Destruction is a form of creation. While this is not a totally novel idea (it goes back at least to postmodernism), it is a complicated one. Paradoxically, the act of destroying, seemingly impulsive and susceptible to the element of chance, can’t quite be compacted into the act alone. There’s a lot of bleed-through within the pockets of negative space that remain, shameless and unyielding, after the things that once occupied them are removed. It’s common knowledge among physicists and artists alike that matter never fully disappears, but merely changes shape. So, in conflating that fact with the fate of an object that is ripped, smashed, or burned away from our immediate viewing experience, it begs the question: If the physical presence of a thing has been obliterated, where does its energy really go?
On art, I can say two things with certainty: first, that art is fundamentally reactionary, and second, that art is inherently political. Destroy the Picture, a long-term exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and—as its title suggests—a show concerned with the effects and affects of destroyed art, takes aim at these axioms with a boldness that is as impressive conceptually as it is aesthetically. Attentive to art produced during the postwar period (1949–62), the exhibit presents works born from the anxiety, frustrations, and general existential crises invoked by the mass physical and psychic destruction of the war.
The works featured in this show act as distilled visual manifestations of this “bad feeling.” Motivated by fear, anger, and confusion, the artists literally attacked the canvas to express and, through the process of art making, to lessen the massive psychological burden of being. In many ways, the paintings produced at this time served as a cathartic release, pulling out from within the self deeply embedded feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and other anxieties, and reorienting them into a physical thing that was as much a container as an art object.
But as significant as the physicality of the object itself was in dealing with the psychic and social damage of the war, the process by which these objects were introduced into the world and then obliterated by it was just as meaningful, if not more so. This becomes apparent when one looks at the variety of techniques used by artists in Destroy the Picture to destroy their pictures—from the blowtorches used by American artist Lee Bontecou to French-born Niki de Saint Phalle’s penchant for shooting her paintings with a rifle. Each tool holds symbolic weight in dismantling and ultimately reproducing the meaning of the artwork featured. So clearly influenced by the particular tools used in World War II and the lingering fear of nuclear warfare, it is unsurprising that many of the show’s artists opted to manipulate their work with abrasive chemicals that bite into the material and, at times, totally disintegrate it.
As Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga demonstrates in his piece “Wildboar Hunting 1,” destruction is not necessarily an act of reduction. While other featured artists like John Latham, Yves Klein, and Lucio Fontana reveal a means of destroying art by creating negative space and visual cues of disintegration through their mixed techniques of removing, burning, and slicing into the canvas, Shiraga proposes that things might be destroyed by adding the physical and symbolic weight of other things.
“Wildboar Hunting 1” is familiar in its rectangular dimensions and appears to be an Abstract Expressionist painting from a distance, but any comforts of similarity end there. Move closer to the painting, and its rich oxblood-red hues and gorgeous sculptural qualities suddenly become grotesque as tufts of fur and hints of the snout of a wild boar emerge from the sticky mess of reds, browns, and blacks. Using his feet to smear layers of viscous red paint upon the pelt of a boar he shot and skinned himself, Shiraga reveals, through the violent abstraction and obfuscation of the boar itself, that to destroy an object does not necessitate a material removal of that object from the world. Rather than obliterating an object to create a void, one can destroy an object by overwhelming it with other material. In other words, one can destroy an object just as easily by filling a void than by carving one.
To return to the ideological nucleus of the exhibit, which presents the act of destroying as a form of creating, the two actions now seem more interconnected than ever. The unremitting violence of World War II no doubt created very real physical voids. In attempting to grapple with these pockets of negative space—of unjustified violence and existential ennui—postwar artists fearlessly attacked and dismantled their work to create new social and psychic meaning. Destroy the Picture suggests that destruction not only sustains the creative process, but also impels it; one cannot exist without the other, and furthermore, the two are interwoven in a self-sustaining cycle. In cultivating a new and dynamic form of art from the bleak aftermath of war, the exhibition’s artists are an inspiration of creative vitality, demonstrating that not just alchemists and heroes of fantasy can produce something from nothing.
Destroy the Picture, Museum of Contemporary Art, through June 2.