Douglas Gordon has used an axe to attack the wall of a theatre where he staged a new play to scathing reviews – but he is not the first artist to set about his own work.
There are countless instances of artists destroying their own work. If Louise Bourgeois disliked a small sculpture she’d been working on, she would simply shove it off the end of her kitchen table and watch it smash to smithereens.
Francis Bacon famously destroyed all his early work, and an impecunious Picasso would paint over pictures he thought unsuccessful because he didn’t have the money to buy a fresh canvas.
When I visited the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans in his Antwerp studio earlier this year he told me that his $1m-plus paintings only ever took a day to paint. That is his way.
When he returns in the morning he either decides to send the finished painting to his dealer or destroy it. Fair enough. But that’s tantamount to trashing a million bucks!
My favourite story in the long history of art destruction concerns American pop/conceptual artist Robert Rauschenberg.
Early in his career, inspired by the work of Marcel Duchamp, he decided he wanted to test the boundaries of what could be deemed a work of art.
Could a work of art be created, he wondered, through the act of erasure? He started out by rubbing out one of his own drawings. It didn’t work. He felt that the destruction of a not very important work by a then not very important artist didn’t really test his idea to a degree where an artwork could conceivably be made.
Act of destruction
Rauschenberg decided the only thing to do was to destroy a significant work of art by a significant artist. So, he spent the next few days plucking up the courage to visit studio of one the world’s most famous artists in the 1950s, an artist whom Rauschenberg held in very high esteem.
He knocked on Willem de Kooning’s studio door and was welcomed by the stern face of the Dutch-American master who wanted to know why this young buck was bothering him.
He wasn’t very impressed when Rauschenberg nervously explained that he had come to ask for an original De Kooning artwork to be given to him free of charge and on the understanding it was going to be destroyed.
De Kooning growled, said he didn’t approve, and then acquiesced on the grounds that young artists should be allowed to experiment. He pointed to a few artworks scattered around the studio and told Rauschenberg to pick one.
Which he did. Initially he went for a pencil drawing, but decided against it. Too easy, he thought. Instead he chose drawing that had traces of ink and maybe even paint. Much better. Much harder to erase.
Rauschenberg then took it away and laboriously worked on the act of destruction, eventually erasing all visible traces of De Kooning’s image. He then took the now blank paper to Jasper Johns, his great friend and fellow artist and asked him to create a frame for the work. Johns did as he was asked and produced a label for the obliterated artwork which read:
ERASED de KOONING
And lo and behold Rauschenberg had successfully made an artwork by destroying an artwork.
The framed piece of paper/artwork is now in the collection of America’s prestigious San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
It’s hard to imagine that the man who painted serene landscapes, many of his own flower garden at Giverny, frequently destroyed his own work, but Claude Monet often struggled with the life of his paintings. The French Impressionist shredded 30 of his water garden paintings before they were set to be exhibited in 1908/1909. Monet’s increasingly poor eyesight and a serious bout of depression led him to frequently doubt his work. In a letter written by Monet’s wife, Alice, she discusses her own frustration with his self-destructive behavior
During the early 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg traveled through Northern Africa and Europe (with friend and lover Cy Twombly) and assembled collages out of trash and found objects as a way to create cheap, portable artworks. Several of the pieces were exhibited throughout Italy, but the artist tossed the works that didn’t sell into the Arno River. Several of the “subversively crude artifacts,” which became a visual diary of Rauschenberg’s early career, were exhibited last year.
Gerhard Richter was his own worst critic, which led him to take a box cutter and match to 60 of his photo-based paintings. Spiegel Online International estimated that the works would have been worth upwards of $655 million today. “Richter was garnering his first acclaim at the time, but he was often at odds with his own art,” writer Ulrike Knöfel explained. “Still, since his urge to destroy some of his paintings also made him feel uneasy, he photographed them before doing so… They are testaments to his refusal to compromise.”
California conceptual artist John Baldessari is known for plastering the faces of his subjects with colorful dots — an artistic choice that arose out of annoyance. “I just got so tired of looking at these faces [of people at civic events],” Baldessari told NPR. In 1970, the artist had a creative dry spell and no buyers. He took everything he painted from 1953 through 1966 to a morgue and burned it. “And so I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to stop. I have them in my head. I don’t really need them. So I decided I’ll just destroy them,” he explained. He viewed the pyre as an artistic rebirth, and turned to photography and the appropriated pop culture images he’s known for today.
This excerpt from Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s radical 1962 Destructivist Manifesto reveals the spirit of the artist’s modern rituals (piano smashing amongst them) that connect political, historic, and social concerns:
“There are today throughout the world a handful of artists working in a way, which is truly unique in art history. Theirs is an art which separates the makers from the unmakers, the assemblers from the disassemblers, the constructors from the destructors. These artists are destroyers, materialists, and sensualists dealing with process directly. These artists are destructivists and do not pretend to play at God’s happy game of creation; on the contrary, theirs is a response to the pervading will to kill. It is not the trauma of birth which concerns the destructivist. He understands that there is no need for magic in living. It is one’s sense of death which needs the life-giving nourishment of transcendental ritual.”
The small galleries taking back the Irish art market
After the hubris of the boom, the bust brought big changes to the Irish art market. A new kind of gallery has emerged that is approachable, diverse, risk-taking and even humble
As art galleries tumbled to earth after the boom, it was hard not to feel a smidgen of schadenfreude. At the height of the market, certain Irish dealers had exhibited a degree of opportunism similar to that of estate agents. But there’s a new art climate spreading across Ireland, one that encourages greater approachability, diversity and even humility.
