Filling History’s Voids: Q+A with Paul Schimmel

Lee Bontecou
Untitled, 1959
Welded steel, canvas, black fabric, soot, and wire
58 1/8 x 58 1/2 x 17 3/8 in. (147.64 x 148.59 x 44.13 cm)

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


“Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962” [through Jan. 14, 2013] is the final exhibition Paul Schimmel organized while curator at Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where he revised art history for the past 22 years. The show features 26 international artists, many of them presented in depth, who demonstrate an extraordinary compulsion to demolish the picture plane. 

In this survey, Schimmel reexplores the territory between Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, integrating movements and forms that include Assemblage, Neo-Dada, art Informel, Tachisme, Nouveau Realisme, early Happenings, Fluxus, Viennese Actionism, Gutai and more. Drawn together in the exhibition, for example, are French artist Jacques Villeglé’s torn poster works (décollages), Austrian artist Otto Muehl’s mangled, hog-tied reliefs and Japanese artist Chiyu Uemae’s paintings with seemingly decaying and festering surfaces.

After World War II, the picture plane came under assault. Whereas the Abstract Expressionists, both those of the Action Painting and Color Field persuasions, can be understood to have responded on canvas to the horrors of the second world war, according to Schimmel, artists on a global scale in the period that followed viewed the flat surface of the canvas itself as a metaphor for the old world order that perpetuated the war’s atrocities.

Among the show’s featured works are a gray relief by Spain’s Antoni Tapies that suggests a graffiti-inscribed city wall riddled with hundreds of bullet holes; British artist John Latham’s paintings covered with charred books that evoke wartime; and Gutai artist Saburo Murakami’s punctured paper piece Iriguchi (Entrance) from 1955, made by a human body hurled through the surface as a reference to the atomic bomb. Artists who directly experienced the war and its aftermath scratched, pierced, ripped, mangled, shot, burned, threw acid on and otherwise violated the canvas (or a surrogate surface) to express moral outrage.

RONI FEINSTEIN “Destroy the Picture” grew out of your exhibition “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979,” which originated at L.A. MOCA in 1998 and is widely considered to be the first major museum survey of performance art. This earlier exhibition consisted largely of photographs, videos and objects related to three decades of performance, while “Destroy the Picture” focuses on a tendency in postwar abstract painting. Could you explain the connection?

SCHIMMEL I wouldn’t have had the revelation of bringing it all together if it hadn’t been presented to me so unequivocally in the “Out of Actions” exhibition. It was a kind of “aha” moment when I saw work by [Lucio] Fontana and the [Shozo] Shimamoto in the same room. We make so much of the notion of art movements being coherent and having a manifesto, but what brings these artists together is much broader and truly of global consequences: World War II itself. As much as you think of wars as things that destroy culture, one can see again and again in the exhibition that out of destruction comes rebirth and what somebody was feeling in Osaka was simultaneously something someone was feeling in Milan.

FEINSTEIN It’s fascinating to me that the blank expanse of canvas—the picture plane—became an overriding symbol of the old order of civilization that needed to be materially, physically violated and overcome.

SCHIMMEL In the case of Fontana, a canvas in the Western European tradition was something you stretched and treated lovingly, a very pure kind of surface, and then you start making holes and it evolved from there. In the case of the Shimamoto, it was an assault on the surface of screens, the Japanese tradition of layering paper upon paper to make that sort of skin, and puncturing it in a way that is even more violent and pronounced than Fontana’s, which is more conceptually driven.

FEINSTEIN We often think of Fontana as elegant and controlled, but one of the pieces in the show [Spatial Concept 52 B 24, 1952] is particularly violent and bloody-looking. Shimamoto’s works of the same period, layered with sheets of newspaper glued together, are a kind of assemblage.

SCHIMMEL Assemblage was profound in its impact, and we still think about it in a material sense. But when you start thinking about assemblage in terms of political content or personal content, especially with the introduction of feminist language and performance, you realize it was far more pervasive and influential than it’s described in the master narrative you and I grew up with-Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art to Minimalism. Assemblage, to this day, has not received appreciation for the more conceptual and formal things that it broke down.

FEINSTEIN The chronology you present in the exhibition reveals an extraordinary international exchange of information, particularly through group shows, that is often overlooked.

SCHIMMEL As art historians, as museum people and as critics we have come to really realize that the history written about the 20th century is woefully inadequate. The world became much smaller because of World War II. The fact that the world could destroy itself in one generation, in one moment, with the atomic bomb, was something new and brought the community of creative people together in a way that had never been experienced before. It was a direct result of the war that Documenta was invented, that the São Paulo Biennial became what it did, and the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. What was seen as provincial, maybe even within the countries where these activities were taking place, began to have increasingly global consequences. The Gutai [for example] were very important artists, championed by Allan Kaprow and shown at Martha Jackson and in Paris.

FEINSTEIN In the west, Gutai has been known largely for performance, but more recently, as in “Destroy the Picture,” there is an appreciation for the painted work. As you’ve pointed out, Kazuo Shiraga’s painting with his feet owed to Hans Namuth’s photographs of Pollock painting, but this doesn’t prepare you for how at once lyrical and violent the paintings are, the muscular force with which he kicked at the surface.

SCHIMMEL He is, I think, singularly a great master, and the subtitle for this exhibition “Painting the Void,” which one is inclined to think comes from Yves Klein’s 1960 Leap into the Void, is in my own not-so-subtle way of bringing Klein back to a certain kind of debt to Shiraga. When I interviewed Shiraga in the ’90s, he said, “there was a void in Japan.” He explained, “The emperor became just a figurehead. The traditions about who he was were no longer meaningful, and, in that anarchy, I could no longer find a way with my hands, so I had to take all that I had learned and put it behind me.” And I remember thinking, “Now, that’s the void.” While Yves Klein would not have had any contact with the Gutai when he first went to Japan in ’52 [to study judo], by the time he is doing the first of his flesh paintings [paintings with bodies or anthropometries], I am certain that he is keenly aware, having gone back to the country in 1957, of what has been going on.

