Nitsch the teach..er

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[ed. note: this post responds to the series of posts on the work of Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch, now on view at Slought Foundation. See Libby’s most recent post for more and for other pertinent links.]

Post by James Thacker
thacker, james
I was surprised to learn Hermann Nitsch was in Philadelphia. I am a Philadelphia artist and studied with Herr Nitsch 14 years ago in Frankfurt, Germany. I was essentially assigned to him by the Art Academy there as an exchange student, not having ever heard of him or his work. Among the art stars on the faculty (Immendorff, Polke), I gathered Nitsch was something of a passe’ eccentric. He looked like a mature Courbet or Monet, short, fat, dressed in a black suite with a huge grey beard. Despite his poor English (and my worse German), he was a generous teacher and had clear convictions about art as a source of solace. (image is Thacker’s “Baby Bacchus,” 2004, oil on panel, 10” x 8”)

I found his performance work disgusting, yet intriguing, as it often took place at his Austrian castle (or so I was told)! I thought his graphic work, with as much blood-letting as his mystery plays, beautiful. He was explicit about the analogy in his work between blood (and wine) and paint. I think I realized for the first time how the material quality of paint could have symbolic value — a revelation for an American artist hitherto weened on iconography, text book pictures and slides. In class, Nitsch had us replicate taste or smell sensations visually by coloring in a strip of boxes on paper with a succession of colors. The emphasis on sensation and the quality of the medium as an important, if not always obvious, component of visual art impressed me.

Another thing that impressed me was the apprenticeship method of teaching at the Academy whereby students trained with one “Meister” for 4 or 5 years. Herr Nitsch took his students (including me, the American) to dinner at the local bierstube once in a while and paid. I also know he lent money to his students in difficulty and took an interest in their lives beyond school. This was quite a contrast to my own experience of endlessly changing adjunct professors back home. I believe the curator’s comment [ed. note, see Roberta’s Philly Weekly interview with Slought Curator Osvaldo Romberg) about cultural differences and war history accounting for the difficulty American audiences (including me) may have with Nitsch’s work accurate. One day Nitsch, a Viennese, asked me if I liked music. “Music makes life easier to bear,” he said.

–James Thacker is a Philadelphia artist. See more of his work at his inliquid artist’s page.

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