This twenty-six artist-deep group show that just opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is an interesting re-examination of work by renowned artists such as Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg and Antoni Tàpies, among others. Re-framed and linked together based on the work’s general responsiveness to war, specifically World War II and the Cold War, all these square pegs are smartly made to fit in round holes despite their typical standing as loners, exceptions, outcasts and iconoclasts. In addition, since artists working across Europe, the United States and Japan have been rounded up here, a prototype of a globalist approach to art making also begins to emerge.
The aforementioned artists’ lyrical, balanced and aestheticized slices, rips, punctures, splashes and sprays almost seem dainty or quaint compared to some of the grotesque physicality of other works in the show which have been flayed, pierced, burnt, scratched and shot, and have the flaked, cracked, wrinkled, sutured, scarred and puckered surfaces to prove it. The real, in all of its violent, but also fragile, materiality is hanging out in this exhibit, and unfortunately, given the visceral nature of many of these works, images just don’t do them justice.
While the title of the show indicates painting as a focus, it can only be understood in the loosest sense of the word. Many of these artists forgo paint in lieu of rocks, sawdust, dirt, tar, rags, and paper, with one of the most extreme examples being that of a slaughtered and skinned boar's hide stuck to a canvas and splattered with gloppy, gutsy red paint (by Kazuo Shiraga, a member of the Japanese Gutai group who also abandoned paint brushes for the soles of his feet, which he used to smear paint onto a canvas while suspended by a rope). Shozo Shimamoto, also a member of Gutai, took to filling glass bottles with pigment and hurling them from a rooftop onto a canvas on the street below. Not only do these gestures turn what had been the hitherto hermetic privacy of an artist’s studio practice inside outside, they make concurrent activities, such as Joseph Beuys’s shamanistic rituals, Jackson Pollock’s oil painting capoeira, and even Mathew Barney’s more recent drawing restraint BDSM, seem theatrical and staged.
Understood in this context, the impact this work has had on contemporary artistic practice makes the case for its renewed relevance. The only catch seems to be that the performative nature of these works’ creation (or is it destruction?) often becomes its central focus — if you don’t know how it’s made, it’s hard to appreciate what you’re looking at.
The exception to this rule can be found in works that also exhibit the most pop sensibility, such as the handful of Nouveau Réaliste pieces by François Dufrêne, Raymond Hains, Mimmo Rotella and Jacques Villeglé. They also bring a pop of color to the show’s otherwise sooty, grimy, muddy, bloody and tallow palette and provide an emotional full-tilt amidst the heavy, and often bleak desperation of some of their neighbors.
Shozo Shimamoto, Taiho no sakuhin (Cannon Picture), 1956. Private collection, courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp. © Associazione Shozo Shimamoto.
In addition, the Nouveau Réaliste Niki de Saint Phalle’s playful “shoot” pieces, made by shooting balloons full of paint attached to a canvas with a gun, are like a loud, comical fart amidst the self-serious, and at times sanctimonious, works in the show. And although some of these other pieces also abandon artistic control in favor of chance operations, Saint Phalle’s pieces don’t die the same slow death, marinating in their own pathos: they were made to be destroyed in an elliptical, snake-swallowing-its-own-tail kind of way. Their destruction leads to their creation — the balloons burst, the canvas is “painted.”
The lucid curation of the former Chief Curator of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Paul Schimmel, emphasizes another interesting shared element of many of the works in the show. In the best possible Rauschenberg-esque “combine” kind of way, they protrude or digress into the third dimension. Some even go as far as the fourth dimension, exemplified by the lesser known British artist John Latham whose incorporation of painted books onto the surface of his work was originally done with the intention of allowing viewers to be able to leaf through their pages.
John Latham, Untitled, August 1958; Richard Saltoun, London.
The master of it all, in my mind at least, is Lee Bontecou. It’s always a treat to see her work on view at the MCA, given the historic career retrospective they staged of it in 2004. And in her hands, welded steel, canvas and bits of wire don’t just break through the picture plane, they are so unprecedented and inventive that they truly break away from the history and tradition that so many of the other works in this show try desperately to reject, abuse, or reboot.
While the void is evoked throughout the exhibition, it’s slippery and smoky and sneaky until you’re confronted with the monumentality, precision and presence of Bontecou’s complex works. Her work is both the conceptual and material manifestation of the void, where so many others are either/or. Vacillating between two and three dimensions, between hope and despair, between materiality and the unknown, they swallow you up and ooze you out, teasing and terrifying simultaneously. Is that death, destruction, and nothingness we see when we peer into those blackened orifices? Or is it the stillness of rebirth, emerging from womb-like openings?
(Image on top: Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1962; Manfred and Jennifer Simchowitz © Lee Bontecou; Photo: Brian Forrest.)