Galerie Guido W. Baudach Charlottenburg is pleased to present, for the first time in Berlin, an extensive solo exhibition of work by the Viennese actionist Rudolf Schwarzkogler (1940–1969).
Rudolf Schwarzkogler is what we tend to call an artists’ artist. Without ever having been the centre of art-world attention, his work enjoys the greatest possible international esteem – particularly among artists – largely due to his unique timeless brisance and his impressive formal precision.
Alongside Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch and Otto Muehl, Schwarzkogler was one of the main representatives of Viennese actionism, though he never produced a single exhibition in his short lifetime and only ever carried out one action in front of an audience, the first of eight in total. The actionists’ stated aim was to create comprehensive synaesthetic artistic experiences using everyday objects and the direct involvement of the human body. Through their provocative directness and shocking brutality, these experiences were supposed to jar with customary behavioural patterns and liberate the viewer or recipient from internal and external anxieties and constraints. Schwarzkogler himself spoke of ‘panoramas’ in this context: movable, modifiable ‘real objects’ which the ‘total act’ – i.e. the action – would make perceptible to all the senses.
In consistently white and virtually sterile spatial settings, Schwarzkogler’s actions seem to subject human actors, his so-called ‘action models’, to quite drastic treatment – from violent exposure and humiliation, to apparent electric-shock therapy and lobotomy, to symbolic blinding and castration. Besides fish (as a synonym for mankind), electric cables (as a synonym for transmission), and all sorts of medical equipment such as bandaging, knives, scissors, syringes, pharmaceutical bottles, cannulae and an enema syringe (as a synonym for disease and treatment), his other frequently recurring props were two abstract bodies: a white sphere and a rectangle of black glass, both referring to the artist’s close affinities with classical abstraction and what he saw as its fundamental ‘cathartic’ significance.
Schwarzkogler’s actions are orderly; what takes place is usually more static than dramatic. They thematize societal questions by way of association: gender relations, anomaly and repression, but always also the existential field of sickness, injury, and healing. After his first action in February 1965 Schwarzkogler, unlike the other actionists, concentrated exclusively on so-called photo-actions, i.e., actions whose structures and plots were specifically planned for photographic documentation. Like the other actionists, Schwarzkogler had his photographs taken by studio photographers; originally they were supposed to have been nothing more than a mediator between action and recipient. Thus photography became the actual medium of his work, a circumstance that has left us with a handful of serial actionist photography that is quite unique in style, highly complex both in terms of motifs and composition, and incredibly powerful in terms of its presence and visual expression. Between the late summer of 1965 and the spring of 1966 these works earned Schwarzkogler his fully independent position among the Viennese actionists.
At the same time though, Schwarzkogler also realised that the purely photographic reproduction of his actions had begun to contradict his fundamental demand for an all-encompassing stimulation of the senses, so he gave up the photo-actions with the same logic that had led to their discovery and had produced such masterful artistic results in the first place. Having spent some time dealing mainly with theoretical questions during a period of crisis in 1966/67, Schwarzkogler eventually found a new medium in the conceptual drawing. As a result, he started to draw up his so-called ‘instructions for experiments’, in which human figures were arranged in relation to various objects in order to create intense sensual experiences; then his ‘environments’, which consisted of physically accessible situations that were intended as experiential obstacle courses for the senses; and his so-called ‘operating procedures’, purely text-based drawings that suggest to the recipient certain seemingly ritualistic forms and processes such as ingestion or personal hygiene.
Though Schwarzkogler certainly intended the actual realization of his diverse designs, none of them ever got beyond the status of concept sketches. Nevertheless, his late drawings – some of which recall early conceptual art, some concrete poetry – are unthinkable without the prior actions, especially when we consider the formal convergences and the themes they address. In particular, the complex of illness, injury, and healing comes up throughout and actually has to be understood as the principal motif of the libertarian, emancipatory intention behind Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s art.
At the centre of this exhibition are a number of photographs from the six most important actions that Schwarzkogler carried out between February 1965 and the spring of 1966. The action photographs exhibited here are rare original gelatin-silver prints and contact sheets from the 1960s and 1970s. These are based on photographs taken by the studio photographers whom Schwarzkogler commissioned to record the various actions, namely Ludwig Hoffenreich (actions 1, 2, 3, and 5), Kerstin Cibulka (action 4), and Michael Epp (action 6). These action photographs are accompanied by a film that was long thought lost: Schwarzkogler’s 4th action, shot on 8 mm film by Günter Brus at the end of 1965. Having been transferred to DVD it is being screened publicly for the first time in this exhibition. In addition, as a form of reference material to Schwarzkogler’s late, ‘post-actionist’ work, there is a selection of printed works, colour silk-screens and black and white facsimiles of theoretical and conceptual drawings taken from a complete 1977 folio edition of Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s work.
We are particularly grateful to Dr. Ursula Krinzinger, who has administered the Rudolf Schwarzkogler estate at her gallery since 1975 and without whose generous loans and competent support the realization of this exhibition would hardly have been possible.