FEINSTEIN In “Destroy the Picture” you reconsider the work of the French artist Jean Fautrier, several of whose paintings open the exhibition. This work is figurative, rather than abstract, and the artist doesn’t pierce but ravages the textured surfaces.

SCHIMMEL When I started the exhibition, I did not see the place that Fautrier had in the show.  It’s the gift of a great collection like L.A. MOCA’s that, because of Giuseppe Panza’s early collecting interest, it has a marvelous group of Fautrier’s works. They were a direct outcome of the artist’s experience during the war-his having worked in the Resistance against Nazi occupiers, having been incarcerated and then spending the remainder of the war [in a sanitarium] listening, as he put it, to people being tortured-that he began the heads of hostages. You see these heads and surrounding them a kind of after-image with a rich and textured surface and you realize a remarkable thing about mankind: at its darkest hour, with destruction being at the core of what it’s trying to represent, it also sees something uplifting and regenerative, with a sense of hope and possibility. Fautrier, who was widely respected in Europe at the time, distressed the surfaces of his paintings, which encouraged a number of artists, like Burri and Fontana, to simultaneously start exploring this new pictorial language.

FEINSTEIN The range of manipulations of surface in the show is incredible. There is the building up and tearing away, as in Fautrier, the affichistes and others, but also the fact that Klein used a flamethrower, Lee Bontecou a blowtorch, Niki de Saint Phalle a rifle, John Latham a spray gun, Gustav Metzger acid and so on.

SCHIMMEL They are scraping, scratching, eroding. They are doing everything in the surface, through the surface, not just on the surface, and really trying to take painting to an extreme that has an equivalency with an experience that they had seen with the war. [Alberto] Burri is so remarkable. He is a field doctor in the Italian army, and he experiences the horrors of war—eviscerated people. He gets captured in ’45 and is incarcerated in West Texas, and in Italy by 1950 starts sewing these broken and tattered burlap bags. You talked about all the different materials and methodologies-this one artist alone used fire, cutting, tearing. He really did understand this notion of destruction and creation being together. And his impact was truly profound, for instance on the young Robert Rauschenberg-you can see it in his Black Paintings.

FEINSTEIN You commented earlier that, although you hadn’t anticipated it when you started organizing the exhibition, for you Burri is, and I quote, “the heart of the exhibition, the reigning star,” in part because of his influence on the Americans Lee Bontecou and Salvatore Scarpitta, both of whom were living in Rome in the ’50s. Although these artists were younger and didn’t experience the war directly, Scarpitta’s bandaged pieces and Bontecou’s works, which in the context of the show look like ominous military machines, are well placed within the exhibition.

SCHIMMEL Like Burri, Bontecou has existed outside of art history, and we’ve never found a vessel big enough and deep enough with a broad enough beam to include her into it-no master narrative-and to see her in context is as big a revelation as seeing her monographically. I was very fortunate when Elizabeth Smith organized here at MOCA [in 1993], a marvelous show of Bontecou’s work from the late ’50s and early ’60s. I knew Scarpitta’s work very well, having shown him in Houston back in the ’70s. I understood quite well that Burri was a central figure to the development of each of these artists, as did Leo Castelli. He started a gallery and was also very well connected with Italy; he couldn’t get Burri, who was showing with Martha Jackson, so where does he look? To the next generation and that’s Bontecou and Scarpitta. I think in some respects, history has not served this generation of artists well because we have a tendency, as curators and critics, to think that there’s only one thing that can happen at a time and that there’s going to be a center of the art world, like New York. We know that not to be the case anymore.

FEINSTEIN If you were to give this new international context or tendency you’ve identified in this exhibition a name, what would it be? Destructionism? Voidism?

SCHIMMEL I’m a great believer that you don’t really know what something is until it’s over. I think it was over when Metzger, a fascinating artist, produced a manifesto [the third and final Auto-Destructive Art Manifesto, 1961]. Born in Poland, he lost all of his family in the war as a teenager and got swept up with other Jewish kids and was taken to England. He wrote in his manifestos on the relationship between art and destruction and the hope it embodied for him. His South Bank Demo [1961/2012, reconstructed for the “Destroy the Picture” exhibition], in the Soviet revolutionary colors of red, black and white, was not a sculpture, not a painting, not a work of art, but a demonstration against the nuclear bomb. [In this action, Metzger sprayed acid to dissolve nylon sheets stretched across a large, freestanding wood and metal frame.] So I would say that Art and Destruction are really at the core of it. I think we are going to be well informed about the legacy of the artists represented here in an exhibition that the Hirshhorn Museum is organizing [“Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950,” which opens September 2013].

FEINSTEIN In the course of our conversation, the void has assumed various aspects, having been seen as embracing a spiritual dimension, as the product of physical action, as a representation of wounded flesh and bullet holes, as a reflection of society. You wrote eloquently in the catalogue, “Destruction was not just a nihilistic act and the void was not just a black hole of despair; destruction was in a dialectical relationship with creation and the void was a space of potentiality.”

SCHIMMEL I was trying to take the word “void” and turn it back into something that is more contemplative and meditative and also of far broader implications. When I look at the negative space in Bontecou, I see it as violent, like a scream without any sound coming out and the voice is a pitch that is so high or so low that you can’t hear it, but it shakes the very earth that you’re standing on. To me, the void is the space left behind, but also a psychological space that has to do with the possibility of renewal of energy.

FEINSTEIN So the void is . . .

SCHIMMEL Absence that allows possibility.