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International Survey Reveals How a Generation of Artists Assaulted a Genre
Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923 – 1997), Red Painting (Brushstroke), 1965. Oil and magna on canvas. Collection Charles Simonyi, Seattle. Courtesy of the lender, © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

SEATTLE, WA.- In the years 1949-1978, a new attitude exploded across the art world. In reaction to various feelings of global instability, angst and dissatisfaction, artists from across continents– separately and simultaneously – began to reevaluate the traditional, two-dimensional medium of painting – to the point of the physical and theoretical destruction of the genre.

Organized by the Seattle Art Museum (SAM),Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-78 is an international, historical survey of the assaults that painting endured in the years following World War II, documenting why artists felt compelled to shoot, rip, tear, burn, erase, nail, unzip and deconstruct painting in order to usher in a new way of thinking. Target Practice includes works by well-known artists like Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, as well as lesser-known peers who were making equally challenging work in Europe, Asia, South America and North America. With more than 70 works of art, including documentary photographs and video, Target Practice introduces a compelling way to appreciate the breakthroughs made by a new generation of artists in the fertile years between 1949 and 1978. Curated by Michael Darling, SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, the exhibition will be on view at SAM from June 25 to September 7, 2009.

In the introductory essay to the exhibition catalogue, Darling states, “If the works in Target Practice are any measure, one might say that between 1949 and 1978 painting was not killed off so much as tortured.” Many artists began to view painting as a trap, and they devised numerous ways to escape the conventions and break the traditions that had been passed down to them over hundreds of years. In so doing, according to Darling, artists of this generation “would bring painting the closest it had ever come to extinction.”

Target Practice uses the work of Argentine artist Lucio Fontana as a launching point to explore the many ways in which these “movements” manifest throughout the world. Working in war-torn Italy in 1949, Fontana created Concetto spaziale or Spatial Concept pieces – works on paper mounted on canvas, which he pierced with masses of holes or buchi, reflecting the broken physical environment he observed around him. With his buchi, Fontana had suddenly brought the surface behind the canvas into play in his compositions. The lines between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional were blurred, and many of painting’s boundaries were irrevocably shattered.

Fontana broke ground when he riddled his canvases with holes, however at the same moment other artists from disparate countries and circumstances were finding themselves compelled to react similarly to the seeming restraints of painting. In Japan in the 1950s, Shozo Shimamoto was puncturing his paintings in a series called Work; in the mid fifties in Italy, Alberto Burri tenuously sutured his torn and scorched Sacco (Sack) works; and in America in the mid-late 1950s, Jasper Johns was metaphorically inviting attack with his Target paintings. From Europe to Asia to North and South America, artists were moving toward a realization that painting was in need of a total reevaluation.

Literally and figuratively, beginning in about 1949 artists began acutely questioning, dismantling and even destroying paintings and “painting.” Target Practice presents many of these daring reactions, arranged thematically in nine sections: LITERAL AND FIGURATIVE TARGETS, PHYSICAL ABUSE, ICONOCLASM, CRITIQUES OF COMPOSITION AND SPONTANEITY, MOCKING THE MAKEUP OF PAINTING, PHYSICAL DECONSTRUCTION, ENVIRONMENTAL DISINTEGRATION, SHIFTING THE PARADIGM, and LAST RITES. Through the different but related approaches tracked in the exhibition, a generation of artists from very different cultures and histories were at the same time working to undermine the supremacy and sanctity of painting, revealing a universal sense of insecurity and dissatisfaction with the status quo during the period 1949-1978.

All of the works in Target Practice were created with a certain degree of self consciousness and intellectualism. Some artists, however, chose to demonstrate their rebellion in acutely physical ways, while others were more directly driven to cerebral concepts. In the mid to late 1950s, Jasper Johns’ Target paintings provocatively aligned seeing with shooting, offering up bull’s eyes that would typically receive bullets, arrows or some other form of destruction – although no actual shooting took place in his works of this time. Alongside Target Practice’s namesake painting, Johns’ Target of 1958, is a video documentation of one of French artist Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Tirs or shooting paintings from the early 1960s, in which she fired a gun at canvases that “bled” drips of paint from their bullet wounds – taking the idea behind Johns’ Targets to their ultimate conclusion.

