Otto Muehl's complete works encompass more than six decades of his creativity, during which he produced an exceptionally diverse and complex oeuvre. Muehl was extremely productive, honing his radical work throughout every phase of his life and developing it further with a strong experimental force. Even his fifteen-year struggle with Parkinson's disease, which slowed his work down at best, never weakened it. Today, his works can be found in important collections around the world and his theoretical texts, manuscripts, diaries and sketchbooks, as well as a large proportion of his photographic oeuvre, have, in recent years, also found their way into the holdings of the Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (mumok), and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
Muehl's biography is both complex and scandalous. Not only the charges and convictions levied against him by the Austrian state authorities in reaction to his deeds in the 1960s (keyword ‘Uni-scandal’, 1968), but above all, his crimes committed within the commune1 are undoubtedly a challenge for recipients of his work. However, as has been the case with many similarly brilliant personalities of the art and art history worlds; de Sade, Oskar Wilde, Egon Schiele, Charlie Chaplin, Roman Polanski or his own ’spiritus rector’ Wilhelm Reich, Muehl's work must be made available to the public for viewing, discussion and evaluation independent of these actions. The concealment of his artistic achievement is nothing other than censorship and is incompatible with the democratic-liberal and enlightened European intellectual world, which is under ever increasing pressure today.2
Since the Museum for Applied Arts Vienna (MAK) (2004) retrospective, the Sammlung Friedrichshof exhibition is the first show to provide a more comprehensive insight into the artist's work. The presentation brings together some of the most important themes and groups of work of Muehl’s artistic creations. In addition to early works from the 1950s and important works from the period of Vienna Actionism in the 1960s, the exhibition focusses on works from the period between 1970 and the death of the artist. In addition, the book catalogue publishes a selection of diary entries, manifestos and theoretical considerations by the artist. In 2019, six years after his death, the Estate Otto Muehl was founded and with this catalogue, the work on a catalogue raisonné begins, providing a long-term, stable basis for expertise on his work.
The exhibition begins in chronological order compiling works from the 1950s, still showing an influence by Heimo Kuchling, an employee of Fritz Wotruba. Subsequently, some central works and manifestos from the Sammlung Friedrichshof holdings show the transition from Muehl's confrontation with informal sculpture and abstract expressionism to performance. Photographs and several short films made in collaboration with Muehl by the Austrian experimental filmmaker, Kurt Kren, convey the further development into an evocative artwork of the action, in which the human body becomes both the vehicle and the psycho-physical field of action. By taking this step, Otto Muehl became one of the co-founders of Vienna Actionism.
After the radical innovations of the 1960s, Muehl initiated a commune life model first in Vienna and then at the Friedrichshof, with the ideological cornerstones of collective property, the deconstruction of the family, free sexuality, the collective raising of children, the further development of the art form of action to ‘Aktionsanalyse’ [action analysis] and, as a result, the ‘Selbstdarstellung’ [self-representation ] of the individual in group-analysis exercises regularly carried out in the commune. For Muehl, this meant his exit from the increasingly prosperous art market and exhibition system, despite the initial attention he received after the conflicts of the 1960s and his participation in the exhibition Happening und Fluxus (1970) curated by Harald Szeemann and the Documenta 5 (1972). Instead, he concentrated on the further development of the commune, whose membership had risen to about 500 communards by 1980. It was not until the end of the 1980s, when Vienna Actionism began to be reappraised by museums, that he began to show renewed interest in communicating his work.3
Around 1970, the potentially iconoclastic approach in Muehl's work began to change (in the pictorial language of Vienna Actionism the painted image was replaced by collage and staged photography). It becomes increasingly clear that the buzzword he coined in the early 1960s of the ‘smashing of the panel painting’ was less opposed to the picture as such than against a visual culture concentrated on the static image. It was less a matter of fundamentally questioning the picture per se, and more about expanding the function of the painted picture as an activist instrument, reinventing it and testing its socio-political function. This becomes that much clearer when one considers that, parallel to the actions and films in the 1960s, Muehl also propounded his continuously evolving painterly work. Of particular note, are the series Persönlichkeiten (1967/68) and the series 12 Aktionen (1972/73), the development of which, as can be seen in a letter to Oswald Wiener, led to his once again enjoyment of painting.4 He therein names the fundamental position of painting created against the background of his life in the commune, which was liberated from the necessity of securing economic success, from the necessity of enforcing his art in the discourse of society as a whole. Later, after the end of the commune5 and, above all, after his imprisonment, Muehl, like every other artist, was dependent on defining himself in the area of tension between the system of art placement and its opinion-forming struggles. His position between the early 1970s and the end of the commune in 1990/91 in contrast, had been euphemistically portrayed as a process that had to do with attaining a maximum of joie de vivre and a positive attitude towards shaping one's life. Many of the works created in the 1980s must be examined in connection with the films produced in the commune at the time, addressing the role and fetishisation of the artist within a capitalist set of values, via focusing on personalities such as Van Gogh, Picasso, the artists of the Viennese Fin de Siècles and Andy Warhol.
