responds keenly by crinkling and undulating under whatever color media is applied, and her fixation on real world subjects: portraits, objects, and locations. Her pencil on trace paper dissection of the contours of a washing machine, Indesit (1975), is an ironic, but very serious, diagrammatic consideration of a “female subject.” These graphite edges, curves and stray marks have the same purposeful execution as her brush strokes in her later massive works on paper such as Here and Now and Never Again III (1982-83). These strokes, marks and blots gain heft and body in her work, often becoming fraught throbbing maelstroms of color. An untitled work from 2014, from the series Female Regents of the Old Men’s Almhouse, Frans Hals 1664, focuses this energy onto an arresting reinterpretation of Hals’s witty group portrait, forcing, or allowing, the old master’s five proper ladies to stand up and jostle, or even dance.
Brus’s paintings only comprise one sixth of the entire retrospective at Belvedere 21. This contemporary art museum, housed in a glass and steel pavilion designed in 1958 by Karl Schwanzer, stands in stark contrast to the patrician surroundings of Jungwirth’s exhibition. Brus’s career in performance is bookended between the early paintings and the later graphic works called Bild-dichtungen. These latter are extensive and colorful text-and-image works incorporating poetry and found verbiage (handwritten or printed) and illustrated by doodles and diagrams as well as meticulously rendered drawings. Dating from 1960, when Brus first came into contact with American Abstract Expressionism via the artist Joan Merritt, the three large, strong, black and white untitled abstractions from 1960, 1961 and 1963, respectively, seek to contain the artist’s frenetic energy. Like Jungwirth, Brus worked on the floor and on paper. Unlike his Viennese contemporary, however, he chose to deal only in absolutes color-wise, and this choice continues into his performance period as well. In the films “Ana” (1964), “Aktion Brus” (1965), and “Wiener Spaziergang” (1965), white paint expands from the proscribed painting surfaces to cover the artist and the space and individuals he lived with, also mimicked by his penchant for rejecting social mores. These films and their attendant photo-documentation are still inspiring now, and one of Brus’s great contributions is the diversity and spectrum of material he has manufactured over his lifetime, redefining the parameters of what is art.
For Brus, there is a notable retreat into a largely graphic and illustrative practice that may have been a necessary de-escalation after burning out from his intense performances of the ‘60s. The Bild-dichtungen seem a bit lost; derivative of Ensor, Schinckel, popular advertising, and a combination of Freudian and Jungian psycho-analytic imagery. Conversely, Jungwirth’s most recent works are as fresh as anything she has ever created. Standing between these veterans of the fertile painting scene of post-war Vienna, Brus appears to accept painting, and indeed any static medium as a necessary evil, while Jungwirth has instead blended herself entirely into the picture.