Along with Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus, and Otto Muehl, Rudolf Schwarzkogler was a prominent member of the Viennese Actionism movement. Officially founded in July 1964, it placed the body at the center of the artwork both for its empirical potential for cognition and its power to confront and oppose the taboos of the conservative postwar, post-Fascist Austrian society.
Schwarzkogler might have been the most conceptually oriented member of the Vienna Actionists. His abstract monochromatic paintings from the early 1960s already reflect a theoretical rigor that linked him to such artists as Piero Manzoni and Yves Klein, while his interest in the body is demonstrated by works like Untitled “Tableau-Sigmund-Freud” (circa 1965), a white monochrome whose surface is interrupted by a razor blade.
Schwarzkogler conceived and realized only six performances (or “actions”), all taking place between 1965 and 1966. He considered the actions an extension of his paintings, or a differently developed form of painting, and described them in his manifesto PANORAMA I (1965) as “painting in motion.” He explained that “the construction of the image on a surface has been superseded by the construction of conditions of the act of painting.”1 He differentiated himself from the violently expressive public actions of the other members of the movement by avoiding any kind of confrontation with an audience. With the exception of the very first action, to which some of his intimate friends were invited, all of his actions were staged expressly, and solely, for a photographer. They were all characterized by an absolute control of content and a radical, austere, and clinical aesthetic. During the actions, which were staged in a white, diaphanous environment, Schwarzkogler or an actor would be either naked or wrapped in medical bandages and surrounded by objects that included scissors, razor blades, test tubes, electrical wires, lightbulbs, and eviscerated fishes.
His first two actions were conceived as an attack on religious rituals—namely, the institution of marriage and the Catholic mass—in which the artist stands as the celebrant. The four other actions choreographed a secular, suffering, mutilated body. Schwarzkogler’s highly disturbing experimentations all led to a reflection on the vulnerability of the human being in the face of alienating forces such as the state, the church, and the challenges of everyday life. His philosophy was one of liberation through a spiritual and corporeal asceticism.
After his final action in 1966, Schwarzkogler focused exclusively on a series of conceptual drawings and the writing of manifestos. He died in 1969, after falling from the window of his apartment. None of his works was ever publicly exhibited during his lifetime. The portfolio Actions, Vienna 1965/66 (1975–1982) documents the incredibly short career of an artist who understood early on the potential of photography as an autonomous medium, and whose work has been influential for subsequent generations of artists, including Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, and Matthew Barney.
Schwarzkogler’s manifesto was published in Le Marias, Special Edition (Vienna: Günter Brus, 1965), quoted in Viennese Aktionism, Vienna 1960–1971: The Shattered Mirror, ed. Hubert Klocker, trans. Dr. Alfred M. Fischer (Klagenfurt, Austria: Ritter Verlag, 1989), 352. ↩