Over the course of these years, however, Muehl also dealt with traditional themes such as outdoor painting (landscape painting), with which he depicted his residences in Burgenland and on Gomera, his ’studio of the south6.
A particularly large proportion of his painting at this time, was devoted to his renewed preoccupation with the theme of Materialabstraktion [material abstraction] and Strukturstudie [structural studies]. Under the changed conditions he looks back on the works of the early 1960s and varies the self-invented equation: ‘matter = colour’ he set up at that time. In the now emerging pictures, the then virulent colour negation (all colourfulness ends in the grey-brown of primordial mud) is replaced by a risky and playfully applied colourfulness. During this time, he finally defines himself as a poststructuralist who, in his concept of art, deals critically with structures, normative art-historical ideas and adapted aesthetic theories. Principles of order are methodically deconstructed and their conditions questioned and overturned. Muehl reinvents himself again and again in the sense of Foucault's ‘care of the self’ and remains perpetually in motion. It is upon this experimental principal that the strong formal variability in his work, his own broad palette of expression between figuration and abstraction, feeds.
During his imprisonment and then increasingly in the late exile of his studio in the Algarve, he produced sharp political-satirical images
in which he settles accounts with the bigotry and historical repression of Austrian society, which led to the millennial political shift to the right of the Schüssel/Haider government. In view of
the political events of the time, which still have consequences in Austrian and European politics today, Muehl insisted, as in the second half of the 1960s, on the necessity of an art that also
expressed itself politically. Both the satirical works created at the time and the images of the group of works shark as well as his digital experiments electric painting created somewhat later, show an artist who, in choosing his gestural-formal and contentual options, proceeds with the
sovereignty of all the aesthetic freedom that he himself fought for in the revolutions of the post-avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s.
1 In 1991 Otto Muehl was sentenced to seven years in prison for „criminal acts against morality“ and for „violation of the Narcotic Drugs Act“. The Sammlung Friedrichhof distances itself from this aspect of his personality and has set up a fund to support former commune members.
2 In 2007 the Republic of Austria was sentenced to pay compensation to Otto Muehl and the Vienna Secession for censorship of the work apocalypse. The tradition-steeped Union of Austrian Artists was forced to fight for the rehabilitation of the work before the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg after a preliminary injunction enforced by Jörg Haider’s FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) had been confirmed by all bodies of the Austrian jurisdiction. The sentence was probably the most serious act of censorship of the visual arts in the history of the second republic and was likely only perceived from a distance by the Austrian press and public, because of Muehl’s imprisonment.
3 The first retrospective museum exhibitions, with which, among other things, a provisional definition of Vienna Actionism was secured, took place in 1988/89 with the exhibition in the Albertina in Vienna (curated by Hubert Klocker) and in the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel (curated by Dieter Schwarz and Veit Löhrs). The first fundamental catalogue books on Vienna Actionism were published for both exhibitions.
4 See also: Letter from Muehl to Oswald Wiener, 1972, Vienna Actionism Archive, the mumok, Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien.
5 In the course of the 1980s, the group dynamics of the commune developed in an increasingly problematic direction and Muehl abused the trust placed in him with partially dramatic consequences. This led to his later criminal conviction and caused the disappointed members to dissolve their commune at the end of 1990.
6 These pictures were often created as part of an art lesson in which Muehl painted in the open countryside together with the commune children and other communards interested in painting.