Contemporary art Fairs Controversies USA

If you show, should you tell?

The ethics of displaying work by paedophile artist Otto Muehl

Otto Muehl, Nahrungsmitteltest (Food test), 1966. Photo: © Karlheinz and Renate Hein

History is filled with horrors committed in the name of religion. But what about art created in the process of a crime? The case of Otto Muehl—whose work is on display at Frieze New York this week in a solo presentation on the stand of Galerie Krinzinger (B45) from Vienna—presents a not-so-clear instance of what should be done with the work of an artist who is also a criminal. How should galleries, collectors, museums and art fairs display objects made by people who have been convicted of detestable offences?

In 1991, Muehl, one of the pioneers of Viennese Actionism and the founder of the infamously authoritarian Friedrichshof commune in Austria, was arrested for “sexual abuse of minors, rape and forced abortion”.

A historical figure whose star is on the rise after a slew of recent museum exhibitions, Muehl’s detention, conviction and ongoing drama have been covered unevenly outside his native Austria. Although his story has made the mainstream press in southern Europe (Muehl and his followers also started communes in La Gomera, Spain, and Faro, Portugal, where the artist currently resides), in loftier latitudes, his offences have drifted into an art-world blind-spot. In 2011, a correspondent for Spain’s El Pais newspaper published a popular 2011 novel based on the 88-year-old’s saga; meanwhile, important institutions like Tate Modern in London, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LAMoCA) and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, routinely fail to include key details of Muehl’s controversial history in biographies.

The Walker Art Center’s online précis on Muehl proves a case in point. Penned by curator Philippe Vergne for the 2005 exhibition “Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections”, it makes mention of “a lawsuit [that] resulted in a seven-year jail sentence” without specifying any of the offences for which Muehl was tried and convicted. The Tate, for its part, mostly mirrors the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the Walker and other museums. Asked to provide a curator to speak on Otto Muehl and museum policy toward exhibiting art with a loaded history, the Tate’s communication department responded via a written statement: “Otto Muehl’s conviction was referred to in the wall text alongside his works”. The text stated: ‘In the 1970s, he founded the Actions Analytical Organisation commune (AAO), which lasted until 1991, when he was imprisoned for drug and sexual offences.’”

Muehl’s work has resurfaced recently in the context of a 2010 retrospective at Vienna’s Leopold Museum, as well as at several large-scale museum exhibitions. Among these are “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void” at LAMoCA; “A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance” at Tate Modern; and “Explosion” at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Unlike the Leopold Museum survey—which engendered vigorous debate about works that depicted Muehl’s actual victims and elicited an unprecedented apology from the artist—the displays at LAMoCA, Tate Modern, and Moderna Museet offer little insight into the questions that dog the relationship between Muehl’s art and life. These issues are pivotal, especially as Muehl and his fellow Actionists—Hermann Nitsch and Günter Brus, among them—repeatedly espoused the view that art and life were indivisible.

For Theo Altenberg—ex-member of the Friedrichshof commune, sometime Muehl collaborator, and Krinzinger Gallery curator—Otto Muehl not only represents “the visionary schizophrenia of the 20th century”, he also demonstrates that, despite his own (Altenberg’s) previous beliefs, “You can’t combine art and life, and to do so is a very dangerous thing.” Though he has no doubt that Muehl is guilty, Altenberg remains sufficiently enthralled by his art to continue to help disseminate it throughout international galleries, museums and art fairs and, in an exhibition context, prefers to avoid mention of Muehl’s crimes altogether. “I believe you can separate Otto Muehl’s art from his life,” he says.

A second ex-commune member, Hans Schroeder-Rozelle, takes a dim view of this approach. A representative of the ad-hoc group Re-port, created expressly to address the rights of victims during two Muehl surveys—an exhibition at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in 2004, and the Leopold Museum show— Schroeder-Rozelle recognises Muehl’s right to show his art, but insists on the right of Muehl’s victims to be properly represented when it comes to displaying certain contested objects (Re-port helped both museums identify and remove works in which abuse victims appeared). “Of course the art is important,” Schroeder-Rozelle says. “But in this case and others, art lovers, collectors and museums should not only be sensitive to art and the artist involved, they also have to be sensitive to the victims of this history.”

For some, the Muehl case proves that art requires an ethical road map. When asked about the ethics of exhibiting Muehl’s art, curator Robert Storr recalls Mike Kelley’s Pay for your Pleasure, a famously confrontational 1998 installation about art and criminality, for which the artist created 43 portraits of painters and writers emblazoned with their own outlaw quotes. In Kelly’s installation, a painting of Oscar Wilde included the following citation: “The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.” Storr concurs with the Irishman’s sentiment. “I think that’s basically right, though clearly not if the crime is implicated in the work. My general theory is that if you do a large-scale presentation, then you need to do a full accounting. If you’re going to show individual pieces, you may not have to,” he says.

Asked whether there isn’t a greater obligation to inform the public about an artist’s crimes, the curator of hundreds of museum exhibitions and the 52nd Venice Biennial demurrs. “There are some of us that believe that Carl killed Ana,” Storr says, in reference to the belief in parts of the art community that the sculptor Carl Andre murdered his wife, the artist Ana Mendieta, by pushing her out of a bedroom window in 1985 (Andre was acquitted), “but I don’t think that should be mentioned every time he does a show.”

Muehl’s case finds a remarkable parallel with the conviction in April in Britain of artist Graham Ovenden for six counts of child indecency and one of indecent assault; his drawings and paintings of naked children have been widely exhibited. Ovenden was charged with similar offences in 2009 and 1993. At those times, his case garnered widespread art world support, especially among high profile figures like David Hockney, Peter Blake, and Piers Rodgers, the former secretary of the Royal Academy. His recent conviction, though, has resulted in a partial about-face among some in the British art community, with the Tate announcing it was dropping images of 34 of Ovenden’s prints from view both online and in the museum, at least until the museum’s review “is complete”.

Storr’s clearly delineated parameters, in fact, may yet signal an unspoken rule, at least, among more enlightened curators and museums. A recent communication from the Tate included the following information appended to their previously issued statement: “In relation to Graham Ovenden, Tate is seeking further information to clarify whether there is any connection between the making of the works held in the national collection and the artist’s recent conviction.”


Otto Muehl, Waschschüssel (Basin), 1966. Photo: © Karlheinz and Renate Hein
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