There is a contemporary folk story that casts art as the hydra of 20th-century culture, decapitated again and again – by war, mechanization, totalitarianism, capitalism, consumerism – only to generate new forms from its wounds, its immortal vitality as much horror as hope. The heroes of this story wind up, after the civilized barbarism of the Holocaust, in an escape, which might also be surrender, to the void that the image had once defined itself against – the thin, pure air, off the picture plane, of abstracted humanism. This saga was recently retold in ‘Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962’, the valedictory show from MOCA’s chief curator, Paul Schimmel. Schimmel himself fell victim to the hydra last summer, when he lost a power struggle with director Jeffrey Deitch and ‘Trustee-for-Life’ Eli Broad, avatars of a crass, condescendingly populist view of the museum. The show, even as it explored its own nostalgias, therefore became not only Schimmel’s last, but an unfortunate reminder of one casualty of his departure – the power of curation to complicate the story.
Like recent action movies, ‘Destroy the Picture’ recycled an old plot but with a darker cast, highlighting the tendency in postwar painting toward destruction as a creative mode. From the encrusted heads of Jean Fautrier to the acid washes of Gustav Metzger, it traced what might be called the last days of materialism in painting. The better-known heroics of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko or Franz Kline, and the sunny japes of Pop artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, many of which MOCA had wisely chosen to display in a permanent collection show across the way, felt almost quaint beside contemporaneous works from the likes of Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, Antoni Tàpies, Shozo Shimamoto and Lee Bontecou. If the former group were more often successful in creating bright objects of their moment, and also in protecting themselves from the price that history exacts from immoderate conviction, today the latter seem more prophetic. Now that the very being of art is generally perceived as made of the materials of mind (or collective unconscious), rather than those of god or earth, the postwar trick of attacking the painting to partake in the corruption it hides felt both crude and poignant. After all, the rebel depends on what he rejects, and ‘painting the void’ seemed to require a great deal of painting the canvas.
The poignancy was most acute in the work of artists from countries blighted by fascism. Burri’s stitching together of burned plastic and burlap salvaged from bags of Marshall Plan navy beans made the rebuilding of the European aesthetic a humiliating and makeshift affair, an act of doomed repentance, but his works also give sackcloth and ashes a literal value as materials, an irrefutable physicality which counted as the only kind of beauty left to stretch in the artist’s frame. In the lyrical canvases of his fellow Italian Fontana, all those holes and slashes seem, 60 years on, to be less an ‘escape’, as he would have it, ‘from the prison of the flat surface’ than an ode to positive ground and the taut shapes and rich colour its ragged edge could still hold. Likewise with the eaten newspaper drawings of Shimamoto, whose cracked, scratched layers create as much monumentality as fragility. And, for monumentality, one could hardly do better than the Spaniard Tàpies, whose aggregated, dun-coloured paintings feel as immovable as stone walls, even as they celebrate and demean the human prison-scratchings around their water-stained seams. Only the American Robert Mallary, whose paintings looked uprooted from the New York asphalt and hung, potholes and all, opposite those of Tàpies, contended with him for the sort of blunt heft that might crush an inattentive viewer.
But it wasn’t all so weighty, nor so enduring. The Nouveau Réalistes in France actually did rip their stuff from the streets, lifting torn layers of affichage to graphic if shallow effect. British artist John Latham was represented by a monstrous painting using half-burned books, which now seem to argue more for the value of their lost words than for any meaning Latham got from ruining them. The ‘bandaged paintings’ of ex-navy man Salvatore Scarpitta, which appeared taut and plastic in white (especially in Moby Dick [Extramural-Composition n. 3], 1958), came to seem hokey when he added colour. And Yves Klein, puckish even among this spartan company, was still unabashed in his secret love for beauty and style. His ‘Fire Paintings’ (1961) are both gaseous and magmatic but, for the purposes of Schimmel’s thesis, the photographs of Klein wielding a giant gas gun on cardboard to make them are about as destructive as it gets – and then only because he’s having so much fun he doesn’t seem to mean it, thereby either prefiguring whole generations of insouciant performance artists or simply restating Marcel Duchamp.
And then there was Bontecou. On paper, and especially in her late period, her works have always seemed too whimsical, too pleased with the decorations in their alternative universes, like those of a pulp sci-fi novelist. But in the period covered by ‘Destroy the Picture’, wrestling with young anger and the anti-dimensional recalcitrance of wire and welds, velvet and duck, she was brilliant. Her relief paintings, full of aeroplane-engine protrusions, grim yawning maws and saw-blade teeth, mock war, technology and male anxiety at once. They combine the coarse ingenuity of a gas mask with the threat of a vagina dentata, without a shred of doubt in the material truth of things, nor in the utility of the picture plane, for that matter. Instead, there is only a sadness for their misuse, for arrogance and grandiosity, incarnated into grotesque, insatiable desire. The vacuum behind these pieces still threatens to suck the viewer into oblivion, and there is little that is dated about the danger. The only consolation, and the most beautiful thing in the show, is in the hundreds of tiny copper twists that hold the contraptions together, still as bright as a new penny, each a soft record of the unrepeatable turns of a human hand.
From Bontecou, it was on to the denouement of Otto Muehl, whose knotted canvases stood in weakly for the Actionism to come, for the unstoppable march into what Fontana named, but never quite submitted to: the spatial concept. However significant the critiques and creations of Conceptualism, Schimmel’s last MOCA show gave a stirring view to a time when wrestling with materials in physical space was taken as an inarguably pictorial act. It was a time before the birth of the virtual, before the divorce of technique and creation was final, when to be literal was death, and to be symbolic was worse, but to be ironic was not entirely cool. In that sense, it was a mirror of now – is it possible we have come back around?
The show’s entrance featured two mirrored depictions of this threshold. The first was a re-creation of Saburo Murakami’s Iriguchi (Entrance, 1955), in which the artist stretched paper through an interior doorway, then hurled his body through it, creating a record of transgression through a traditional Japanese wall, never to be made whole again. The second was presumably Schimmel’s own invention, a rectangular, trompe l’oeil aperture cut through the first wall on view and beveled on its back-facing edge, such that the gallery behind the wall was framed flat, as in a living picture: museum-goers milling about, guards standing watch. It was a convincing illusion, and a brilliant stroke on Schimmel’s part – his own picturing of a void, puncturing through the museum itself just to show us, on his way out the door, how much museum walls once meant to us.