It is hard to imagine that an exhibition about the destruction of painting and the upending of the supremacy of the picture plane could be beautiful. But Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962, just closed last Sunday the 14th at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, is an aesthetic triumph.
If you missed it at MOCA, you must see it at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago from 16 February to 2 June 2013. While certainly not the last we will hear from Paul Schimmel, MOCA’s former chief curator, it was his swan song for the institution and he went out—literally—with a bang. At the press preview on the 4th October 2012 he reprised the collaboration of Gutai founder Yushio Yoshihara and Saburo Murakami’s Iriguchi (Entrance, 1955). Murakami had created a paper screen or wall across a gallery entrance, and Yoshihara burst through it, leaving a dramatic hole or void. Of course, one immediately thinks of the importance of the shoji screen and scroll and screen painting in Japanese culture, so the act of destroying that particular picture plane was culturally momentous. Schimmel performed it with glee.
This exhibition comes at the beginning of what appears to be a series of reappraisals, or at least for U.S. audiences, introductions, to the neglected Post-war art movements pre-Pop. Especially in the field of modern Japanese art, there is the much anticipated Gutai: Splendid Playground at the Guggenheim New York (15 February-8 May 2013) and MoMA’s current show of avant-garde art in Tokyo (until the 25th February). Gutai, Art Informel, Nouvelle Réalisme, Neo-objectivism, Arte Povera, Assemblage: these international movements of mid-century are overshadowed in this country by the triumphalism of Abstract-Expressionism. In every sense—artistic, economic, social—the center of gravity after the war shifted to New York, and these European and Japanese movements are simply not dealt with extensively in our museums.
When I first encountered Gutai many years ago at the Walker Art Center in works by Kazuo Shiraga and Shozo Shimamoto, I was struck by its expressivity and gesturality. Around the same time, I was first exposed to great examples of Arte Povera at the Howard Rachofsky Collection, Dallas (housed in a beautiful Richard Meier house; he also collects Gutai), which instilled in me an appreciation for the fundamental elegance of that movement. Despite, or perhaps because of, insular American tendencies, the Gutai did reach out to American and European artists like Jackson Pollock (as related in Soichi Hirai’s essay in the catalogue). The Gutai’s gestural impasto—the materiality—of paint and other elements on the surfaces of their paintings goes well beyond what American Ab-Ex was producing. One particularly striking example is Kazuo Shiraga’s Inoshishi-gari 1 (Wild Boar Hunting 1, 1963; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo), an extraordinary mass of gestural red paint and boar skin and fur. Its vulgar but visceral impact must have been shocking to Japanese aesthetic sensibilities. Then again, perhaps not, after the horrors of the atomic holocaust.
Schimmel—renowned for his “idea” shows—brings us this much needed look at the artistic landscape directly after the war, a neglected moment in art history in the United States. While Lucio Fontana is front and center here, he is treated as an Italian, although born in Rosario, Argentina. Perhaps taking a look at abstraction in Latin America, especially with the Madi (Robert Storrs even mentions this modernist group in Buenos Aires in his catalogue essay) or the Neo-Concretists, would have been made for a more complete picture, since Japan, Europe and the United States are on offer here.
Destroy the Picture conjures up visions of staring into the abyss, of cataclysmic world devastation wrought by the Second World War. Schimmel in the exhibition conveys the impulse for a new pictorial language—mere abstraction was not nearly enough to impart the horror of the recent past and the existential crisis of the future. To form any kind of response, the artist had to efface, rip, tear and gouge the picture plane. The MOCA exhibition opened stealthily with Jean Fautrier’s quote writ large: “Painting is something that cannot be destroyed, it must destroy itself to reinvent itself.” His compositions of shapeless forms evoke heads (Otages or Hostages) or flayed skin (Dépouille) without literally rendering them, the epitome of Art Informel.
The first galleries juxtaposed European, Japanese and American works, showing something of these globally synchronous developments. Shozo Shimamoto’s work consists of a gaping hole in layers of peeling paper covered with white paint (he couldn’t afford canvas, so he glued together his own support). Likewise, Lucio Fontana’s nearby Concetto Spaziale 49 B 2 (Spatial Concept 49 B 2, 1949; Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan) is all white with swirling graphite lines and punctures in the white paper laid on canvas, echoed by the adjacent Fautrier with its penciled contours and abrasive surface.
Likewise, Alberto Burri and the young Robert Rauschenberg were paired here. A fascinating byway into modern art history—and a moment where the Arte Povera and American stories interwine—Rauschenberg visited Burri in Italy in 1952. Cy Twombly accompanied; his lyrical line also compares to Fontana’s delicate drawing on the painting surface of this period, but Twombly is not included in this exhibition). Burri—Arte Povera master of “sackcloth” or burlap and other modest materials—seems to have influenced Rauschenberg’s Black Paintings of the early 1950s in their humble layers of peeling paper painted monochrome black.
Next we found an elegantly composed room of pictures, their surfaces assaulted by brutal, common materials such as rocks, concrete and asphalt by Antoni Tàpies, Robert Mallary, and Michio Yoshihara. In their uniformly monochromatic black and gray palette, rarely have I seen such beautiful ugliness. No mention, however, is made—either in the catalogue or the exhibition itself—of Joan Miró’s pioneering role with his “Assassination Paintings” of 1936 (perhaps he was implicitly present through his Catalàn compatriot Tàpies), in which he gouged the masonite surface and spackled it with sand and tar. Indeed, as early as 1924 Miró violates the picture plane by puncturing and manipulating it.
