Yesterday at noon, Hermann Nitsch was holding court from a black folding chair set up at Mike Weiss Gallery, drinking a berry smoothie that matched the paint caking his gloved hands. The former Viennese Actionist became notorious in the early ’60s for his performances and “spill paintings” that incorporated blood, pigment, slaughtered animals, music and dancing. In 1989, Nitsch switched from monochromatic blood to paint, allowing him to experiment with the effects of light and color. Now, the 72-year-old Austrian was taking a break during his first live painting action in the U.S.
Through 6 PM today, Nitsch and a team of seven barefoot, white-robed assistants remain holed up in the gallery, where they are creating brightly colored pour paintings as visitors wander in and out and gallery staff frantically replenish the paint supply. After the two-day spree, the finished canvases will be on view in the gallery from Feb. 19 to Mar. 19, along with the team’s paint-splattered shirts and gowns stretched over tables and wooden crucifixes.
When I arrived at the gallery, Nitsch and his assistants had been at work for just two hours. Already the walls of the back room were hung with 16 vibrantly colored canvases-in-progress, and white paper lining the floor was covered with the after-effects of the performance. It’s hard to imagine what the gallery might look like at the end of the second day.
Soon enough, the assistants started to arrange six fresh canvases on the floor of the gallery’s middle room. They prepared buckets of paint in a dozen colors, from Yves Klein blue to gray to fuchsia to neon green and orange. For the time being, Nitsch, a stout man with a bald head and a Santa Claus beard, remained in his chair, quietly directing traffic. Later on, he would slowly rise, shuffle over to the canvases and intermittently participate.
At Nitsch’s command, the assistants scooped paint from the buckets with small plastic pitchers, passing them to an older Italian man named Zevola, who has worked with the artist for 20 years (the others are local art students or recent graduates hired by his dealer, Mike Weiss). In a combination of English and Italian, Nitsch indicated which color to use, and where to splash it. The young assistants waited patiently for his instruction, seeming unsure of themselves during the first few hours of the performance. As instructed, Zevola, hiking up his white robe, leaned forward over the canvas and vigorously emptied his pitcher across the surface. Paint splashed onto the floor, spattering Nitsch’s black shoes.
After about 10 minutes, a new delivery of paint arrived, interrupting the action. I had a few minutes to talk with Nitsch, during which he directed the assistants to walk single file around and down the middle of the grid of canvases, smearing the paint with their feet. He compared his performance-paintings to Monet’s haystacks or Gregorian chants in the way each relies on obsessive repetition.
“He is building a church,” Weiss explained before the performance resumed. “He really wants to shock you into sublime inspiration, to create catharsis, an emotional release.” During our conversation, Nitsch kept one eye on the assistants somberly traipsing back and forth in front of him. “Go quicker, you look like a funeral!” he instructed. He looked around and said softly, “This is a kind of ritual. I like rituals.” Then Nitsch stood up and began to sweep his new paintings with a broom. Soon they were moved to the back room, and fresh canvases laid out, ready for the next assault.
Hermann Nitsch’s show “Bloodlines” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver through May 29, 2011.