Painting the Void

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Curator Paul Schimmel has organized a number of shows about under-recognized, transitional moments in modern art history: the effects of Surrealism on Abstract Expressionist painters, the effect of Abstract Expressionism on Pop art and now, as his final exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962.

Without dwelling too much on the irony of a show titled Void by a brilliant curator who has since been relieved of his position, thus creating a big void at MoCA, the exhibition proves once again that Schimmel is a serious scholar with guts.

The show includes American, European and Japanese artists working in the years after World War II through the early 1960's who "staged a literal assault on the picture plane – puncturing, ripping, cutting and burning to break through the two-dimensional support or else layering relief and assemblage to emphasize three-dimensionality," says Schimmel.

Earlier in the 20th century, artists like Kazimir Malevich used two-dimensional non-objective painting as symbolic of utopian beliefs. After the horrors of the Second World War, especially after the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the artists in this show sought a different relationship with painting. The destruction was not simply nihilistic, it was an attempt to create a void, to strip away any expected imagery to engender a rebirth with fresh potential.


Kazuo Shiraga: Work BB 45, 1962
Oil on canvas, 51 3/16 x 38 3/16 in. (130 x 97 cm)
Private Collection (via Paul van Esch & Partners

Abstract paintings by Japanese artist Shozo Shimamoto were created by hurling glass bottles of pigment at the canvas. Kazuo Shiraga painted swirling forms by hanging from a rope and using his feet.


Yves Klein: Untitled Fire Painting (F 13), 1961
Burnt cardboard, 25 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. (64.77 x 49.53 cm)
© Yves Klein, ADAGP, Paris

French artist Yves Klein, who embraced Zen Buddhism after a trip to Japan, produced a series of mysterious, breathtaking canvases of smoky brown circular forms using actual fire and water. Argentinian Lucio Fontana, who worked in Italy, slashed diagonal slices into canvases washed in atmospheric color or punctured holes in the surface of the painting.

Another French artist, Niki de Saint Phalle, covered her canvases with balloons filled with paint and staged performances where she shot at them with a rifle. (Two such performances were held here in L.A. in 1962.)


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

Americans Lee Bontecou, Robert Rauschenberg and Salvatore Scarpitta had traveled in Europe in the 1950's and been affected by what they saw. Bontecou constructed giant brown and gray paintings that extend like sculptures off the wall. Scarpitta used straps of white fabric like bandages mixed with pieces of metal. Rauschenberg, who had seen the torn burlap paintings of Alberto Burri in Italy covered canvases in torn newspapers that he painted black.

French artists Jacques Villegas and Robert Haines applied scraps of torn posters found on walls, some referencing the Algerian war, to make lushly colored compositions while Spanish artist Antonio Tàpies made paintings that emulated the bullet hole ridden walls of Barcelona made during the Spanish Civil War and the years of Franco's dictatorship.

So much horror, so much creative response. Representing trauma was no long sufficient. The artists needed to destroy painting before they could resurrect it. While these artists are well-known, especially in their own countries, the connections established between them here are unexpected. And overdue. This show comes at a time when modern art is being re-interpreted as an international development and the dominance American Abstract Expressionism of the 1940's and 1950's is being seen in a larger global context.

This may be the last picture show for Paul Schimmel at MoCA but it is sure to remain a significant legacy and reminder of what a great curator can contribute to a museum. For more information, go to

Banner image: Detail from Lucio Fontana's Concetto spaziale, Attese, 1958; Aniline on canvas, 38 9/16 x 53 1/8 in. (98 x 135 cm); Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan, Italy