The last gallery of “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-62″ has stuck with me ever since I saw it at the Museum of Contemporary Art last fall. The exhibition is now at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where it’s on view through June 2.
Curator Paul Schimmel’s exhibition examines the way artists responded to the unprecedented killing and destruction of World War II by attacking the picture plane, often literally. Artists such as Lucio Fontana, Shozo Shimamoto and Saburo Murakami punched or shot holes in it. Alberto Burri sewed canvas around traditional painting stretchers, demonstrating how it frayed and needed to be patched. Much of the work in the exhibition was made a decade after the end of the war. Objects such as Burri’s mid-1950s “Sackcloths” made from the canvas in which Americans shipped over Marshall Plan-funded goods, seem like a summing up of 15 years of war and want. [Image: Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1962. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.]
The last gallery featured the work of two artists: Lee Bontecou and Salvatore Scarpitta. The untitled Bontecous were signature welded steel, canvas and soot constructions from the early 1960s. Made up of strips of different-colored canvas joined by welded steel and wire, they recall camouflage and threaten depersonalized, mechanized violence. The closer I stand to them, the less comfortable I am.
Across the gallery, Schimmel installed roughly contemporary constructions by Salvatore Scarpitta. Several of them, such as 1958-59’s Mas Tres (Three More) (below, left) are made from bandages wrapped around canvas. Another, 1963’s Racer’s Pillow, is built out of wood, canvas paint and straps, and recalls a bloody stretcher. It was as if the art on one side of the gallery led to the art on the other side.
Unlike most of the other work in the exhibition, the Bountecou-Scarpitta dialogue was less a summation or a backward glance and something more like early Cold War analysis, even warning. (More on that in a minute.) I guess that’s not a surprise: As Americans, they didn’t have the same personal relationship with war and recovery that the Europeans and Japanese did. Their work has a certain urgency, a compulsion to investigate present and perhaps future circumstances. That topical urgency had been present in European art since Dada, but it wasn’t so evident in then-recent American art, especially in the dominant Thing of the day: abstract expressionism. Standing in that Bontecou-Scarpitta gallery, I wondered how that happened, how after a decade or two during which American art was dominated by abstract painting, artists pivoted toward addressing contemporary geopolitics. It seems an extraordinary leap.
One answer, the easy one, is suggested by then-current events: In 1960, the year Bontecou turned from making welded steel sculpture toward her signature wall-mounted constructions, the United States sent 3,500 soldiers to Vietnam. Bontecou would continue making these pieces until about 1966, when there were roughly 20 times as many U.S. soldiers in Vietnam as when she started. Also in 1960, the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane and an American B-47 strategic bomber, both dramatic escalations in the Cold War. Scarpitta’s works are full of straps and buckles, reminiscent of how pilots are strapped into planes and to parachutes. I sometimes wonder if the Bontecous, replete with ocular orifices, reference the Soviet shootdowns.
But that’s too easy, too direct. Fortunately, “Destroy the Picture” suggests a smarter way that American artists might have pivoted toward a more direct engagement with the Cold War, and it starts, perhaps surprisingly enough, with abstract expressionism.
While I have a deep and profound interest in abstract expressionism, I think it has been in a way heroicized and isolated, stripped of its autobiography, stripped of its politics, and stripped in some ways of its global implications,” Schimmel told me when we talked about his show on The Modern Art Notes Podcast. “I think we’re creating hopefully context that makes a much larger vessel in which a much broader array of artists can be written into a narrative.”
Bontecou herself has tried to explain how she might be written into that narrative. In an interview curator Elizabeth A.T. Smith cited in her catalogue of Smith’s 2003 retrospective of Bontecou’s work, Bontecou said that “the individual freedom inherent in abstract expressionism energized and electrified the art world, particularly [the abstract expressionists'] dual use of paint itself as both subject and object. It was from their spirit of individual expression the following generations would be influenced.” [Emphasis mine.]
In other words, Bontecou believed that the abstract expressionists taught her and her generation that the individual had agency, and that the abexers encouraged them to make use of the same materials that the subjects of the work used. (Hence steel, camouflage-toned canvas, soot, straps, buckles and so on.) [Image: Bontecou, Untitled, 1961. Collection of the Walker Art Center.]
Schimmel’s show reminds us that there was another reason artists felt like they had agency in the wake of World War II: One of the major storylines of World War II was that armies no longer exclusively targeted other armies, they also targeted civilian populations. (Witness the Nazi executions of tens of thousands of ethnic Poles or the American firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo, let alone our use of the atomic bomb.) Artists in Japan and Italy and elsewhere felt like since because the armies of war had specifically targeted them and their fellow countrymen, that the artists had a particular right, even an imperative, to respond to that communal experience through their work. Bontecou explained how Americans arrived at a similar place.
It’s a great gallery, one that provides a perfect starting point for a whole ‘nother exhibition someday, one about American art during the Vietnam era.