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Indepth Arts News:

"Uncommon Denominator: New Art from Vienna"
2002-05-25 until 2003-03-15
North Adams, MA, USA United States of America

Perhaps no city in Europe today rivals Vienna for the vibrancy and complexity of its emerging arts scene. Vienna is the home of a lively, provocative group of artists who are surprisingly little known in the United States, but whose engaging and challenging works recall the city's historic role as home to some of the finest art and artists of the last century - and who continue the Viennese tradition of challenging established artistic forms with wit, craft, and innuendo.

In 2002, MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) is spotlighting these artists with a major exhibition, Uncommon Denominator: New Art from Vienna which presents more than 70 works by 14 individuals and one group in a range of media such as painting, sculpture, and performance art. The exhibition, which will fill virtually all of the museum's main gallery building, will be on view from May 25, 2002, through March 2003.

Lush paintings and drawings, taut psychological explorations, and witty conceptual works in this exhibition amplify and challenge historic Viennese art forms. The artists in Uncommon Denominator are "Viennese" in the broadest sense: several came originally from eastern Europe, from cities that were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and some see Vienna as a temporary home. The political transformations in Europe over the last two decades have moved Vienna from the geographic fringe of Western Europe (east of Prague, it was the easternmost Western capital) to the center of a united Europe, as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. The style and occasionally the political content of this work point to Vienna's pivotal position between east and west.

Uncommon Denominator presents recent work under three broad categories, though most of these artists slide fluidly among them. The exhibition concentrates on work created in the last five years, drawing from artists who vary in age, and including those whose reputations are only just emerging alongside others who have already achieved wider notoriety throughout Europe. Furthermore, rather than pursuing a broad strategy of inclusion, Uncommon Denominator presents more works - 70 - by fewer artists. The categories include:

The Tradition of Painting

At a time when painting struggles to hold its critical ground on the international scene, rich, beautiful canvases are painted in refreshingly large numbers in Vienna and are linked through the academy to a century-old tradition of painting and draftsmanship. In Herbert Brandl's expansive, color-saturated canvases, the suggestion of a landscape hovering just out of reach, Turner lurks, but so does Kokoschka. Generous, sensual, intelligent painting of this quality comes as a shock. Barabara Eichorn distills the tortured line and psychic fervor of Egon Schiele's century-old figures; her large, spare figure drawings are equally intense, but cooler, more interior and restrained. Otto Zitko expands line and gesture to architectural scale with large, dynamic canvasses that deconstruct space and record movement. Adriana Czernin, born in Sofia, Bulgaria, reworks Gustav Klimt's legacy in her beautiful, disturbing drawings and videos, while Johanna Kandl tempers the political questions posed in her paintings with deft drawing and striking use of color. In every case, the craftsmanship and assertive beauty of these works testifies to the strong tradition of the art academies in Vienna. An emphasis on the making of paintings and drawings that appeal to the eye never became anachronistic in this city.


The legacy of Actionism can be clearly seen in Vienna in the enduring fascination with performance and the body - both that of the artist and that of the viewer. Actionism, the 1960s art movement which responded to the occupation and devastation of Vienna during the World Wars, focused on "actions" (similar to New York's "happenings") that were notorious for their often quite brutal and blood-infused content. Franz West's Fitting Pieces made of gesso require that the viewer contort his body to experience the work. (West's longstanding emphasis on collaboration with other artists is another peculiarly Viennese trait.) Erwin Wurm has used his own body as sculptural material, as documented in the photographs Me and Me Fat, and has ascribed human characteristics to an actual car, the fleshy pink Fat Car. Hans Schabus is the only performer in his videos, whether digging a hole in the forests of Corinthia or being pursued by his doppelganger as he works in his studio.

Design as Concept

Throughout the 20th century design has had pride of place in Viennese art, and the centrality of design can be clearly seen in the conceptual work of the 1990s and beyond. Heimo Zoberning, a leading conceptual artist, makes artworks that slide into architecture and exhibition design. Peter Kogler and Walter Obholzer have pushed their separate investigations of pattern and decoration into strikingly contrasting positions. Lois Weinberger finds apt metaphors for social conditions in garden design. The political bent of Weinberger's project can be found also in Florian Pumhösl's video installations, which query the role of colonialist architecture in Africa. Constanze Ruhm shares Pumhösl's interest in architecture, but for her this interest arises from film theory. Czech-born Svetlana Heger and Bulgarian-born Plamen Dejanov work with Western luxury consumer products, with an ironic wide-eyed enthusiasm only Eastern Europeans could bring to the subject.

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