Gunter Brus was sentenced to prison for making art. Born in 1938 in Arding, Austria, Brus studied at the School of Arts and Crafts in Graz, Austria, and the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna. He was a founder of the Weiner Akionismus group (Viennese Actionism), and that is how he got in trouble.
For a 1968 event called “Art and Revolution” at Vienna University, Brus was filmed stripping off his clothes, cutting himself with a razor, drinking his own urine, defecating, masturbating, and singing the Austrian National Anthem. The film is politely blurry, but the Austrian government found him guilty of “degrading the Symbols of the State” and sentenced him to six months in prison. He fled to Berlin with his family, and did not come back until 1976.
Not all Brus’s work was so controversial. In the early sixties, he was making gestural abstract paintings. He became interested in the act of painting more than the paintings themselves, so he started to perform “self-paintings.” His first such work was Aktion, Self-Painting 1: Painting by Hand, Painting by Head, Painting the Head in 1964. In some of the self-paintings, Brus painted a ragged stripe down the center of his head and body. These works are elegant, immediate, and scary. Through his early self-paintings, Brus developed an interest in examining his body and the body’s extreme limits in performance; this line of thought culminated in the scatological works of the late sixties.
What Gunter Brus called the “cesspool aesthetics” of his performances anticipated the work of many artists of the seventies and later, from Carolee Schneemann to Chris Burden to John Waters. In 1970 (the year many experts see as initiating the flowering of performance art in the United States), Brus gave up performance and began developing expressive images in painting, drawing, and artist books. He invented a form he calls “Imagepoems,” texts and drawings that are inseparable from one another. The drawings are apocalyptic and otherworldly in a gentler manner than his performances. They describe nightmares rather than enacting them. Brus’s works on paper have been widely exhibited, and also there have been museum and gallery retrospectives of his performance works. In 1980 he was included in the Venice Biennale, and in 1985 the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York showed three of the Viennese Aktionists including Brus. In 1998 Brus was featured in the touring exhibition, “Out of Actions: Between Performance and The Object, 1949-1979” which originated at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Brus has also produced significant work in printmaking with a group of etchings produced in 1982 at San Francisco’s Crown Point Press.
Gunter Brus lives and works in Graz, Austria.
-Kim Bennett, Crown Point Press