“Destroy the Picture” at MOCA

In the standard model of art history, post-war anxiety culminated in the action painting of the New York School. MOCA’s “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962″ presents a convincing alternative. Europe and Japan felt the war’s horrors most directly, and their postwar artists evolved a deeper shade of nihilism. “Destroy the Picture” is about artists who slashed, tore, and poked their canvases; subjected them to guns, cannons, flamethrowers, or hydrochloric acid. Many got tons of mock-outraged media coverage (much as “Jack the Dripper” did), only to be forgotten by later generations.

The first galleries feature the two least-appreciated painters in MOCA’s Panza collection, Jean Fautier and Antoni Tàpies. This exhibition does a fine job of putting them in context. (One room of the permanent collection galleries has been rehung with additional Tàpies paintings and should not be missed.) There are signature pieces by Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, and Lee Bontecou; a selection of Rauschenberg black paintings, Yves Klein fire paintings (left), and Niki de Saint Phalle gun paintings.

There are several artists associated with the Gutai group, too little known in the U.S. They published a manifesto praising “the novel beauty to be found in works of art and architecture of the past which have changed their appearance due to the damage of time or destruction by disasters… The fact that the ruins receive us warmly and kindly after all, and that they attract us with their cracks and flaking surfaces, could this not really be a sign of the material taking revenge, having recaptured its original life?”

The exhibition’s most intriguing sub-theme is how post-Hiroshima Japanese artists confronted their refined tradition of aestheticism. Fragile as an eggshell, a 1951 Work by Shozo Shimamoto (right) seems part of the tradition it subverts.

The show’s explanation point is Gustav Metzger’s recreation of his 1961 Auto-Destructive Art. Clad in gas mask and gloves, Metszger sprayed hydrochloric acid on red, white, and black nylon sheets. Metzger wrote of an “aesthetic of revulsion” intended as a political critique. Yet the bold colors, eroded into gay pennants, look like a high-style party decoration. The performance itself recalls something you’d see on The Learning Channel, or a MOCA gala.

This art was influential to the post-AbEx generation of Americans. Burri is half-forgotten today, but he was once such a star that the young Rauschenberg made a pilgrimage to his Milan studio. Neither could speak the other’s language. Rauschenberg offered as a gift a tiny artwork of his own: a box of sand containing a fly. On his return to America, he scaled up the gift: bigger boxes, larger dead livestock. He made his first combines.

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