Painting is something I rarely think about, or rather is an area of art production that I admire from a distance; having little interest in the issues that most commonly dominate its discussion – image, representation, flatness, etc. This is a gross oversimplification and no doubt a sign of medium narrow-mindedness on my part, but having admitted it all the same, you might understand my surprise at being FLOORED by a painting exhibition this past week (so floored, in fact, I visited it three times in five days).
The exhibition in question was Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962, the last show Paul Schimmel organized for the embattled Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Bringing together American, European, and Japanese artists, Destroy the Picture, as its title suggests, focuses on the literal and conceptual assault of the picture plane in postwar art, and suggests this formal turn was very much a psychological, existential response to a world drastically altered by the events of WWII. As Schimmel writes in his catalogue essay, “Destruction was in a dialectical relationship with creation, and the void was a space of potentiality. From the embers of destruction of the picture plane emerged a medium reborn that powerfully registered the complex experience of living in a world perched on the brink of self-annihilation.”¹
In regards to the curatorial thesis and overall exhibition, I do not have much to add save for asserting, once again, that it is stellar. One could question the absence of Jean Dubuffet or even Asger Jorn, but these omissions are more than made up for by the inclusion of such a wonderfully diverse and yet cohesive array of artists, many who have been overlooked or underrated. The show deftly balances formal, material, and historical concerns, a feat echoed in the richly illustrated catalogue, which contains strong essays on the Italian, Japanese, and French contexts.
All of this makes for a great exhibition, but there was something more particular that brought me back to the MCA for successive visits. Walking through the galleries I was struck, pummeled really, by the overwhelming presence of matter. Destruction and violence, beyond the contextualized postwar metaphorical connotations, is evident everywhere in the exhibition, but as Schimmel suggests in his essay, this destruction is not just subtraction or negation. There are indeed rips, tears, slashes, burn marks, dark monochromatic washes that blanket entire surfaces, and expressive abstract marks that efface any semblance of representation, but there are also layers, assemblages, pigment build up that bursts from the surface, and a variety of materials creating new voluminous textures and forms. What has always attracted me most to the study of sculpture is the medium’s unavoidable contact with and transformation of matter, something the ‘paintings’ in this exhibition reminded me is not always limited to sculpture, especially in the postwar period.
The artists in Destroy the Picture do not handle such matter(s) in the same way. There are numerous works in the exhibition that, for all of their radicality, are still very much about painting. They destroy in order to create a new kind of picture. The pieces by Alberto Burri or the three black monochromes by Robert Rauschenberg are a perfect examples of what I mean. Using newsprint and fabric, these two artists build up the surface of the canvas, but do not significantly alter its traditional structure.
What the Rauschenberg’s do not do however is break the surface, something made all the more made evident by the white monochromes that flank his paintings in the gallery by Shozo Shimamoto. Rauschenberg would go on, a few years after making these monochrome paintings, to confuse the boundaries between two- and three-dimensions with his combines, but even those works, while introducing volume through the inclusion of found objects and three-dimensional forms still retain a profound image quality; their surfaces always more complex than their structures or materials.
Shimamoto, however, literally guts the surface, introducing the presence of holes to his compositions. The distinction between building up and pushing through is significant. Burri also explored the potential of the hole in his paintings, but through his tears the support, whether burlap, plastic, or canvas, remains visible. Shimamoto presents something quite different: a suggestion of space beyond, a volume both physical present and conceptually suggested. Through these voids, these fissures, the layers of material are made more apparent. The shine from the white, industrial laquer is placed in distinct contrast to the white wall behind and the white of the wood frame around. As the viewer moves, shadows appear and dissipate, the multiple tears taking on various tones of darkness and dramatically playing off one another. In Mudai (1950), the circular hole in the center right of the composition is so small, it appears almost like a peephole, luring the viewer into a space of complete darkness as opposed to the piece’s largest tear above it. I logically know that the wall exists behind both and yet as the shadows move, as I move in closer, I cannot help but imagine remote and expansive spaces moving behind the piece as well as extending out from it.
There are many other examples of artists piercing the surface in Destroy the Picture. Lucio Fontana is the most correlative to Shimamoto, as both simultaneously if independently arrived at similar innovative techniques in the early 1950s. Cumulatively, the presence of these absences, the holes or tears in the material support of painting throughout the exhibition, suggest not just the “destruction of the picture,” but the creation of an object, a thing with volume that exists in real space rather than one representing it. Depth becomes an ancillary material, creating varying spatial effects depending on how much the work extends beyond the wall as in the case of Lee Bontecou’s deep, dark holes placed at eye level or the fleeting shadows of Manolo Millares’ open string grids.
The relationship between painting as a projection, as an image to be viewed or a flat surface to be experienced, and its objecthood, or existence in the world as thing, is not a dichotomy with origins in the postwar period. The physical piercing of the paintings’ surface and structure, however, marks a distinct turning point. These pieces are not just three-dimensional objects hanging on a wall (which of course technically designates all paintings as things), but makes physically manifest the space beyond the boundaries of the materials comprising the object, of the space that is impermanent and changes as the viewer moves and the lighting shifts.
How very sculptural.Destroy the Painting is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago through 2 June 2013. Visit www.mcachicago.org for more information.
1 Paul Schimmel, "Painting the Void," in Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962 (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2o12), 188.