Legend has it that while Martin Luther was translating the Bible into German, working deep into the night for weeks on end, Satan disturbed him with all manner of temptations. One night, a furious Luther threw his inkwell at the devil, which – missing him – smashed into a cupboard door, sending ink spraying everywhere. Thus, the motif of an ink stain on wood is at the heart of the legend of a deeply devout man who attacked the corrupt practices of the church. The message is clear: the devil can’t be nailed with an emotional outburst, yet we must rely on our feelings to defend ourselves.
A similar drama seems to have been played out in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s – from New York to Tokyo – in which the destruction of a work of art became the central theme. This phenomenon was recently examined in five major museum shows: ‘A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance’ at Tate Modern, London; ‘Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void’ at moca, Los Angeles; ‘Explosion’ at Moderna Museet, Stockholm; and two New York shows about the Japanese part of the story: ‘Tokyo 1955–1970, A New Avant-Garde’ at MOMA and ‘Gutai: Splendid Playground’ at the Guggenheim Museum.
Although all five of these exhibitions helped to restore the visibility of the Japanese avant-garde group Gutai, the differences between them outweighed any similarities. ‘A Bigger Splash’ centred on Jackson Pollock and David Hockney as aspects of the same theme – Jack the Dripper, almost a dancer, and the perfect Pop illusionist who deftly scratched the white of A Bigger Splash (1967) into the acrylic blue. ‘Explosion’ and ‘Destroy the Picture’ were instead dedicated to historical assessment: while the former offered an overview that was diverse though had gaps in key places, the latter gave an insight into the range of arguments advanced by the iconoclasts, bringing together excellent works of Nouveau Réalisme, Situationism and Vienna Actionism.
Although in the early 1960s the painterly/performative action was still a male domain (with a few notable exceptions such as Carolee Schneemann), by the 1970s, as ‘A Bigger Splash’ clearly demonstrated, many influential women artists – including Marina Abramović, Lynda Benglis, Valie Export, Joan Jonas, Ana Mendieta and Cindy Sherman – were active in the field, rupturing the idea of the male gaze as something universally taken for granted.
But why this current interest in art as an existential means of expression; as a taboo-breaking and destructive impulse; as an incursion into other genres; as a spontaneous and playful act; as an explosion? It is worth considering one of the first instances of this kind of work. Marcel Duchamp, master of the coded message, produced a pivotal piece relating to the body/splash/painting complex. In the edition of Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase, 1935–40) that he gave to Maria Martins – his model for Étant Donnés … (1946–66) – was a small painting entitled Paysage Fautif (Faulty Landscape, 1946). This study of sperm on black velvet in a wide wooden frame – semen posing as paint in a work dedicated to a woman he desired – is something akin to the deliberately deployed, emotionally charged splash. (Curiously, the work was not included, or even referred to, in any of the aforementioned shows.)
Although neither Pollock nor Wols are likely to have been aware of this, since the DNA analysis proving that the ‘painting material’ was Duchamp’s semen was not performed until 1989, it is difficult not to see in their work an updating of this phallic gesture. Robert Rauschenberg and Shozo Shimamoto, on the other hand, completely exploded the framed gaze of the picture format. With dissonant materials and ‘extraneous’ trash, they unleashed events from which the results were excerpted.
In the mid-1950s in Tokyo, the artists of the Gutai group – Saburo Murakami and Kazuo Shiraga, in particular – expanded painting into action. This quite literal breakthrough, of piercing the canvas, was the most striking and symbolically charged act in the development of this approach. Gustav Metzger achieved a similar result around 1958 by swapping paint for acid. And in 1960, in Vienna, Günter Brus began using his own body as a ‘paint bomb’, throwing it with self-harming vehemence against the ‘projection screen’. In 1962, Otto Muehl recast the act of painting as a three-dimensional installation, transforming his basement studio into a sprawling labyrinth of clutter: ‘I destroy the surface, its glorious whiteness,’ Muehl is quoted as saying in the catalogue of the MOCA show, ‘everything is striving towards new and ever-newer states of being until, in the end, everything explodes. Is that not the purpose of the world?’
By the early 1970s, the body and emotion had become inseparable in art actions. Yet at Harald Szeemann’s hugely influential Documenta 5 of 1972, performance and action art were the only pioneering movements of the 1960s not to be featured. Szeemann, who had curated the controversial ‘Happening & Fluxus’ show at Cologne’s Kunstverein two years earlier, explained this by saying that it would have been ‘more than the art world can tolerate’. According to Szeemann, the time was not ripe for Schneemann’s feminist take on explicit sexuality, the sexual provocations of Muehl’s Manopsychotic Ballet (1970) or Shigeko Kubota’s Vaginal Painting (1965). It was not until 1988 that the then director of Kassel’s Museum Fridericianum, Veit Loers, devoted the first museum show to Vienna Actionism. And a further decade passed before Paul Schimmel’s ‘Out of Actions’ exhibition at MOCA in 1998 offered the first thorough account of the emergence of body art.
The Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, advocating liberation from what he called ‘the armour of character’, was one of the key sources of inspiration for the manifestos of Vienna Actionism. The artists must leave their studios – what was needed was ‘not a free zone, but freedom itself’, as Joseph Beuys demanded. Their focus was the unconscious – that which cannot be described – only finding ways out of the armour of character via total externalization.
The Actionists wrote manifestos about the dissolution of the state and the birth of anarchic society. Brus was sentenced to jail for defecating on the Austrian flag during the infamous Art and Revolution action at Vienna University on 7 June 1968. Death threats and moral panic in the press ensued. Muehl temporarily put an end to the actions and founded a commune.
How has the relationship between artists and their increasingly participatory viewers changed over the past 30 years? We now live in an age of luxurious diversity with regard to art’s production and reception; even the tiniest quest for personal experience can be blown up into an art world media circus. In the case of certain artists – Pussy Riot, Ai Weiwei – shock and provocation can still make an authoritarian political structure show its true colours. Within the more established cultural arena, however, they are just as likely to result in an insipid art experience of supposedly unpredictable actions.
What are the chances of this situation changing? Would it ever be possible for a group of artists today to set out to create an absurd take on events within the realm of the luxury/celebrity industry? Or is it no longer worth bothering about? As these latest museum shows make abundantly clear, it seems the moment of shock that blows away all attempts at classification between fear and attraction – creating an unforgettable experience for every first-hand witness – was a unique achievement of the decade between 1958 and 1968.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell