Arnulf Rainer is internationally renowned for his abstract informal art. He is considered one of the most influential, but also one of the most innovative and provocative artists in Austria.
His art is just as complex as it is contradictory. Rainer’s drawings appear delicate and wild, sometimes mad, almost enlightened. For him the probing of light, color, gesture and format is a never-ending artistic challenge. His works could be characterized as expressive, as images full of restlessness and doubt and at the same time comparatively cheerful, delicate, evincing meditative luminosity and imagination.
Between 1953 and 1959, Arnulf Rainer lived as an ascetic in his parents abandoned and unfurnished villa in Gainfarn, in Lower Austria. There he began the ‘reductions’, a group of works comprising stark monochrome black pictures with geometrically delineated areas of white, which are seen as an initial step towards the overpaintings. In 1953 in Vienna he met a priest named Monsignore Otto Mauer, who later founded the Gallerie St. Stephan, which became a meeting place for the Austrian avant-guard.
Rainer now started to concentrate (from around 1965) on his overpaintings. He experimented with various shapes of frame. There were round pictures, but the cross was also used. On 17 September 1959 Arnulf Rainer, together with Ernst Fuchs and Friedensreich Hundertwasser, founded the ‘Pintorarium’, as a ‘creatorium for the incineration of the Academy’. The Pintorarium remained in existence until 1968.
In 1966 Arnulf Rainer received the Austrian State Prize for Graphic Art and in 1968 the Museum des 20. Jahrhundert organised one of the first large retrospective of his works.
During this period, Arnulf Rainer had grimace photos taken with or without face painting (either in photo booths or by photographers), which in turn he then painted or overpainted. The grimacing and behaviours of people with mental illness, who he engaged with intensely, represented a rich vein of expressive possibilities. He wrote, “The faces I drew earlier all had impossible wrinkles, fake furrows, invented accents. I felt they were missing from the photos. As I painted them onto the cheeks, and then went for a walk, I felt like a new man (…) It wasn't until I began to overwork the expressive photos of the farces 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,” (Arnulf Rainer, Hirndrang. Published by Otto Breicha, Verlag Galerie Welz Salzburg 1980, p. 106).
In this way Rainer created a kind of mix between the theatrical and graphic media of expression, converging with the Viennese Actionism of Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus, Otto Mühl and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, however without becoming a member of the group.