DTPPTV - ExhibitFiles

Heather Robbins
Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void 1949-1962
Museum of Contemporary Art
The latest exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Destroy the
Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962 compellingly surveys the art of creative
destruction in the aftermath of World War II. Responding to the social and political
climate of the postwar period–especially the crisis of humanity resulting from the atomic
bomb–artists from all over the globe ripped, cut, burned, or affixed objects to the
traditionally two-dimensional canvas. The exhibition features approximately 100 works
created between 1949 and 1962 by artists from eight countries, including Salvatore
Scarpitta, Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Saburo Murakami. Destroy the Picture
marks the first time that these strategies of deconstruction have been considered together
as a coherent artistic production.
While the works on display carry with them a powerful, visceral punch, the
individual details of the exhibition teeter between a providing a sense of inclusivity and
exclusivity. This ambiguity is arguably detrimental to the constitution of the exhibition as
a whole. The underlying dialectic running throughout the show begins at the exhibitions
entrance. The opening wall is covered with a map of the global, with labels marking
events that were taking place on each continent between the years 1949-1962. This
immediately implies that the show is widely inclusive, making note of the entire global
community during the aftermath of the war. However, it is apparent throughout the
exhibit that only eight different countries were targeted for representation.
Across the from the world map are multiple bookshelves filled with philosophy,
theory, art and literature books, compartmentalized by genre. Next to the shelves are
benches, but it is not at clear if the visitor is allow to pick up the books, flip through
them, feel them, engage with them, or if they are merely for show. Here, there is an
implied invitation to interact with the exhibit, but the question remains: are these to look
at or engage with?
Upon entering the exhibition, the placement and length of the walls labels are
immediately noticeable. These, too, seem to be sending mixed signals. The length and
multitude of the labels seems to imply that the museum is trying to convey a particular
narrative and historical contextualization for the work. However, it is of note that the
larger didactics are placed to the left, such that the natural flow of each room suggests
that the visitor view the artwork first, then conclude with the larger didactics. Thus, the
museum seemingly wants the viewer to experience each piece before having the full
historical contextualization. The raw style of work on exhibition demands to be
experienced, rather than merely academically looked at. Yet this seems to be in contrast
to the lengthy labels provided at each piece.
One of the most striking contradictions is seen when experiencing the recreation
of Saburo Murakami’s Iriguchi. This piece is a gesture towards inclusivity, as the visitors
are allowed to walk through destroyed paper. However, it too sends mixed messages as it
implies an invitation for participation and involvement that is not really allowed. That is,
people can walk through it, but are not allowed to touch or augment the torn paper in any
It appears that there is a push-pull relationship between what the Museum of
Contemporary Art wants to promote and the standard construct that it abides by. It would
seem that the museum is grappling with trying to be progressive and contemporary, while
abiding by traditional rules of museum practice. They desire to make the connection
between what lies within the museum walls and translating that into human experience,
while maintaining a hierarchical distance – treating artwork as precious objects – to be
looked at and not touched. The MCA seems to want begin to challenge conventional
museum etiquette, while simultaneously playing by rules.