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Around the same time Yves Klein (1928–62) hired nude women to smear blue paint over themselves and press their bodies against sheets of paper, creating his Anthropométries, the French artist created another series of paintings that’s less flashy but equally unconventional.
A delightful early-’60s video in “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–62” captures Klein, dapper in a dress shirt and vest, as he burns a piece of cardboard with a flamethrower, keeping a uniformed firefighter with a hose at the ready. A few of Klein’s resulting fire paintings—abstractions in a range of golds and browns—appear in this illuminating exhibition, which Paul Schimmel curated for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
The show’s thesis is that the trauma of World War II induced artists in Europe, Japan and the United States to turn on painting. Some attacked their canvases with flame (Klein), some with guns (Niki de Saint Phalle) and some with knives (Lucio Fontana).
Others upended our notions of what “painting” means. American artist Lee Bontecou constructed welded-steel sculptural elements on her canvases that form menacing black holes. The Japanese Gutai collective turned painting into performance: One member, Kazuo Shiraga (1924–2008), dangled from a rope so he could paint using his feet.
While violence suffuses “Destroy the Picture,” lurking in Shiraga’s blood-colored paint, Bontecou’s bristling wires and Fontana’s slashed canvases, Schimmel’s attempt to trace nearly 100 paintings directly to the war comes off as an oversimplification. (The psychoanalytic wall texts don’t help.) But the show’s interweaving of art stars and talents less familiar to an American audience—especially the still-radical Gutai, whose ongoing Guggenheim retrospective is their first in the U.S.—is invaluable.