The discovery of the show as far as I was concerned was the neglected work of Berkeley-raised, Mexican Muralist-trained Robert Mallary, who at mid-century was living and working in Los Angeles. Here he was represented by two works, Trek (1958-59) and Lethe (1959), both courtesy of The Box, Los Angeles, and made of cast polyester resin, sand, and gravel on a plywood support. Somewhat sinister, these sculptural paintings resemble decaying infrastructure—streets, roads or buildings—Lethe’s gestural gouges or depressions like tire tracks. Mallary’s work was beautifully echoed by Michio Yoshihara’s Sakuhin (Work, 1959; Hyogo Prefectural Museum, Kobe, Japan) composed of sand, rocks and tar. It is an absolutely stunning piece, akin to a Zen rock garden, albeit a disheveled one.
Large groups of Burri’s Sacchi (or sackcloths, burlap bags), Fontana’s canvases and Yves Klein’s fire paintings took up two large rooms. Nicholas Cullinan points out in his catalogue essay the Sacchi’s reference to St. Francis’ humble habit and his order’s vow of poverty—truly Arte Povera. These works in all their fragmented, worn and rough-hewn poetry also reference the sacks of grain sent over through the Marshall Plan for Europe’s reconstruction. Although Fontana himself said, “I make a hole to leave behind me the old pictorial formulae…,” this could as well apply to Burri.
There is a striking iron wall relief by Burri—Ferro SP1 (Iron SP1, 1958; Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello) that mesmerizes—overlapping and interlocking metal contours which provide a foil to the threadbare and torn fabrics of his other works. The violence of war may be reflected in the “iron,” that old component of warfare, as well as being simply one of the usual humble, found materials of Arte Povera.
There is also the opportunity to compare examples of Burri’s sensuous yet frightening experiments with fire in his Combustione plastica (Plastic Combustion, 1958; Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello) and Klein’s fire paintings, such as the stupendous Peinture de feu sans titre (F271) (Untitled Fire Painting [F271], 1961; Yves Klein Archives). In some cases, Klein experimented with a flame gun, attacking the painting’s surface, yet achieving effects of great lyricism and delicacy. Klein’s compatriot Niki de Saint Phalle was also included nearby with her own rifle shot pictures. While personally I don’t find these works very sympathetic, they show her simultaneously concerned with the performative attacks on the picture and its surface as Klein, the Gutai and others. And Schimmel conscientiously included in this international assemblage Southern California artists Mallary and Saint Phalle (who eventually moved to and died in La Jolla).
There is an interesting—indeed lovely— section on the Affichistes—those mainly French artists working in the early 1960s—whose perversity lay in taking or tearing down posters, repurposing them to create quite appealing abstract compositions. Essentially, they did the opposite of collage or assemblage, theirs was to décollage.
The last artists who really stood out in MOCA’s installation were Lee Bontecou and to a lesser degree, Salvatore Scarpitta. While the former’s reputation was rescued by a recent monographic reappraisal, Scarpitta, who was born in New York of Italian ancestry and grew up in Los Angeles, spent the ‘30s in Italy and was interned there. The best of his work, such as the Moby Dick from 1958 (Whitney Museum, New York) or the slightly later Tishamingo (1964; private collection, and which may refer to a W.W. II P.O.W. camp in Oklahoma) references the wounds of war, wrapped as they are in swathes of bandages and striking in their beautiful monochrome white. Scarpitta joins several others in this sort of allusion, most notably Burri, whom he knew and whose Sacchi reflects Burri’s own experience as a medical doctor in the war and subsequent internment.
Perhaps the culmination of the entire installation was the triumphant room filled with five large-scale Lee Bontecou “voids.” The artist studied in Italy in the 1950s on a Fulbright and knew the works of Fontana and Burri (by this point in the show, the latter’s immense influence was quite apparent). Bontecou’s sometimes terrifying but always sublimely beautiful wall reliefs break down the boundary between painting and sculpture with their rough canvas stretched over welded metal frames that churn into a vortex of blackness. Her compositional power is matched by the delicacy of her execution; concern is paid to attaching the fabric to the armature with bits of copper wire. Despite the careful craftsmanship, there is, for example, a sensation of horror produced by the serrated metal inserted in the maw of the Walker Art Center work (conjuring the “vagina dentata”). Bontecou doesn’t paint the void, she generates it.
In Storr’s eloquent catalogue essay on art’s response to catastrophe, he uses the phrase “the theatre of the sublime” to refer to Fontana’s work; I have used “sublime” as a description several times here. So it is worthwhile to reconsider here the 18th– and 19th-century aesthetic tradition of the Sublime in this more recent context. An artist like J.M.W. Turner recalled the sensations inspired by Nature to terrify and yet delight his viewers (see my articles on Michael Heizer and MOCA’s recent Land Art exhibition). For example, an aspect of this was Turner’s use of the “compositional void” in his paintings, a formula very much at work here in Fontana or Bontecou, and updated in the mysterious, disorienting and wondrous sculpture of a Ken Price or an Anish Kapoor.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of the aesthetic experiments with which this show concerns itself. These artists from around the globe—many of whom knew each other or each other’s work—singly and collectively sought a response to the most horrific period in world history. What had been done before was inadequate to the task, mere pictures could not convey the horror, nor could a figurative narrative truly articulate it. The last frontier was to mark, strike, puncture and penetrate the painting, strew the canvas with lowly materials in order to come even close to expressing the despair and existential crisis. Once penetrated, the void mesmerizes us, the abyss beckons. Once done, the artists included here upended millennia of artistic tradition, since humankind had begun making marks on cave walls, and especially the past 500 years of Western Civilization. The grand illusion that two dimensions represented three—that the flat surface could imitate life—was shattered and the age-old argument over the superiority of painting over sculpture or vice versa collapsed. These revolutionary efforts came in response to our considering the abyss, the void. And yet…and yet, these works and this exhibition in which they are gathered, summon a sublime beauty that is in fact our collective, regenerative response.