Vienna is waiting for you

Recycling eternal artistic truths or a creative biotope? In the metropolis on the Danube the mills grind slowly, and that is surprisingly healthy for the city’s art production. By Matthias Dusini

»In London, academy graduates worked for eight hours, and then they made art and organised small galleries«, says Viennese painter Markus Muntean about his work in the English metropolis, then adding: »In Vienna people are accustomed to subsidies and a comfortable life.« With this description, the artist summarises the image of Vienna as a protected workshop. For many artists, a longing for the cool atmosphere of London and the bohemianism of Berlin goes hand-in-hand with the pragmatic decision to live mainly in Vienna. For half the year they jet from one exhibition to another, for the other half they relax in the artist’s hideout of the Café Anzengruber.

An immaculate support structure, a gallery scene of international calibre, modern academies and well situated museums and art exhibition spaces provide ideal surroundings for the production of art. To find one’s way around this site there is no need for any means of transport. The Vienna art world is less than two kilometres long. At its centre is the MuseumQuartier (MQ). To combat the conservative image of the city surroundings, the cultural administrators and politicians took the Centre Pompidou in Paris as a model for a cultural area for contemporary art, design, new media and dance. In this way the MQ arose alongside the monumental museums of the imperial age as a compromise between the avant-garde and the enemies of progress.The flagship of this popular leisure-time area is the Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK), completed in 2001. Originally the museum, designed by architects Ortner & Ortner, was intended to rise above the Baroque building in front of it, but then it was quietly lowered into the ground. The Kunsthalle Wien, which has undertaken the task to make contemporary art popular, also moved into a building in the MQ. Right next door is the Secession, the building that offers the liveliest exhibition program. A few minutes’ walk away are clusters of galleries in the Eschenbachgasse and Schleifmühlgasse.

Muntean/Rosenblum belong to the middle generation of artists who act according to the principles of global contemporary art. Their paintings, representing young people whose body language looks like pathetic formulae emptied of meaning, cannot be assigned to any local idiom in the art-fair cabinets of London or Miami. Suffering from the reactionary climate of the post-war world, a feeling which drove the artists of Viennese Actionism, the only contribution Austria made to art history after 1945, has given way to routine professionalism.

»In Austria the artist has no rights«, painter Maria Lassnig said recently for the record. In her words, there are clear echoes of the »Austria-plaint« once heard from the playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard. The alpine republic has veiled itself in the identity-creating robes of a cultural nation, but in doing so has limited itself to recycling eternal truths. »Modernism was a no-man’s-land,« according to Werner Hofmann, the founding director of MUMOK, when looking back at the ’60s. Due to powerful galleries in London and New York, Lassnig, at the age of almost 90, has achieved an international breakthrough, not because of, but in spite of, her home in Vienna. 

There is a raft of Austrian artists active in the top international level without their origins playing any part. Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures, the Adaptives by Franz West and the Fluxus pop installations of the gelitin group are displayed in museums all over the world. At home they exhibit regularly in their own galleries. The galleries of Krinzinger, Meyer Kainer and Georg Kargl are among those who play in the international game of art dealership. »Vienna is very lively, but the market tends to be small« comments Thaddaeus Ropac, who operates galleries in Salzburg and Paris. 

For the first time since between the wars, the Viennese art trade enjoyed a boom in the ’80s. The young generation of expressive painters profited from the flourishing market of the Yuppie era. At the beginning of the ’90s the party was over, the main galleries closed up shop. At a distance from the market, an especially productive combination of art theory and art for readers began to develop. Theory platforms like the Depot or the private art institution Generali Foundation confirmed Vienna’s reputation as a discourse metropolis. »Vienna is waiting for you«, was a slogan in Vienna promotion. One might also say: »Don’t be in a hurry when you visit Vienna.« The mills of art grind slowly here, but constantly.

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