Arnulf Rainer’s Emotional, Avant-Garde Practices

  • Installation view of “Ayn Foundation Presents: Arnulf Rainer” at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City. Courtesy of Mana Contemporary and the artist.

The world-renowned Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer has gone through several distinct periods of physically intense, sometimes manic painting practice. His “retirement” commenced a decade ago, when 26 of his paintings were destroyed in his studio by unknown vandals. Regardless of his current level of output, however, the artist’s work continues to be shown extensively across the globe; Rainer’s impact on various 20th-century art-historical periods continues to be the subject of extensive study. 

  • Installation view of “Ayn Foundation Presents: Arnulf Rainer” at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City. Courtesy of Mana Contemporary and the artist.

Nineteen of Rainer’s paintings are currently on view at Mana Contemporary, through the Ayn Foundation, as part of a series of year-long solo exhibitions. Of particular interest are the artist’s seminal “overpaintings,” a technique he has been developing since the mid-1950s. As a young artist, Rainer was fascinated by the Surrealists; later, his work was compared to Action Painting. However, neither of these schools of thought could contain Rainer’s aggressive and ever-changing practice. A two-time art school dropout and a truly avant-garde painter, Rainer experimented with working while in various altered states through the ’60s and began to heavily incorporate film through the ’70s. 

Rainer’s “overpaintings” began when the artist used various materials to block out or work over elements of existing self-portraits, often in overblown ways. “The faces I drew earlier all had impossible wrinkles, fake furrows, invented accents,” the artist noted in 1980. “It wasn’t until I began to overwork the expressive photos of the faces that I discovered to my surprise: a bunch of new, unknown people who were lurking within me, but who my muscles alone couldn’t formulate.”  

The unconscious has long been of interest to Rainer. An admirer of the poet William Blake and an avid student of theology (he incorporated various Christian imagery into his work), Rainer sought the ephemeral, subconscious, and specter of religious devotion when he worked. In another 1980s interview, the artist noted that while none of his works could claim to have been created specifically for a “sacred context,” many “were inspired by a subjective emotion regarding both the person of Christ and the event but also the idea of the cross.” Physically charged, occasionally obsessive, and always containing more than they might originally appear, Rainer’s paintings continue to be instructional in the passion of technique.

—M. Osberg

Ayn Foundation Presents: Arnulf Rainer” is on view at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, Oct. 18, 2015–Oct. 15th, 2016.

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