Otto Mühl, or Muehl, was one of the co-founders and participants of Viennese Actionism and founder and mastermind of a communal living experiment known as the Friedrichshof Commune.
Born in 1925 in Grodnau, Burgenland, Austria, Mühl spent his childhood and youth with his parents Otto and Wilma Mühl and brother Edwin, in Gols, where his father was a primary school teacher. In 1943, he was drafted into the German Wehrmacht and took part in infantry battles in the course of the Ardennes Offensive. His father and brother were also drafted; only Otto Mühl and his mother Wilma survived the war.
After the war, Mühl studied German literature and history at the University of Vienna, graduating in 1952 with a teacher's degree, and continued studies in art education and art therapy at the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts. In 1958 he worked as an art therapist in a home for developmentally impaired children run by the psychoanalyst Eva Rosenfeld, a pupil of Sigmund Freud.
Meeting Günter Brus and Alfons Schilling in 1960 was a pivotal moment for Mühl, leading him to abandon canvas painting and to experiment with three-dimensional objects made from scrap metal which he called Gerümpelskulpturen (junk sculptures). Mühl's goal became to overcome traditional art forms and redefine artistic creation by representing the object's destruction process. His junk sculptures were shown in November 1961 at the gallery Junge Generation in Vienna in an exhibition featuring Otto Mühl, Adolf Frohner and Hans Niederbacher. His first step towards a fundamental departure from traditional art making was the immurement action called Die Blutorgel (Blood Organ), which Mühl performed in 1962 together with Hermann Nitsch and Adolf Frohner in his atelier in the Perinetgasse in Vienna. In 1963, together with Nitsch, Mühl staged the action called Fest des psycho-physischen Naturalismus (Celebration of psycho-physical Naturalism), during which a kitchen dresser filled with marmalade was thrown out the window. A fourteen day arrest followed.
Mühl, Brus, Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler departed radically from an object-based definition of art by developing the concept of Materialaktion (material action) where the human body and the site of art-making are the surfaces for the production of art. Mühl's first such action, called Versumpfung eines weiblichen Körpers Nr. 1 (Swamping of a female body no. 1) took place in 1963. During the 1960s Mühl performed numerous material actions which were documented on film by the Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Kurt Kren and photographed by the Austrian photographer Ludwig Hoffenreich.
In 1966, Mühl, Nitsch, and Brus accepted the invitation of the German artist Gustav Metzger, who invented the term Auto-Destructive Art, to take part in DIAS, or Destruction In Art Symposium, held in London. Invited by the Swiss pioneering curator and art historian Harald Szeemann, Mühl participated in the 1970 Happening & Fluxus exhibition in Cologne, and in 1973 in dokumenta 5 in Kassel.
In 1967, in the second volume of Direkte Kunst Direct Art Arte Diretta, a booklet issued privately by Mühl and Brus, Mühl published his radical manifesto called ZOCK, an acronym for Zealous Organisation of Candied Knights. ZOCK outlines "in blueprint" Mühl's credo and subsequent activities towards the destruction of the old world and the creation of a radically new model of society. In 1971, the manifesto was published in Munich by Franz Knödel under the title Zock, Aspekte einer Totalrevolution.
The transgressive character of the material actions with their naked bodies, public urination and defecation, and killing of animals scandalized the Austrian public. The actions were criticized by the press and frequently led to court proceedings against Mühl, Brus, and other participants. The material action Kunst und Revolution staged by Mühl, Brus and Oswald Wiener in 1968 at the University of Vienna ended in a two-month prison sentence for the artists. Also in 1968, after four years, Mühl's marriage to Friedl Neiss ended in divorce.
The 1970s marked Mühl's departure from material action and performace art in general, especially from happenings and fluxus, towards the concept of artistic and therapeutic self-expression which he called Aktionsanalyse (action analysis). The actions became self-representation and therapy. In 1970, Mühl founded his first commune in the Praterstrasse in Vienna. In 1973, the commune moved to Zurndorf in Burgenland and was named the Friedrichshof Commune. Mühl's declared aim was a new society based on the principles of free sexuality, common property and collective education of children, and the destruction of, in his view, bourgeois concepts of marriage and private property. During the 1970s and 1980s Mühl wrote profusely on a wide range of topics, from the role of the artist in the commune to criticism of state authority and the need for revolution, world peace, psychoanalysis, homosexuality, sex, gender relations, traditional marriage, raising children, and life in the commune as an alternative model for society. His ideas were inspired by Marxism and psychoanalysis, particularly the writings of the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.
After the early 1970s Mühl did not produce any public actions in terms of the principles associated with Viennese Actionism. He was active as a painter in the Expressionist style and as a teacher within the community of Friedrichshof. He also directed several short movies. In 1988, he married Claudia Weissensteiner.
The commune was economically successful. A rural property acquired in 1986 on the Spanish Canary Island La Gomera was intended to realize a southern paradise and served as a domicil for vacationing and retirement. Mühl's authoritarian tendencies caused conflicts and rifts and in 1991, after 21 years of existence, the Friedrichshof Commune broke up. Accused of sexual abuse of minors, Mühl was sentenced to seven years in prison. While serving his sentence at the Stein detention center he produced a wealth of drawings and writings about art theory. Since his release in 1997, he has lived in Southern Portugal.
Despite suffering from Parkinsons disease, Mühl continued to paint and make films. Since 1998 he has had two solo exhibitions at the Museum für angewandte Kunst in Vienna, and in 2010 at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. In 2010, Mühl issued a public apology regarding the role he played in the Friedrichshof Commune. Otto Mühl died on May 26, 2013.