Sven Sachsalber, an Inventive and Wily Italian Artist Who Was on the Rise in New York’s Art Scene, Has Died at 33

The cause of death is unknown.

Sachsalber. Photo courtesy International Studio & Curatorial Program.

The artist Sven Sachsalber was found dead in his Vienna apartment last Friday. He was 33. The cause of death is not yet known, and an autopsy is being performed.

Sachsalber was a rising star who developed a rich, singular voice and worked across media, bouncing seamlessly through performance, video, book projects, and paintings. This past year was a breakout moment for the artist. He had a solo show with his New York gallery, Ramiken, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where he showed new paintings that evoked Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana and the Swiss National Ski Team’s Swiss cheese-inspired suits, which featured holes. He also had work in the David Zwirner online viewing room Platform: New York and, since last month, new paintings have been on view at the Ramiken pop-up space in Miami’s Design District.

An installation shot of the Ramiken pop-up gallery in Miami. Photo courtesy of Ramiken.

Sachsalber was born in 1987 in the Südtirol, an autonomous province in northern Italy. He went to the Royal College of Art in London from 2010 to 2013 and then moved to New York. With his early works, he became known for poetic performances that approached the absurd in earnest. He ate poisonous mushrooms to make his vision go green and spent 24 hours in his bedroom with a cow.

In 2014, he staged a work at the Palais de Tokyo in which he had to find a needle in a haystack, a time-based performance that confronted a cliche head-on, inviting misinterpretation with glee. Publications around the world took the bait (nearly all put the word “literally” in the headline or the first paragraph).

A 2014 performance at the Palais de Tokyo. Photo courtesy of Palais de Tokyo.

This freewheeling deliberate approach continued in his first New York solo show, at White Columns in conjunction with Performa 15, where Sachsalber and his father spent the duration of the show’s run doing a 13,200-piece puzzle of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Man, in front of gallery goers by day, privately by night. The press release contains a description of the work that could aptly describe the artist: “A public ‘spectacle’ of an unusually subdued kind.”

Sachsalber held fast to this tenor in a work shown the next year at NADA New York, at the booth of Shoot the Lobster gallery. It was a video of Sachsalber in a cemetery in South Carolina with no vertical gravestones, showing the artist taking flowers from one grave and moving them to another, over and over. White Columns director Matthew Higgs called it a “simultaneously poetic and ‘sacrilegious’ act” in an Instagram caption written after Higgs learned of Sachsalber’s death.

An untitled work from 2020 in a group show at Ramiken this past fall. Photo courtesy Ramiken.

After years of performances, Sachsalber exhibited paintings at his first show with Ramiken in February 2019, and again at the gallery this past summer.

At that second show, the paintings were hung high up on the massive concrete walls to create an uncanny feeling of walking in a church lined with saints, the headless bodies in ingenious paintings, the acrylic copies of ski suits woven into canvases and stretched to strange verisimilitude, recreating the uncanny. They were like alien life forms come alive, ghosts submerged in the water of the canvas and floating on the walls forever.

Ramiken founder Mike Egan with work by Sachsalber at the gallery in July. Photo courtesy Nate Freeman.

The artist’s death was announced by Philipp Achammer, a young politician from Italy, who called Sachsalber one of the most important artists to ever come from the region.

“I can still see him, alone in a small boat over a flooded village in the mountains of Italy, rowing circles around a half submerged church steeple,” Egan said in a statement. “The former villagers, forced out by the water, came out to see this man, performing his strange ritual, and cried, watching him work the oars above their former homes.”

Sachsalber in Italy, holding a small bird. Photo by Simon Prenner.

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