ad the Beginning

Since the 1980s, Galerie Elisabeth & Klaus Thoman has been presenting, in carefully prepared solo exhibitions, overviews of the work of some of the most important Austrian artists after 1945 with special attention to abstraction, Actionism and the change from sculpture to object. Over the years, many solo exhibitions with corresponding publications have been developed in close collaboration with the artists.

  • Hans Bischoffshausen Bilder 1951-1982 (Kat.)
  • Bruno Gironcoli 1961/62 – 1990 (Kat.)
  • Hermann Nitsch 1998, Sammlung Morra (1962-1997) (Kat.)
  • Oswald Oberhuber Werke 1949 – 1999 (Kat.)
  • Walter Pichler Bilder (1986 Kat.)
  • Markus Prachensky Werke 1953 – 1993 (Kat.)
  • Karl Prantl Steine (1995 Kat.)
  • Arnulf Rainer Frühe Werke 1949 – 1959 (Kat.)
  • Hans Staudacher Werke 1952 – 1992 (Kat.)
  • Max Weiler Hommage an Max WeilerWerke aus Privatbesitz 1935-1995 (Kat.)
  • Franz West Die Aluskulptur (2000 Kat.)

With the kind permission of the Albertina Museum text excerpts from the exhibition:


Art in Austria

1945 to 1980

27. 5. to 8. 11. 2020

Albertina modern



In 13 chapters with almost 400 artworks by more than 70 artists, The Beginning presents the canon of Austrian art after the Second World War.


The opening exhibition of ALBERTINA modern is dedicated to the renewal of Austrian art after 1945, whose grounds and driving belt are to be found in the reappraisal of the corporate state (Ständestaat), the dictatorship of National Socialism, and the horrors of the Second World War. The radical rebellion against an ideal of art that was still contaminated by Nazi ideology for a long time spanned more than three decades in Vienna, where all of Austria’s artistic movements intersected. The innovators’ anti-fascist consensus, however, did not level out the deep rifts between the various groups in postwar Austria. Its avant-garde of the zero hour existed only in the plural: as avant-gardes.

The artists of this historical period have in common their radical opposition to authority and hierarchy, their critical stance towards the denial and repression of guilt for past misdeeds, and the uncompromising rejection of a reactionary notion of art that continued to represent the dominant ideal in Austria long after 1945.


The international networking of postwar artists has been underestimated so far, as hasthe role of women artists, who, like Rainer, Hundertwasser, or Franz West, equally led the Austrian art scene from the scene of destruction to international significance. […] But it was only with Gironcoli and Walter Pichler that the expanded concept of sculpture gained international recognition. Their objects reify an existential understanding of the torn human being. […]



Abstraction in Austria

After the war, Austria catapulted itself intothe middle of the international avant-gardes’ ongoing artistic discussions with a fireworks of the most diverse and completely new abstract positions. Whether the innovators arrived at abstraction through the human figure […] through nature like the painters Wolfgang Hollegha and Max Weiler, through a stringent reduction of their pictorial language like Arnulf Rainer, or through the dominance of their individual gestural handwriting like Markus Prachensky and Hans Staudacher.

All their works pursued entirely untrodden paths and broke with traditions and familiar contents, above all with the trauma of the idealistic-heroic aesthetic of National Socialism. […]

Two venues in Vienna established themselves as centers of abstraction and the international avant-garde: Galerie Würthle under the direction of Fritz Wotruba and Galerie St. Stephan founded by the cathedral priest Monsignor Otto Mauer in 1954. Exhibiting abstract as well as concrete and constructivist art, Galerie St. Stephan became the most important hub of contemporary international art. Soon, the four abstract painters Hollegha, Prachensky, Mikl, and Rainer, who also determined the gallery’s exhibition program, were called the “Group of St. Stephen.” For a long time, abstraction in Austria was primarily associated with only these four of its exponents.


