Eternal But Not Immortal: Painting Under Attack at Seattle Art Museum

Lucio Fontana in Milan, 1947. Via Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan

Lucio Fontana in Milan, 1947. Via Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan

A photograph in the exhibition catalog of Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-78 shows the painter Lucio Fontana emerging from the bombed-out shell of a Milan apartment building eerily evocative of the Concetto Spaziale series of cut-canvas works that the artist would soon become famous for. The target of massive allied strikes during WWII, Milan had received the “cleansing fire” that was hoped for by the previous generation of Italian artists—the so-called Futurists—whose unfortunate allegiance to Fascism was fueled by a belief that war was the only power capable of freeing Italy from the living history museum of its illustrious past.

Lucio Fontana. Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concept), 1949. White paper mounted on canvas. Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan.

Lucio Fontana. Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concept), 1949. White paper mounted on canvas. Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan.

It is fitting that Target Practice, the Seattle Art Museum’s ambitious international cross-section of artworks taking aim at the sanctity of painting, opens with works by Lucio Fontana. The son of an Italian father and Argentine mother, Fontana forged his art career in Milan but relocated to Argentina during the Second World War. When he returned to Milan, his studio had been destroyed. Fontana’s subsequent works reveal, among other things, the frailty of the materials artists have at their disposal to embody that which transcends form. As the artist wrote in 1948, “Art is eternal but not immortal.”

Lucio Fontana. Concetto Spaziale, 1958. Graffiti, cuts and dye on paper mounted to canvas. Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan.

Lucio Fontana. Concetto Spaziale, 1958. Graffiti, cuts and dye on paper mounted to canvas. Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan.

Like the works associated with Abstract Expressionism, many of the non-paintings in Target Practice seem to respond to the horrors and atrocities of the twentieth century. However unlike AbEx—which retained many of the formal considerations of European abstraction as well as the heroic notion of the painting as extension of the artist’s genius—the work in Target Practice aims to obliterate both craft and artistic identity. This tendency is exemplified in the gesture of Robert Rauchenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing, 1953, in which the up-and-coming artist meticulously erased a work by the reigning king of Abstract Expressionism.

Robert Rauschenberg. Erased De Kooning Drawing, 1953.

Robert Rauschenberg. Erased De Kooning Drawing, 1953.

Many of the exhibition’s works employ a theme of violence against the act of painting itself.  Niki de Saint Phalle’s paintings once invited viewers to throw darts into them, while Richard Jackson’s site specific SAM was created for the occasion by swirling paint-loaded canvases across the walls and exhibiting them with their backs to the audience.  Brazilian iconoclast Hélio Oiticica’s Consumitivo, 1960, represented in the exhibition by a single photograph, was a performance that consisted of setting a can of paint on fire.  Richard Pettibone’s riotous Untitled, 1964, is a flattened tube of paint that was run over by a train. Yoko Ono’s Painting to Hammer a Nail and Painting to be Stepped On invite viewers to participate in their aggressive desecration, while the nail-riddled surface of Günther Uecker’s imposing Grosse Wolke creates a surprisingly beautiful field of shadow and light.  And, of course, what critique of painting would be complete without one of Andy Warhol’s piss paintings?

Günther Uecker. Grosse Wolke (Large Cloud), 1965

Günther Uecker. Grosse Wolke (Large Cloud), 1965

Other works seek to demystify the act of painting by putting its unglamorous aspects on display.  Giulio Paolini and Jasper Johns explore “backward” paintings mounted stretcher-side out, while Roy Lichtenstein cartoonishly renders the back side of a painting with his signature Benday dots. Nearby, John Baldessari’s deadpan canvases prescribe academic formulae for painters while Arman’s Ochre and Iaian Baxter’s Still Life with Six Colors preserve paint tubes and loaded brushes like fossilized relics.

Still other works strive to liberate the expressive act of painting from the end product. Numerous videos and photographs chronicle efforts by Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Günter Brus, Ushio Shinohara, and Yayoi Kusama to turn themselves into human paintings, paintbrushes, or both.  H.O., an engrossing film by Ivan Cardoso documents Hélio Oiticica’s use of parangolés: constructed implements of colored fabric meant to be waved as flags or draped over dancers to create dynamic performances that serve as living paintings.

Musician Caetano Veloso wearing a parangolé by Hélio Oiticica, 1968.

Musician Caetano Veloso wearing a parangolé by Hélio Oiticica, 1968.

As an exhibition, Target Practice is a milestone for SAM.  Regina Hackett called it “the single best survey of contemporary art ever mounted by the Seattle Art Museum,” (that is, if you broaden “contemporary” to mean postwar) and in terms of scale, I’m told it’s the museum’s most ambitious curatorial effort in years.  And the selection of artists is great; particularly the inclusion of lesser known international artists alongside the traditional Euro-American canon.

As a cross-section of an art historical moment, the works in Target Practice provide a compelling footnote to the broader history of anti-art from within the field of painting, traditionally the last bastion of artistic sanctity.  “Any artist today who wields a brush must contend with the highly stratified history—and burden—of a tradition that has piled up to form a massive impasto of stroke and counterstroke” states curator Michael Darling in the exhibition’s catalog.

The artists in this exhibition used everything from physical annihilation to self-deprecating irony to free themselves from the constraints they had inherited. That they remain materially and conceptually defined by that burdensome tradition even while providing a range of intellectual, visceral, and even beautiful possibilities that arise from the act of casting it off is nothing if not a testament to its strength.

The challenge, of course, is not the actual destruction of the painting itself, but rather its transformation into something else.

— Hélio Oiticica

Target Practice: Painting Under Attack, 1949-1978 is on exhibit at Seattle Art Museum through September 7, 2009.  Go see it!

~ by emilypothast on July 13, 2009.

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