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Otto Muehl
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Wikipedia About Otto Muehl

Otto Muehl is an Austrian artist, who is best known as one of the co-founders as well as a main participant of Viennese Actionism. In 1972 he founded the Friedrichshof Commune that existed for several years before falling apart in the 1990s. In 1991, Muehl was convicted of sexual crimes involving adolescents, and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment. He was released in 1997, after serving six and a half years, and set up a smaller commune in Portugal. After his release, he also published his memoirs from the prison (Aus dem Gefängnis). In 1943, Muehl had to serve in the German Wehrmacht. There he registered for officer training. He was promoted to lieutenant and in 1944 he took part on infantry battles in the course of the Ardennes Offensive. After the war, he studied teaching German and History, and Pedagogy of Art at the Wiener Akademie der bildenden Künste. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Otto Muehl, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Of the artists linked to Viennese Actionism, Otto Muehl may have been more closely aligned to the earlier Dada movement because of his subversive sense of aesthetic irreverence. A traditional figurative painter in the 1950s, Muehl radicalized his practice after meeting artist Günther Brus and becoming aware of the work of Jackson Pollock. Convinced that the accepted format of the picture could not remain intact, in 1961 Muehl proceeded to attack the surface of his paintings by ripping open the canvases, destroying the frames, setting them on fire, or working with the canvas on the floor, painting directly with his hands and literally “crawling” in paint. Simultaneously, he started to pour his pigments, adding cement as a thickening agent and pushing the pictorial space toward a relieflike, sculptural space. By removing the picture from the wall, Muehl developed painting in an “expanded field,”1 one in which the materials become both the object and the subject of the work and in which the creative process assumes a continuing tension between construction and destruction: “In our painting we recognize materials as the real object of our works. It’s a question of presenting material, matter itself. For us manufactured paint exists no more, we reject it as something aesthetic and degenerate. Our guiding principle is: matter = paint.”2

Also in 1961, Muehl created the installation titled Die Überwindung des Tafelbildes durch die Darstellung seines Vernichtungsprozesses (The Overcoming of the Easel Picture by Representation of Its Destruction Process) in his Vienna apartment. The work represented his most radical move toward “junk sculptures,” room-size works undoubtedly indebted to the process-oriented Merzbau by Dada artist Kurt Schwitters. The 1963 Untitled painting in the Walker Art Center’s collection is an accurate (and rare) example of this moment in Muehl’s career, and in the history of twentieth-century painting, when the urge to identify an alternative to dominant or academic aesthetic models pressed artists to stretch their medium to its ultimate limits. Within a very different cultural context, Muehl’s practice can be seen as parallel to the “action collages” that Allan Kaprow was developing in the late 1950s in the United States.

If action collages led Kaprow to Happenings, then this liberation of painting into spatial installation was the departure point for Muehl’s Material Actions. In the fall of 1963, Muehl organized his first action, Degradation of a Venus, which he described as: “Material action is painting gone beyond the picture surface: the human body [ … ] becomes the picture surface, time being added to the dimension of the body, of space.”3 Highly hedonistic and influenced by the writings of the Marquis de Sade and Antonin Artaud, Muehl’s actions avoided the religious-liturgical flavor of those by his fellow Actionist Hermann Nitsch. Breaking every taboo, they evolved over time from wild orgies of material challenging the conventions of representation in painting and sculpture to a collective analytical, if not therapeutic, process challenging sexual, social, and political repression. The ultimate goal of the actions was to escape society and invent an alternative way of life. In 1972, as a logical extension of the ideas at play in his work, Muehl founded a commune in which free sexuality, collective property, mutual child rearing, and promotion of creativity ruled. The experience was interrupted in 1991, when a lawsuit resulted in a seven-year jail sentence for Muehl, who had assumed the agenda of Viennese Actionism to such an extreme that he crossed the boundary delineating society’s ability to support a merging of art and life that implied a radical revolution in morals and politics.

  1. The term was first used by art historian Rosalind E. Krauss to describe the expansion of possible processes, sites, materials, and functions in sculptural practice after the 1960s. See “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” in Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Myths (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1986), 276–290.

  2. Otto Muehl, letter to artist Erika Stocker, January 14, 1962, quoted in Viennese Aktionism, Vienna 1960–1971: The Shattered Mirror, ed., Hubert Klocker, trans. Dr. Alfred M. Fischer (Klagenfurt, Austria: Ritter Verlag, 1989), 188.

  3. Quoted in Otto Muehl—Ausgewählte Arbeiten 1963–1986, exh. cat.(Friedrichshof, Austria: Archiv des Weiner Aktionismus, 1986), cited in Viennese Aktionism, 189.

Vergne, Philippe. “Otto Muehl.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center