Marc Adrian, Austrian (1930 - 2008)

Marc Adrian

There are barely any artists in Austria who have taken part in an exhibition with historical impact at the most important museum of modern art, MOMA in New York. Marc Adrian may even have been the only one with his participation in the exhibition »The Responsive Eye« (1965), which launched Op Art.

In 1950, Adrian produced paintings with visual effects and phenomena and, as early as 1960, had exhibited »10 optische Gestaltungen« in Vienna, along with his kinetic objects (since 1955). During the exhibition, Oswald Wiener read Wittgenstein, Gerhard Rühm concrete poetry, and Konrad Bayer from his newspaper. The 1950s were the anni mirabili of Marc Adrian. Since 1955, he had been making kinetic objects and his Op-Art-like behind-glass montages. With the members of the Vienna Group, he evolved »methodic inventionism«, publishing its theory - a programmable method of art production and an early mathematical information aesthetic - in 1957. 1957 was also the year in which he finished »Black Movie I«, a film without a camera, consisting solely of opening credits in colour; the number of frames had been drafted in advance on graph paper according to a predetermined scheme. At this time, Adrian developed not only a pioneering concrete and neo-constructive, kinetic and optical vocabulary, but also extended his innovative concepts to embrace film and literature. By so doing, he laid the foundation for his big international career in the 1960s. Among other things, in 1961 he had an exhibition with Francois Morellet in Studio F in Ulm; Max Bense spoke at the opening. In 1961, he also took part in the first exhibition of one of the most significant art movements of the 1960s, the »Nove Tendencije« in Zagreb, where the elite of the contemporary avant-garde met up, from Piero Manzoni to Dieter Roth. This movement replaced the term »art« with »visual research« and thus in 1968, at the same time as the London exhibition »Cybernetic Serendipity« (in which Marc Adrian also took part), held the first international exhibition of computer art, at which Marc Adrian won a major prize.

His multi-media mentality made him the founder of the specifically Austrian brand of media art. He was a universal artist who worked in and with almost all artistic media and genres, while at the same time subjecting these media to radical analysis and visionary transformations. For the first computer exhibition in Vienna in 1969, organised by Dieter Schrage, Marc Adrian published the significant text »Computers and the Democratisation of Aesthetic Awareness«. Adrian produced computer-generated texts films and plays. He extended constructive art into a constructive philosophy: »reality« has to do with realise, which means make. This relation implies the makeability of the real. Artists are specialists in combinatorics and make as much reality as is needed.« (»we reality-makers«, Vienna 1969).

Born in 1930, Adrian experienced the last months of the Second World War and the terror of the Nazi regime as a teenager. For him, as for so many other neo-avant-garde artists of Europe, this was the decisive motivation for turning to rationality, analysis and multi-media. The rebellion against authority, the Law of the Father and repression is celebrated in manifold ways of liberating the image, the body and the subject. As a way of resisting the prevailing naturalism in Austria, Adrian undertook hectic trips abroad early on. From there, he returned with reproductions of abstract art. He thus quickly broke away from the Wotruba School that he had entered in 1948. But his nomadic existence obviously sharpened his sense of motion, so that he suddenly noticed how much the movement of the viewers in front of a picture can change the picture itself physically. While abroad, he probably also saw geometric abstract art, for instance by the group »Abstraction-création: Art non-figuratif« (1932-1936), which Max Bill, a member of this group, developed further from 1944 into »concrete art«. So in 1950, Marc Adrian, in an astonishing innovation, was one of the first to make viewer-dependent pictures. This principle was to dominate the art scene ten years later. He called these pictures, done using car paint in the primary colours, »springing perspectives« [»Sprungperspektiven«], because the geometric content of these pictures, for example field of colour that produced the illusion of a three-dimensional cube, could spring about: from concave to convex and vice versa.

Between 1950 and 1995, Adrian anticipated three important elements of 1960s’ art: the addition of the factors movement, time and participation to pictures and sculpture. In principle, in these five years he already established the rules for the development of his art over the next 50 years – above all one main rule: rule-governed structure as a central element of art. He developed the art work as a system of rules in a variety of ways and in many different media.

The introduction of time and movement into the image logically led him to make moving images – i.e. films – and moving sculptures - i.e. mobiles. In 1957, he began his film experiments in collaboration with Kurt Kren, over the decades creating a large body of experimental films that made him an outstanding figure in Austrian avant-garde film. From 1955 he worked with moving sculptures of iron, rotating sculptures and swinging sculptures that the viewers put into motion. At the historic moment, the year 1955, when the first exhibition about real motion in art took place in Paris – the exhibition »Le movement«, curated by Pontus Hultén -, Adrian was also constructing his kinetic objects. Adrian also produced sculptures with rotating mirrors. He later used the element of mirrors in his photomontages. Like John Baldessari in the 1970s, Adrian re-edited postcards and popular photos from the mass print media by cutting out parts of the picture.

In the 1960s, Adrian developed »tactile labyrinths«: in 1964 in Boost, in 1967 in Graz, in 1969 in Copenhagen. These were labyrinths made of wires that gave the viewers electric shocks. During these years, he also published important theoretical manifestos, characteristic of a reflective artist employing calculation, methodology and multi-media. In all these texts, he was concerned with the democratisation of the aesthetic awareness by means of the emancipation of the viewers. This emancipation and democratisation could only be brought about by a rational programme. Adrian was the author of a number of texts and gave numerous lectures at home and abroad that also showed him to be an art theorist of some standing. During five decades as a practical artist and theorist, Adrian expanded the field of visual research to embrace all the media: painting, literature, sculpture, photography, film and finally computer. He introduced methodology, rule systems and programmes as a connecting element between paper and plastic, between old and new materials like glass and stone, between all media. This made him, both as practical artist and theorist, to a master of analogue and digital art, not only in Austria but internationally as well.

In the past few years, he turned more and more to film and, in the 1990s, to anthropological and ethnological themes. His trilogy about the Pueblo Indians, his documentaries about Kenya and other dark sides of colonialisation and globalisation show him as an artist who defended and demanded democracy not only in an aesthetic sense, but also with regard to content. The rationalism of the Enlightenment has thus gone beyond the means to include the contents. Adrian reminds us that the origins of kinetic and optical art forms around 1960 were also political in nature: that is, they were manifestations of democratisation. This is a unique achievement in Austria, and explains why, in a society that is still subservient to authority and authoritarian, his neo-geo successor was the first to be fawned over and why it is only in the future that his original achievement will receive adequate recognition.

The Neue Galerie Graz dedicated a retrospective to Adrian in 2007, several months before his death. Anna Artaker and Peter Weibel edited the exhibition catalogue, published by Ritter Verlag.


by Peter Wiebel / Translated by Timothy Jones


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