The title of a new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art presents a spin on the old question about the artist's proper response to war: What does it look like to paint a void? You could reconceptualize the loss created by World War II, for instance, as an act of creation—the war didn't just coincide with the birth of the nuclear age but served as midwife to it. Abstract artists in the postwar era responded not just by painting the void but by literally attacking the canvas to reveal what was behind it. Which turned out to be nothing—a wall. The back of a canvas.
Cutting into it is far from the only form of violence you can visit on a canvas. "Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962" features all sorts of artists' assaults. It began with one, too: at an opening a couple Fridays ago, Tomohiko Murakami leaped through a sheet of gold paper into the next room of the gallery. This was in tribute to his father, Saburo Murakami, who debuted this piece—Entrance—in 1955. The elder Murakami would break through the canvas's surface at the beginning of an exhibit, leave the remnants up throughout, and then destroy the canvas afterward. The MCA performance took all of ten seconds; the assembled crowd applauded, and then politely filed through the hole.
Through that makeshift door are a collection of Jean Fautrier's coarsely textured oil paintings, a series he called Otages, which resemble enormous scabs on canvases—an apt metaphor in a show rife with them. Curated by Paul Schimmel, "Destroy the Picture" peels the scab developed by the war. Its artists pick apart the canvas as they build upon it: they flay it, they burn it, they shoot it with guns. In an introductory essay Schimmel notes that, since the Renaissance, the flat surface of the canvas has been "invested with symbolic meaning," an inviolable space that the postwar abstractionists went out of their way to violate. The Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga—like Murakami a member of the avant-garde Gutai school—painted with his feet, leaving little doubt about the measure of his respect for the medium. Those paintings are less disturbing than another, particularly gruesome work nearby: Shiraga shot a wild boar, skinned it, affixed the pelt to a canvas, and smeared it with red paint. Inoshishi-gari 1—that's Wild Boar Hunting 1—is shockingly violent, and breathtaking.
He's one of many artists here—Japanese, Italian, and French—for whom the work is a response to violence, physical or spiritual, that they'd experienced. Gustav Metzger, in his 1961 South Bank Demonstration (reconstructed for this exhibit), substituted hydrochloric acid for paint. Making the medium the mechanism of the piece's own destruction, he sprayed the acid at sheets of nylon, dissolving them in seconds. Metzger was raised in Nuremberg by Polish Jewish parents who were killed by the Nazis in 1943. South Bank Destruction was an example of his "auto-destructive art" movement, which he once explained like this: "When I saw the Nazis march, I saw machine-like people and the power of the Nazi state. Auto-destructive art is to do with rejecting power."
Niki de Saint Phalle, in the vibrantly colored Shooting Painting American Embassy, attached bags of paint to a backboard and shot them with a gun, relinquishing control over the project's outcome but creating a work of surprising beauty anyway. Alberto Burri—a medic in the Italian army who began his painting career in a Texas prison, as a POW—used a blowtorch to create works of melted plastic that bring to mind industrial disaster or nuclear holocaust. (There's a video of Burri at work that you see and think, "Wow, that must smell terrible.") Elsewhere, Burri's stitched and painted burlap sacks, in shades of brown and gold, look like aerial shots of fallow fields—or the view from a bomber plane. More direct claims to violence—like Shiraga's or Metzger's—aside, the show gains power from the works' abstraction: where no horror is specified, the viewer is free to imagine it.
Which is part of how these works resonate, 50 or more years after their creation. One piece by the French artist Yves Klein evokes a city on fire. Klein visited Japan in 1952, and in Hiroshima he found the shadow of a man on a rock, imprinted there by the nuclear blast. Klein reproduced the image in his "fire paintings," which he created by blowtorching sheets of cardboard onto which he'd dripped water or, later, impressed with the bodies of wetted young women. These haunting, ethereal works look like photo negatives, where the unaffected spots shine brightly through the scorching. In one fire painting, the fieriest part seems to be a cascade of sparks down the middle, but it strikes you that that's the only part that's unburned—Klein has painted with fire all around it. The line between creation and destruction is clear, but clearer still is the notion that these artists value both.