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.