More direct and sometimes violent physical abuse of works of art was taking place elsewhere. Target Practice includes Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), a definitive break from his art historical lineage, which, in fact, is exactly what the title implies. And, as Alberto Burri was ripping, cutting, burning, and reassembling canvases in Italy, Viennese artist Otto Muehl was displaying the mangled remnants of a violent physical attack on a painting in his works from the 1960s and Japanese-American Yoko Ono first exhibited Painting to Hammer a Nail (1961) which invites museum visitors to participate in the work’s creation– or destruction, depending on your point of view – offering a hammer and nails to be pounded into a painted wood panel affixed to the wall. By 1978, Warhol takes the physical defamation of painting to the ultimate extreme with his Oxidation Paintings, in which canvases coated with copper metallic paint were urinated on, creating patterns of dribbles and spatters.

Jasper Johns took a slightly more measured approach in Canvas (1956), a stretched canvas mounted backwards to another canvas, so only its “skeleton” is visible. Italian Giulio Paolini similarly arranged three stretched canvases, one inside another, with the “front” of the piece facing the wall, in Untitled (1962-63). Roy Lichtenstein’s Stretcher Frame – Two Panels (1968) is a traditional painting on canvas, except that the subject of the painting is the unpainted “backs” of two stretched canvases. These iconoclastic works deny everything traditionally presented in painting without losing their reason for being.

The artists featured in Target Practice rebelled not only against the studied compositions of representational painting, but also took-on the alleged spontaneity of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s – and what was seen as an arrogant adherence to the idea of the supremacy of the artist, “the lone genius who was responsible for stirring up the fevered inspirations that took form on the canvas” according to Darling. Gerhard Richter seems to poke fun at the egotistical abandon of the Abstract Expressionists in his Farbtafel (Color Chart) works initiated in 1966. In these paintings, the German artist divided the canvas into a precise grid, filling its squares with a series of solid fields of pleasing color. These are arranged with an “algorithmic” precision that seems to negate the necessity of an artist’s hand in the work’s final arrangement. It seems, as Darling notes that the Farbtafels’ innumerable possible arrangements “might as well be left up to a computer to complete.”

Target Practice demonstrates, also, ways in which artists began removing the art of painting from gallery walls and inserting elements of time, space, and the body. For instance in 1965, Japanese artist Shigeko Kubota attached a paintbrush to her underwear and spread red paint on paper laid out on a stage in the performance Vagina Painting. Here, an artist is both redefining the constraints of the medium and shockingly mocking its historic domination by males. Austrian Günther Brus melds his own body with the canvas itself in Selbstbemalung (Self-Painting) (1964). He has painted his head the same white as the wall against which he stands and is seen painting a heavy black line up this ambiguous surface – head and wall being treated as one.

Target Practice brings together works by artists who took traditional ideas of painting out of the expected studio or gallery context, such as Daniel Buren from France, Hélio Oiticica from Brazil, and Yayoi Kusama from Japan; some who physically deconstructed the elements of a painting, as when Richard Tuttle pinned irregularly-shaped sections of canvas to the gallery wall or Karen Carson “unzipping” her canvases in the 1970s; and still others who blatantly mocked the “mandatory” components of a painting. The latter is exemplified in Target Practice with works such as Robert Rauschenberg’s Untitled of 1954, in which the artist has combined all of the parts of a typical painting in a mishmash of wood shards, canvas scraps, masking tape and a smashed paint tube affixed to the surface, and Danish artist Asger Jorn’s “détournée” pieces, in which he brazenly painted over more traditional paintings he had collected.

Painting’s “Last Rites” were possibly declared, and are represented in Target Practice, by works by Americans Lawrence Weiner, Lee Lozano, and others who sought to distance themselves as far as possible from painting, while continuing to use the medium as the key reference point for their own works of art. In Weiner’s An Amount of Paint Poured Directly Upon the Floor and Allowed to Dry (1968) the exhibitor is invited to either enact the artist’s textual instructions, or present the text as the work of art itself. Lozano’s Idea that cannot be drawn, Nov. 16, 1968 is a piece of graph paper with text that describes a “recipe for a painting” that would use transparent paint – thus leading her viewers (or readers) to imagine a work of art that barely exists as a painting at all.

Seattle Art Museum | Lucio Fontana | Alberto Burri | Shozo Shimamoto | Jasper Johns | Robert Rauschenberg | Roy Lichtenstein |

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