5:31 PM EST, February 18, 2013
It's not every day you get invited to witness a museum destroy a work of art.
And not just any work of art — a nearly 60-year-old piece from the Japanese master Saburo Murakami. In fact, because Murakami died in 1996, the Museum of Contemporary Art invited his son to do the destroying.
His son accepted.
Don't be alarmed.
The MCA's new show, "Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962," a somewhat counterintuitive, revisionist assemblage, is about the role of destruction in the act of creation. There are more than 80 works by 26 artists, an international gathering that includes Robert Rauschenberg, Gerard Deschamps, Lucio Fontana. And there is not a single piece that has not been scratched, scraped, distressed, banged, flayed, torn, tarred, stabbed, shot, soiled, poked, punched, torched, splattered with graffiti, smashed with paint bombs, stitched together with medical bandages and burlap sacks or, my personal favorite, doused with hydrochloric acid.
A few days before the show opened with its destruction last weekend, I was informed it would be flailed at. Sitting in an MCA gallery, chief curator Michael Darling, surrounded by the ravaged and razed, looked at a painting by British artist John Latham that had been made using a spray gun and said: "The disrespect here, it's as radical as a Jackson Pollock. Here were a group of artists who felt, at the end of the day, they were constrained by the canvas and needed to take the next logical step. They needed to break through it."
Paul Schimmel is a roly-poly 58, wears Cosby sweaters and has a graying mane of gravitas-rich hair.
"Destroy the Picture," a big hit in Los Angeles, is his baby. A few days before the Murakami would be destroyed, he agreed to meet while the show was being installed. Schimmel is an art historian, a beloved, somewhat controversial figure within the art world, known for his ambitious shows highlighting underappreciated artists. He is a rare bird, a Los Angeles art authority from New York who does not believe the history of 20th century art must veer through Manhattan to be told. Last summer, when he was ousted from his job after 22 years as curator of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, it was news, covered by both Vanity Fair and the Los Angeles Times (which was told he did not get along with MOCA's director).
"Destroy the Picture" was his last
I asked if all the art was intentionally damaged.
"This is not vandalism!" he said, worried I was missing the point of the show. "This is not random destruction!" Then lowering his voice, "This is not secondhand harm — we are not encouraging anyone to attack paintings or inspiring them to do harm."
He sees the show as being about the first case of globalism in art, he said. A number of artists returned to their homes after World War II and, having seen destruction, "decided to make a violent break with tradition." The world felt smaller because of shared experiences, "and many artists across the globe began to see creation and destruction as inextricably tied together, like death and birth. The big question, see, is why?" he said. "These are artists of the same generation, many of them working in the 1950s, whose works share remarkable similarities, despite having no knowledge of each other. Put (their works) together, though, and you have an opportunity as a historian to make a significant shift in people's perceptions of art history."
As we walked, he pointed to the visual coherence of the pieces; indeed, many had the appearance of pocked walls, battered abstractions. He said these pieces may be the missing link between the collages of Picasso and the neo-expressionistic graffiti of Basquiat. He mentioned that a few pieces vaguely appear to be a prelude to the pop-art work of Warhol. As he continued, anecdotes and histories and artists tumbled out in a flood. "This!" he said, moving between galleries, "This is total destruction, an assault on Western painting!"
I pointed out that, to the literal-minded, the title, "Destroy the Picture," might seem like a misnomer: Can it really be a destroyed painting when the destroying was intended? In fact, several works — for instance, Lee Bontecou's stark volcanoes of welded steel and sooted fabrics — sort of seem the opposite of destroyed.
He smiled the smile of the tolerant.
He pointed to the gaping hole in a Bontecou — he pointed around the room at several disturbing, gaping holes — and said that black hole, that negative space, often in the center of the pieces, counts. It is, of course, a literal break in the canvas itself.
Nearby was Gustav Metzger's "South Bank Demo," an installation of tattered strips of colored nylon. The nylon had been stretched and sprayed with acid, Schimmel explained. "You know, in the 1960s, Metzger held a famous symposium on destruction and art. And Yoko Ono attended, and while she was there, in London, she was picked up by a gallery. So she stayed, John Lennon saw her work, the Beatles broke up!"
This piece destroyed the Beatles, I said.
"Indirectly! Maybe!" Schimmel said.
We walked past crinkled sheet metal from a plane engine (more found art than destroyed art), a painting made with the artist's feet (more disrespected art than destroyed art). "The artist told me, you know, after you have been painting with your feet awhile, it's hard not to be good at it," Schimmel said. We admired a large, disturbing canvas, a mash of fur in a vague outline of an animal. It's by Kazuo Shiraga, the guy who painted with his feet. "Oh, that is a wild boar," Schimmel said. "A real wild boar. Shiraga shot it. He painted in the entrails, I think, but the fur is real. How did he get its fur on here, and how hasn't it cracked? No friggin' idea."
We stopped before a tall board covered in Japanese newsprint that had been hacked at. It was from Shozo Shimamoto. It's intended to be the first thing that people see after the destroyed Murakami, Schimmel said. I pointed out the dates on the Shimamoto information card: "1928-2013." Schimmel said the artist had died recently, only a few weeks ago, "but he was a wild man! He came to Los Angeles once and shaved off all his hair, then asked all of these famous artists — Yoko, Marina Abramovic — to sign his head, then he never washed it off and just let his hair grow over it. Which is wonderful, isn't it? Isn't that what art is all about?"
A couple of days later, when the time came to destroy the Murakami — a kind of ceremonial way of opening the show — Tomohiko Murakami, the artist's son, now in his 60s and a university professor of pop culture in Kobe, Japan, appeared at the MCA with his wife and two 20-something children. He wore a blue coat and white pants and cream-colored Chuck Taylor sneakers, and Schimmel, in a suit, said, "Your father's memory continues to grow." They bowed and Schimmel guided him around the show a bit.
Then it was time.
The piece to be destroyed is called "Entrance." It has been destroyed — and re-created and destroyed — several times since its debut at a 1955 Tokyo art exhibition. It is made to Saburo Murakami's specifications: a 12-by-10-foot wall constructed of taut layers of heavy paper and cardboard covered in gold leaf. The senior Murakami would build the work, then violently hurl himself through it, creating a gallery entrance.
"Very high," Tomohiko Murakami said, staring up at the work.
"Superman, we need," Schimmel replied.
Murakami stepped back.
He has done this a few times, he told me through a translator. He is nervous each time but understands his father's art better each time too. He has also learned that the secret to destroying his father's art is to not think of his father or art or the work's meaning but, rather, "nothing at all."
"Mr. Murakami, whenever you're ready," said the MCA's Darling.
Murakami took off his coat, walked slowly to the painting, stood a moment before it, looked upward.
Then sprung forward in a violent spasm of windmilling arms and kicking legs. He created a square, squat entrance. Inspected it. Then turned and bowed. I whispered to Schimmel, "How much is this piece worth?"
"That's the thing," he whispered back. "It's never been monetized. It's worth the experience, which is a lot."
Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC