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Destroy The Picture: Painting The Void, 1949-1962 At The MCA

By Amy Cavanaugh in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 17, 2013 10:00PM

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1959. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold H. Maremont, 1960. © Lee Bontecou

There are literal holes in the paintings on view in Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962, which opened this weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. But there aren’t holes in the content, which melds together in a thoughtful, cohesive show that focuses on the artistic response to global destruction in the years after World War II.

Paul Schimmel, former Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Los Angeles, curated the show at MOCA, and the MCA's Michael Darling organized it in Chicago. It’s a revisionist show of 85 works by 26 artists from Japan, Spain, France, Italy, the U.S., and other countries, most of which had direct involvement in World War II. While the modes of destruction vary—Yves Klein used fire, Shozo Shimamoto used bullets, Lucio Fontana used razor blades, Raymond Hains depended on paper’s fragility—the artists were all responding to the physical and psychological impacts of World War II.

Jean Fautrier, a French artist, created mixed media works that clearly support the metaphor that a painting's surface is flesh. From the woods outside Paris, Fautrier heard Nazis torturing people, and his paintings resemble scarred bodies. There’s Head of a Hostage, No. 1, in which the predominant color resembles dried blood and in which a single eye appears half open. Antoni Tàpies lived through the Spanish Civil War and his mixed media canvases are a response to a youth spent in hiding. His Hammered Grey, 1959, is a monochrome canvas with an outline hammered into it—is it a gravestone? A window? Many of the works on display commingle fear and hope, like American Lee Bontecou’s four works from 1959-1962. All untitled, these are standouts. She used welded steel, wire, canvas, velvet and other fabrics to create three-dimensional structures that leap out from the wall. They’re like futuristic machines that fell to Earth and the black holes in the center suggest mystery and fear.

At times, it seems like the works on display, like bullet-addled sheet metal, charred books, and canvases dusted with soil, are the found remains of war. But there are several videos on view of the artists creating work that lay that feeling to rest. There’s Kazuo Shiraga skating along a canvas, applying blood-red paint with his feet. There’s Yves Klein, dapper in a vest and tie, making fire paintings inspired by a visit to Hiroshima, where he saw a man’s silhouette imprinted onto a rock after the atomic bomb. These works are so deeply connected with war that it’s hard to believe that they were never previously shown together.

French artist Niki de Saint Phalle took a gun to her paintings, and observed that the act was “as though one were witnessing a birth and death in the same moment.” This is an apt way to view the entire show—each work on display focuses on destruction, but the creative moment transcends that. By exploring the physical and psychological ramifications of the war, the artists gave themselves and all of us a way to think about and come to terms with difficult moments in the world's history.

Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962 is on view through June 12.