Vienna Actionism

Viennese Actionism is one of the most radical and significant artistic expressions of twentieth-century Austrian art. From about 1960, its protagonists Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, as well as other artists, extended the traditional boundaries of painting and sculpture, transferred painting to the body, and, from 1962 to 1970, used the body in actions that transgressed boundaries in every respect—in terms of content, material, and aesthetics. […]

Vienna Actionism not only crossed artistic divides but also defied social conventions, boundaries of shame, pain, and disgust, and violated taboos—knowing that, within a stagnating society, relevant art can only become possible through direct confrontation and provocation and not by adhering to a traditional aesthetic or retreating into abstract or informal art. The use of garbage and blood, punishment rituals and (self-)injury scenarios—symbols of suffering from society—provoke immediate reactions on the part of the viewers. Making the suppressed and hardly bearable perceptible elicits different ways of thinking and feeling. […]


From Sculpture to Object

Austrian sculpture underwent a profound change in the period from 1945 until the emergence of the “Neue Wilde” (The New Wild Ones) group of artists toward the end of the 1970s. This transformation entailed liberation from local and traditional notions of form, subject, and material and was accompanied by a general change of the understanding of sculptural design, both formally and in terms of content. […] New materials—from synthetic substances to “soft” textiles—conquer the scene. Sculptural creation in the broader sense from installations to sound sculptures and social sculptures began to attract increasing interest from the 1960s on.


Bruno Gironcoli and Walter Pichler, who both came to sculpture from other professions, expanded this traditional art genre even further. Technique, dynamics, interactivity, color, and a newly honored penchant for the archaic and fetishistic characterize this phase. Sculpture turns object, which, as environment, may offer walk-in experiences, and thus, in this new understanding, takes on a leading role among the art genres for some time.

The more comprehensive understanding of sculpture transcending the boundaries of individual disciplines and using public space as a stage just as naturally as museums and galleries also defines the path that sculpture took in the 1960s and 1970s internationally. Sculpture became the decisive field of art in the process.



Sickbays of the Later-Born

Bruno Gironcoli and Walter Pichler, who found their way to sculpture through metal jewelry and graphics respectively, decisively expanded the former understanding of the genre, which had already changed from stone to metal, polyester, and other plastics as well as textiles and soft materials in the Wotruba School. This far-reaching transformation also freed the contents from traditional ideas of classical modernism. Technique, dynamics, interactivity with the viewer, color, and a new archaic and fetishistic tenor characterize the sculpture changing into an object. With the understanding of sculpture as part of an expanded concept of art transcending national and genre boundaries, public space is used as much as a stage as are museums and galleries. This was the path taken that made object art the defining art discipline of the 1970s on an international level. Sculptural drawings are important companions, since they, as concepts or designs for larger installations, unfold an aesthetic value of their own. The reappraisal of National Socialism in the works of Pichler and Gironcoli constitutes one of Austria’s most significant contributions in this field. Like the environments, their individual figures and objects include the use of forbidden symbols such as the swastika to make their intentions understood. Following the designs for the installation Columns with Skulls for the São Paulo Biennial in 1971, Gironcoli devoted himself to a composition entitled Gas for later variations of the subject in 1974. Formed of rings and reminiscent of Egyptian mummies, the figures in it are furnished with skulls and a central swastika emblem.


Arnulf Rainer (*1929)

Arnulf Rainer’s works illustrate the artist’s fundamental dialectical attitude: they unfold a dialogue about painterly qualities and graphic line structures, about the relationship between surface and space, color and reduced black-and-white, fullness and emptiness, rest and movement, stillness and excitement, abstraction and figuration. From his early richly detailed surrealist drawings and his involvement in Art Informel to his “Centralizations,” his engagement with Art Brut, and his reworked photographs, his production reveals the ambiguity and enigmatic nature he strives for. Emotion and contemplation oscillate, as do loud gestures and the retreat into silence.

