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Paul Schimmel's Last Show as MOCA's Chief Curator Features Artists Who Destroy Their Canvases

A welded steel, wire and canvas construction by Lee Bontecou, from 1962
A welded steel, wire and canvas construction by Lee Bontecou, from 1962
PHOTO BY BRIAN FORREST

Kazuo Shiraga used to lay canvas out on the floor of his small Tokyo studio and slide around, spreading paint with his feet. Photos of him in action conjure up those fantastic images of Jackson Pollock that ended up on postage stamps, where Pollock crouches, splattering paint down on a huge canvas while a cigarette hangs from his lips and a tin paint bucket hangs from his hand.

Shiraga never had a cigarette or a bucket, though. He was the more elegant of the two cross-culture contemporaries and maybe the more eccentric. Often, he'd suspend himself above the floor by rope so he could slide more fluidly around the room, and once he took the whole skin of a boar and covered it in smears of red paint so it looked like a gross and bloody crime scene spread across canvas.

Before Shiraga started making his foot paintings, he trained as a traditional Japanese artist, which means he likely could render intricate landscapes with ethereal watercolor washes and write in flawless calligraphy. Curator Paul Schimmel saw some of Shiraga's early work when he visited the artist's studio 15 years ago — he included Shiraga, who died in 2008, in his 1998 MOCA show "Out of Actions," about the objects and images artists' performances generate.

"Show me what's between this and this," Schimmel said to Shiraga, pointing to the traditional paintings and then the physical work the artist started making circa 1952. "'Nothing,' " he remembers Shiraga saying. "There was a void." Japan had surrendered, World War II had ended and the emperor had been demoted. The world Shiraga knew was battered and unrecognizable. What could he do but start from scratch?

That visit with Shiraga inspired the title for Schimmel's new exhibition, "Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962," or at least the title's second half. The show opens this weekend in MOCA's Grand Avenue galleries and includes work by Shiraga and 25 other artists who scarred, cut or, as Schimmel puts it, "literally assaulted" the picture plane in the years following WWII.

The show is significant for a few reasons, one of the most immediate being that it's Schimmel's last show as chief curator at MOCA, a job he has held for 22 years. When things turned sour at MOCA this summer and a board of trustees headed by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad forced Schimmel's resignation, artist-trustees like Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari left MOCA's board because they were uncomfortable with the museum's new direction, and editorials on the matter became too plentiful to count. But everyone made a point to note: "Destroy the Picture" would still happen.

Schimmel agreed only to talk about this current exhibition and his work as a curator. While there has been media speculation that his relatively academic approach clashed with the push toward populism of MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who was appointed in 2010, all that seems beside the point with "Destroy the Picture." This is a particularly easy exhibition to get and get into, with a through-line that's visceral and unmissable.

When Lucio Fontana started poking holes and cutting slits in his canvases in Italy, Shiraga and compatriots Shozo Shimamoto and Saburo Murakami were trying similar tactics in Japan. "They didn't know what they were doing at this point," says Schimmel as he stands looking at these artists' earlier works, hung in the exhibit's first two galleries. But by the time French artist Yves Klein took a flamethrower to cardboard surfaces to make the work hanging a few rooms away, and Alberto Burri, working in Italy and later in L.A., set fire to plastic and then affixed it to canvas, artists did know what they were doing and they knew about each other.

That's another thing about "Destroy the Picture" that feels significant — it suggests that globalism, a term that really just entered the art lexicon these last two decades, has much earlier roots. There's a great painting that hangs in the middle of the exhibition, a tall, narrow one with paint drips coming out of the skins of popped balloons and sliding down over a hatchet, a shoe and other objects attached near the bottom of the painting's surface. French artist Niki de Saint Phalle made this, using a rifle to shoot the paint-filled balloons before putting the painting on a Paris stage in 1961. American painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, then on the verge of becoming proto-pop icons, installed artwork around hers, while French artist Jean Tinguely let loose an automated sculpture and pianist David Tudor played "Variations II," a particularly complicated composition by John Cage.

There are other stories like this — about the time Rauschenberg spent with Burri in Italy, for example, or about Klein's trips to Japan. This international trend to "destroy the picture" was by no means coincidence.

"The world was never smaller than it was during World War II," says Schimmel. After Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, what could feel more out of touch than a smoothly primed white canvas? "How could you make a painting on a coherent surface after all that?"

But World War II shrunk the world without erasing divisions and animosities — it intensified them instead in certain ways, as wars are apt to do. This means that when the Gutai group of Japanese artists, which included Shiraga, invited a Life magazine writer and photographer out to document a performance of theirs in 1956, the story never ran. It was too soon to show pictures of artists from a conquered nation aggressively smashing paint-filled bottles and smearing pigment with their bodies.

This also means an American artist like Lee Bontecou, the only woman other than Saint Phalle in "Destroy the Picture," who would leave black holes — or voids — in the middle of welded steel spirals that protruded outward, is often seen as being singular, an angry lady-artist who took a solitary dark turn in response to the ravages of war. But she lived and worked in Italy in the 1950s, when Fontana and Burri were active there, and when American artist Salvatore Scarpetta was there, too, making paintings that looked like bandages piled on top of each other.

"I was amazed at the fact that they" — other curators — "kept presenting Lee as an outsider," Schimmel says, stopping in front of a series of her works from the early '60s. "Look around," he says. "This is her world."

It's not a comfy world, and artists in it change as the years wear on. Burri starts burning more plastic. Scarpetta abandons his bandages and starts cutting gashes into shiny, resin-covered surfaces. Bontecou's works start to look more and more like monsters. Something about this intensity feels particularly potent right now, to artists especially. "A lot of artists are excited about this show," Schimmel says.

One of the show's main financial backers is 40-year-old L.A. artist Sterling Ruby, whose recent bulbous vessels have included broken glass and intestinal or bonelike formations. He wrote a statement that had the tenor of a manifesto in 2010, in which he says, "I am smashing all of my previous attempts, and futile, contemporary gestures, and placing them into a mortar, and grinding them down with a blunt pestle."

This act, he writes, is a way of dealing with a shared burden 21st-century artists still have. Global atrocities didn't end with World War II; they kept coming, and maybe, Ruby says, that's why visceral abstraction has made a comeback in contemporary art.

April Street thought about a number of the artists in "Destroy the Picture," particularly the Gutai group, when making the work for her new show at Carter & Citizen. For this work, she shaped hosiery by wrapping it around her body, then draped that hosiery off some canvases and used it to tie others together. "There is no way I can know what it was like to make a painting in the postwar climate the artists in this show lived in," she says. "But I understand that when everything around me is chaotic, and my mind is locked in reality and helplessness, my own physicality becomes my most important instrument for change."

Schimmel suspects others feel the way Ruby and Street do. "These artists [in 'Destroy the Picture'] are fighting against the tendency to have a signature style," he says. "They're trying to make their work more political, more environmental. I think that's what younger artists respond to."

This show revises history in a way that makes it just a little more relevant to artists working here now, who have always been a critical and eager audience for his shows, and who will appreciate the gesture.

DESTROY THE PICTURE: PAINTING THE VOID, 1949-1962 | MOCA Grand Avenue, 250 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Oct. 6-Jan. 14 | moca.org


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