Review: MOCA’s ‘Destroy the Picture’ boldly steps into the void

Painting, especially abstract painting, is an inescapable metaphor for the human body. A canvas is a skin stretched taut over a skeleton of stretcher bars. Paint applied to the surface records humanity’s condition at any given period in time.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, that condition is pretty grim in a new exhibition of older abstract painting. “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962" compellingly surveys an art of creative destruction in the generation following the unspeakable cataclysm of World War II.

The void isn’t what it used to be. During the war and its immediate aftermath, global civilization stared straight into the abyss. What it saw there was slaughter, holocaust and the blinding flash of nuclear annihilation — human degradation and material destruction so horrific, so soul-numbing that one could be forgiven for insisting on looking away.

A phalanx of artists in Europe, the United States and Japan refused to. Escape was not an option.

Coming to terms with the trauma — with the seemingly impenetrable darkness of the void — was necessary. Abstract painting was the quintessential achievement that distinguished the 20th century’s first half and, if it wasn’t exactly responsible for what happened, it was certainly a language of spiritual optimism that had been thrown into grave doubt.


Abstract painting’s bodily metaphor was the vehicle for a wide variety of artists. For the 26 represented in “Destroy the Picture,” destruction was their chosen strategy. There’s one unfortunate absence, which we’ll get to in a moment, but the show makes its case with determination and verve.

The entry to the loosely chronological exhibition features a large, square window into galleries that lie beyond — a literal void opening onto the future. On a side wall above a large, disconcertingly elegant 1945 painting by Jean Fautrier titled “Dépouille” — French for skin or mortal remains — its scabbed surface a thickened mixture of pigments suggestive of rotting viscera, a quote from the artist introduces the show: “Painting is something that cannot be destroyed, it must destroy itself to be reinvented.”

Across the way, the show’s doorway is covered by Saburo Murakami’s 1955 “Entrance” — a paper membrane dividing rooms that, when the show opens Saturday, will be violently torn open for passage between spaces. What follows are 11 more galleries that together form a virtual catalog of ruinous motifs.

Punctured paintings by Lucio Fontana were pierced by an awl in linear patterns, a stabbed equivalent of surface drawing that suggests bullet-strafed walls.

Flayed canvases by Alberto Burri are pieced together from ripped and patched burlap. Fabric tears are sometimes highlighted with gold paint, like sanctified stigmata.

Robert Rauschenberg’s jet-black fields of torn, crumpled and tattered newsprint seem as if they have barely survived incineration. Five of the seminal black paintings from his influential career, made between 1951 and ’53, are an early high point in the show.

Shozo Shimamoto layered big sheets of rice paper, painted the surface a yellowed white, then drew with a sharp pencil that sliced it open — a traditional shoji screen undone.

Chiyu Uemae’s paintings, clotted with paint and sawdust, appear blistered from within and without.

Shredded street advertisements by Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé create internal drawings from the torn edges of paper — violent abstractions formed as if from submerged thoughts within the commercial culture of a society struggling to regain its footing.

Strips of canvas wound around stretcher bars and pulled apart with cables give Salvatore Scarpitta’s work an aura of industrial mummification.

Punctured, flayed, torn, tattered, sliced, peeled, shredded, bandaged — creating through destructive actions was a strategy that emerged simultaneously around the world. Some might regard it as merely an emblem of the capitalist cycles of boom and bust that Marx identified. But Europe was a pile of rubble, Japan a shocked mound of ash. America wasn’t physically touched, except in the isolated Pacific, yet the psychic scarring went deep.

Sometimes artists knew what others were up to, partly thanks to the new practice of international exhibitions sponsored by governments and independent groups hoping that cultural exchanges might increase understanding — staving off future catastrophe or, in the face of the Korean War, conflagration in Algeria and totalitarian repression in Spain, containing it.

Others developed independently. Shimamoto in Japan and Fontana in Italy were artists who had no idea that the other was also slicing open paintings to transform pictorial illusions of space into material manifestations of it.

There is even evidence of a deeply human recognition that, let’s face it, destruction is a thrill. When self-taught artist Niki de Saint Phalle attached bags of paint to canvases collaged with old shoes, chicken wire, broken toys and other trash, then took aim with a shotgun and pulled the trigger, the runny colors of red, yellow and blue paint represented “war without victims,” as she explained. But she was channeling destructive thrills into having a literal blast.

Saint Phalle’s work is, like Hain’s and a few others, unusual too in its use of color. By contrast, the rest of the show is almost uniformly limited to black (the void), brown (dirt), red (blood) and white (emptiness). Maybe half a dozen of the 85 works deviate from this grimy palette.

Some of it goes way overboard too — notably the melodramatic paintings of Kazuo Shiraga, who sometimes painted by kicking cans of color with his feet. The weakest is a large Shiraga dressed in the furry skin of a wild boar clotted with blood-red paint and “entrails” made from thick swabs of glue. Painting’s poetic materials here give way to bombastic figurative representation — a corny neo-Fauve “wild beast.”

But there is plenty of poetry here, some of it of the epic sort. Especially fine are works by Murakami, Shimamoto, Fontana, Rauschenberg and a few others. A final gallery assembles relatively minor paintings by three German and Austrian artists, a wry footnote from the original source countries of the motivating catastrophe. It is Lee Bontecou’s ferocious reliefs made from military canvas stitched with wire that end the show on an aesthetic high note.

One omission is worth noting. Painting is only being loosely defined when the diverse materials aren’t limited to canvas and paint. In this context, it would have been exciting to see the gouged, torn and punctured clay vessels made by Peter Voulkos in 1950s Los Angeles, which could have been juxtaposed with Fontana’s similarly “destroyed” ceramics of the postwar years.

Slab clay is merely a support for fluid glaze, after all, and vessels are by definition bodily abstractions that enclose a void.

Like Voulkos, who also painted, Japan’s Gutai Group and Europeans associated with movements such as Art Informel aren’t encountered nearly as often as American Abstract Expressionists, which MOCA has smartly installed in its permanent collection galleries for comparison. Former MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, whose final show for the museum this is, has built the exhibition around less familiar work, some of it from the museum’s collection. The idea was born from his marvelous 1998 show, “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979.”

The great Fautrier at the entrance almost wasn’t acquired by MOCA in 1986 because the artist was considered a minor figure not nearly so desirable as Rothko, Franz Kline and others in the nearby permanent collection rooms. The compelling revisionist history at the core of “Destroy the Picture” carries an implicit cautionary note: An absorbing, surprising show is a testament to the potential power of the long museum-view.