The color black has become the program defining Arnulf Rainer’s work. Black is predestined to set strong accents on a light background and to have an effect through its symbolism. By restricting himself to black, which is considered the zero point of all colorfulness, Rainer defines what is important to him in his art: its expressive potential. For Rainer, black signals reduction, concentration, and gestural expression. In his uncompromising search for rigorous means of expression, Arnulf Rainer has developed radically new artistic methods from the very beginning. Since the 1960s, Rainer, along with Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Maria Lassnig, Bruce Nauman, and Yves Klein, has ranked among those influential contemporary artists in the international arena who are loners and cannot be categorized as belonging to a movement such as Pop Art, Minimal Art, or Concept Art.


Arnulf Rainer, „Face Farces“

Soon after discovering self-portraiture, Arnulf Rainer presented his face painted with bold black lines to the public in 1967. In 1968 and 1969, he captured grimaces and other non-sanctioned facial expressions in pictures taken in photo booths. The title Rainer chose for these “soliloquies in front of the camera” was “Face Farces.” The pictures were soon not only shot in booths but also by the professional photographer Alexander Prinzjakowitsch. Driven by the artist’s need to externalize certain sensations or inner tensions, Rainer’s performative utterances led to pictures that both stand for themselves and, following an examination of their contents, became the starting point for new pictures.

“When I draw, I am very excited, talk to myself, am full of anger and wrath. I hate the world, insult many people, am full of discontent with myself. Critical, hostile against everything, I succeed in correcting or painting things over. Only now do I dare to destroy something, because better things arise from it. Indistinct ideas fill me, differentiate and concretize only while I draw and merge into new ones.” (Arnulf Rainer)

Even though Rainer’s pictures, like those of the Vienna Actionists, are characterized by the fact that the dynamic movement of the body intervenesin the act of painting in a formative way, conquering (pictorial) space, Rainer is concerned with reworking the photograph and not with action. Arnulf Rainer does not regard himself as an Actionist either, and thus his “Face Farces,” in spite of all materiality and all action on the pictorial surface, do not push beyond the margins of the picture, do not question the tradition of the panel painting. Although only a few years older, Rainer became a father figure for the Vienna Actionists, mainly because of his early overpaintings—a model “that had to be overcome to clear the way for one’s own work” (Günter Brus).The notion that man is under psychological pressure and at the mercy of horrendous compulsions also made Günter Brus, in his actions, adopt postures that expose the body in convulsive distortions as if it had received electric shocks. The Actionists confronted Rainer with a body that suffers pain, is injured, and stands as symbol of an individual whose soul is subjected to inhuman conditions.


Franz West 1947-2012

Franz West is one of the most famous Austrian artists of today’s international contemporary scene and an inspiration for many. His beginnings lie in the 1960s when he came to be interested in Vienna’s coffee house and literary scene, especially in Konrad Bayer, the Vienna Group, and Oswald Wiener. Key figures for West’s development were his older half-brother Otto Kobalek, a poet and artist associated with Helmut Qualtinger, and Fred Jellinek, who at the time worked at a gallery, which specialized in the works of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism. West began to work autodidactically and devoted himself intensively to the achievements of Ernst Fuchs and Fantastic Realism. His first exhibition was shown in the Galerie nächst St. Stephan in 1977. In the same year he joined the class of Bruno Gironcoli at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. He remained at the Academy until 1982.

In the 1960s Franz West experienced Viennese Actionism at first hand. He met the writer and essayist Reinhard Priessnitz, an insider of the Actionist scene, who familiarized him with the essence of Direct Art, with working directly with bodies and objects.

Franz West delved into the “isms” of modernity, explored Concept Art, Minimal Art, and the works of Marcel Duchamp and Cy Twombly. In the early 1970s, he began to turn their approaches into works of his own. His entire work abounds with actionist elements. He created his first Adaptives:objects that the viewers are meant to pick up and try to make fit their bodies, thus turning themselves into works of art.