The Life and Art of Radical Provocateur—and Commune Leader—Otto Muehl

Otto Muehl led a group of Viennese artists who disrupted taboos, embraced free sex...and taught this author, one fateful day in 1970, that it’s not “anything goes” in the name of art.

The show of the late Otto Muehl now at Maccarone in the West Village consists of splatter paintings and three videos, in which the artist vigorously assaults a sequence of canvases with paint—occasionally body-surfing on one—in front of 50-plus excitable, sometimes wildly applauding members of his commune. Hubert Klocker, the Vienna-based writer who curated the show, describes the audience as Muehl’s “life partners” in his press release.

A different exhibition, Rite of Passage: The Early Years of Viennese Aktionism, now up at Hauser & Wirth on East 69, was also curated by Klocker. Here Muehl appears alongside Hermann Nitsch, Gunter Brus, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, his fellow founders of Aktionism in 1964. Aktionism was the offspring of Pollock, de Kooning, and such Euro equivalents of the New York School as Karel Appel, Jean Fautrier, and Alberto Burri. The movement was a willful, angry child, though, exploding away from “art” and from the canvas in particular. Their brandishing of totems, their busting of taboos is real world stuff, not symbolic. Indeed Vienna Aktionismus can seem an advance warning of the ritualized brutality which has impregnated our society today, from video games and extreme sports to the grisly media-hungry campaigns of bombings and beheadings.

This lurid embrace of art and life was not an isolated thunderclap. In the U.S, Allan Kaprow, an artist pupil of John Cage, came up with the word “Happening” in 1957. Yves Klein first painted a naked woman blue in 1958 and used her as a “human paintbrush.” So, it was in the air worldwide, but these four Austrian artists were the most collectively extreme. Nitsch created the Orgies Mystery Theater, whose performances might involve carcasses, entrails, crucifixions, sacrifices, and literal bloodbaths, and which referenced both classic theater and pagan myth. He was frequently arrested and was chucked into the slammer three times. Brus publicly masturbated and excreted while singing the Austrian national anthem, and was sentenced to six months before managing to skedaddle to Berlin. Schwarzkogler faked the 1969 film of his self-castration, and fell, perhaps accidentally, from a window three years later.

You might think it hard to top this threesome, but it was Otto Muehl who arguably went the furthest. And I played a part in his journey.

The Wet Dream Festival, which was promoted as the world’s first festival of porno movies, was created in 1970 by Suck magazine, best-known as a vehicle for Germaine Greer, a London-based Australian, whose book, The Female Eunuch, had been published weeks before and was on its way to best sellerdom.

The festival took place in Amsterdam. Porno was considered on the cutting-edge in those dewy days, so many of those with an interest in the so-called Counter-Culture made their way to the festival. I was part of the London contingent. The movies quickly became repetitive—they began to look like documentaries about factories, with all those constantly moving parts—but there was encouraging buzz about the off-the-menu treats in store, such as the rumor that sections of Performance, Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg’s just completed movie starring Mick Jagger, were on the way.

We were milling around the Cosmos, our central meeting ground, exchanging such tidbits, when suddenly a group of four naked individuals appeared among us: Two women and two men, the women being delectable, as was and is the way of the avant garde. One of the men was carrying a carving knife and a live goose.

It happened that Carolee Schneemann was standing close behind me. A terrific artist and a good friend, Schneemann is perhaps best known for “Meat Joy,” a group performance she first put on in 1964, in which the near-naked participants rub themselves with meat, fish, and paint. Uptight, Schneemann isn’t.

”Anthony,” she said. “That’s crazy Otto Muehl.”

Muehl, she said, was going to cut off the goose’s head and insert the neck into the vagina of one of the women. I don’t believe she used the word “vagina,” a fairly recent addition to, the general vocabulary. “You’ve got to stop it,” she said, urgently.

Of course, I had to!

I walked up to Muehl along with another Brit, the playwright, Heathcote Williams. Williams grappled with Muehl. I grabbed the goose and legged it for the exit. I remember nobody standing purposefully in my way.

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Outside I felt, well, appropriately post-coital, given the situation. I wandered around aimlessly for a while, then gave the goose to an acquiescent hippy on a barge.

So that was that. Not!

The blowback was swift and strong. We were denounced as typical Brit sentimentalists and worse, as those who had prevented an artist from making a work of art in the very core of a radical art event. Then a hard left group—I was told it was a Trotskyist Group, the Spartacists—sallied to our defense, praising us for attacking the bourgeois art world. I wish! And so on.

Germaine Greer was more percipient when she later wrote of Heathcote Williams and myself: “Their act was so far from being calculated that neither of them understands to this day quite why he did it ... It was bloody good fun, and we cheered like workers at a melodrama. Muehl flapped around the stage brandishing his knife. Come his last truly great performance he will gut himself and fuck his own liver. What is art where life is concerned?”

Muehl was hardly thrown off course by a flown goose though. That same year he founded a commune in Vienna. It was about his art-making, but the communal life was based on erotic liberation. The doctrines, which drew on the likes of Wilhelm Reich, replaced absolute fidelity with ordained promiscuity. Meaning you were expected to have sex constantly, but couldn’t do it with the same individual more than once a week, foreplay was considered romantic twaddle, and you should take care of the business in minutes. Muehl was of course the authority figure, with all resultant perks.

So successful was the commune that in 1971 Muehl acquired some farm buildings near the city and launched a new commune, Friedrichshof, with 600 converts and he moved away from art-making as a central activity. Outposts budded in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Geneva, and various other burgs, including, yes, Amsterdam. The years passed, children were born. And were expected to behave like other communards as soon as they were physically capable.

In 1991, Muehl was convicted of having sex with minors, served seven years, then moved with a core of followers to Faro, Portugal. Klocker says he was bitter and would compare himself to such persecuted gurus as Timothy Leary and Wilhelm Reich. He denied the charges of child molestation to Die Zeit, saying, “This is nonsense. The girls were all developed.” and he abandoned abstraction for figuration in art, making paintings which included some bleak self-portraits. He died last year, aged 87.

And the tale of the goose? It’s a story that, to me anyway, preconfigures as absurdist comedy some of the darker realities roiling us today. Most art worlders are likely, I think, to agree that absolutely nothing should be off-limits for art or literature. And I would agree with that. Absolutely? Well, kind of. But it’s when you get to specifics that queasiness leaks in.

But back to the goose. Perhaps it lived to a contented old age on a barge, perhaps it was that night’s dinner, at least it didn’t end up as “art.” Did I participate in an act of censorship? I would like to think that Heathcote Williams and I created our own event, but perhaps that’s being slippery. Do I regret what I did? Absolutely not.

Otto Muehl is open at Maccarone in New York City through October 18; Rite of Passage: The Early Years of Vienna Actionism, 1960-1966 is on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York City through October 25.