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Wiener Gruppe I: Word Association

Postwar experiments in poetry and art: revisiting the Wiener Gruppe

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Gerhard Rühm, Untitled, aus dem Projekt Concrete Poetry; Scharf, 1955, Collage, Zeitungsausschnitte auf Pappe 32 × 22 cm (courtesy: Christine König Galerie, Vienna)

Gerhard Rühm , Untitled, from the project Concrete Poetry; Scharf, 1955, collage, newspaper clippings on cardboard, 32 × 22 cm (courtesy: Christine König Galerie, Vienna)

The writings, actions and performances of the so-called ‘Wiener Gruppe’ arose within the singular, opened-vacuum-chamber context of postwar Vienna. Informal if extremely prolific collaborators, the group included, among others, architect Friedrich Achleitner, Hans Carl (H. C.) Artmann, Konrad Bayer, musician and visual artist Gerhard Rühm, and jazz musician Oswald Wiener – also all poets. Forming around 1952 out of the ashes of the so-called Art Club, they began circulating an array of experimental literary, visual and performative works in an atmosphere of close, productive intensity – one largely critical of a repressively bourgeois Viennese context.

As Rühm would later write, these were in part subjective reconstructions of the literary and art movements, supressed during the Nazi era and deemed ‘degenerate’, examples of which trickled in only slowly even after the war. This re-piecing of art history expressed itself formally through poems, sound works, theatre works and concrete and sound poetry, much of which used illustrative cut-outs, collages, and graphic-verbal assemblages. These they pitted – often sarcastically – against: traditional fairy tales, ‘vulgar’ Austrian forms of spoken vernacular, dialect pieces, puns, coded Wienerisch dialects and cultural clichés, all appropriated like verbal readymades from advertising or the news. Common to the Wiener Gruppe was an avant-la-lettre concern with the materiality of language – the word on the level of sound and image. Hence, the newspapers, crossword puzzles and obituaries of the time provided ample, quite physical fodder for a cultural critique of committed resistance. In 1953, Artmann advocated: ‘be a poet without having so much as written or spoken a single word’, striking a programmatic note and opening up the realm of ‘poetical’ acts to ‘poems’ in an expanded sense. Konrad Bayer wrote that the group’s hallmark was the ‘self-effacement of the author in favour of collaboration’; Friedericke Mayröcker (who features separately in this issue with a prose piece on Martha Jungwirth) was close by, as was Ernst Jandl, the group’s self-described ‘uncle’. Taken overall, the group also stood in a close, collaborative relation to the Viennese art of the time, such as the Hundsgruppe of the 1950s – which included Ernst Fuchs, Maria Lassnig and Arnulf Rainer – and in the 1960s, the group’s members kept close ties to the freewheeling transgressions of the Viennese Actionists.

With this context in mind, we asked Gerhard Rühm, an original member of the Wiener Gruppe, to comment on his own practice, his relationship to the group and its historical context. Artist and writer Theo Altenberg reacts to the short life of Konrad Bayer with a two-part contribution, including a poem modelled after one of Bayers’ forms and writer Ann Cotten and artist Kerstin Cmelka provide a collaborative text and image response to the Wiener Gruppe and its blind spots.

Pablo Larios is senior editor of frieze. He lives in Berlin.

Issue 12

First published in Issue 12

Dec 2013 - Feb 2014
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