Dave O’Shea opened Chimera Gallery in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, last year principally to feed his own passion for art, which was ignited when – as a young army cadet – he was brought to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, with his troop in 1986.
“I wandered into one of the vast rooms with epic paintings adorning the walls. That was the spark. During the following years I served overseas eight times and I tried to see as many art galleries, shows and exhibitions as possible, all in secret. Not that I was ashamed; I just thought no one would share my interest.”
After retiring from the Defence Forces, O’Shea found himself, almost by accident, opening an art gallery in a garden centre in Delvin, Co Westmeath, showing works by Conor Walton, Pauline Bewick and Graham Knuttel. Last year he rented a space in the centre of Mullingar and set up Chimera. His aim was to nurture artists, but he ended up selling a surprising amount of work. He has now moved to more prestigious premises over Days Bazaar, a bookshop that was frequented by James Joyce. And just to prove that the art world still has chutzpah, he got Jason Cooper – drummer with The Cure – to open the new gallery.
Rosemarie Noone couldn’t get over the speed of sales when she first opened Claremorris Gallery in Co Mayo during the boom years. “Dealers from Dublin bought 30 per cent of the exhibition over the phone before the opening night. At that time the art market was on fire,” she says.
Shortly afterwards, reality hit.
“The Irish art market collapsed,” says Noone. “I had no option but to continue because of my big financial investment. While I could have survived by showing pleasing, unchallenging works which would sell readily, I decided to stick to my guns and to promote the best of contemporary Irish art, both emerging and established.”
These were difficult years for Noone. “There was a sense of desperation amongst artists. It was hard to remain optimistic. But I was constantly being reminded that things were worse in the 1980s and that it would all pick up again, eventually.”
Visitor numbers are up now, and while sales are still sluggish, flexible payment plans encourage younger buyers into the market. Claremorris Gallery, a suave, architectural space in her father’s former veterinary surgery, aims to be welcoming to newbies. The spring exhibition featured new work by Brian Bourke, Donald Teskey, Gene Lambert and Jay Murphy.
It wasn’t so much the crumbling art market that crippled Sarah Harty, of Gallery Cafe in Gort, Co Galway, as a dispute with her local council that saw her taken to court for erecting a few seats and some decking. Harty, an artist, set up the Gallery Cafe initially as a place to sell her own work – as well as scones and tea – but became so enthused by the work of other artists that the cafe and gallery expanded to include a rolling programme of exhibitions by Irish artists.
The impasse with Galway County Council over the outdoor seating threatened to close the cafe and gallery in 2013, until Harty capitulated and paid a fine.
Soon after she moved to a new premises that was more suitable for showing art. The Gallery Cafe tries to mount an exhibition every four to six weeks. Sales are done over lunch or dinner in the cafe. Knowing how hard the artist’s life is, Harty tends not to charge a commission.
At first glance, the Taylor Galleries in Dublin seems far from the bohemian quirkiness of Gort’s Gallery Cafe. The Taylor was founded in 1978 in a Georgian building on Kildare Street. It represents some of the venerable old stags of Irish art, including Patrick Scott and Louis le Brocquy. Soaring sales during the boom years made the crash all the more alarming.
“Our attitude since the downturn has been to dig our heels in, grit our teeth and try to ride it out,” says gallery administrator Sabina Mac Mahon. “The good times will probably never be so good again, but they seem to be picking up ever so slightly now.”
Taylor Galleries has begun to reach out towards the younger generation, with an offshoot project, Lacuna, which aims to showcase experimental work by emerging artists. The three Lacuna exhibitions so far have run concurrently with more traditional shows, and the sales from them have opened the gallery to the benefits of including experimental art in a commercially focused, conservative gallery. “It’s clear that Lacuna has made the gallery more relevant and flexible, and opened it to new audiences,” says Mac Mahon, who adds that they were unlikely to have taken the bold step had the era of big sales continued.
Gallery 126 in Galway is coming at the business from an entirely different angle: that of artists trying to take control of the precarious business of showing and selling their own art. It was born out of frustration at the lack of support for solitary artists who are not represented by the established galleries. In 2005 a group of them came together to secure a space and establish a co-operative venture that now represents 200 artists and runs regular exhibitions, while also publishing a quarterly magazine and overseeing various research programmes.
The focus is not so much on selling work as on providing a platform for new, risk-taking, contemporary artists to exhibit, as well as offering an engaging programme for the wider arts audience in Galway. The gallery is entirely staffed by volunteers and relies on grants from national and local bodies. Making artists spend time working in a gallery for free rather than developing their art might not initially seem the best model, but the majority of artists claim it has had a positive impact on their careers: learning about the business of mounting and selling art brings valuable insight while also building connections with administrators, curators and buyers. The gallery has brokered one or two sales on behalf of its artists, but never takes a commission.
The worst is now over
What all these disparate galleries have in common is a sense that the worst is now behind them and that the market is turning. “Things have definitely begun to improve over the past 12 months or so,” says Sabina Mac Mahon of Taylor Galleries. “There are buyers out there now, although they are more individuals than corporate clients or people buying for the major public collections.”
The galleries that have survived have inevitably become more nimble and more appreciative of buyers. For the consumer, art prices are a fraction of what they used to be. In this increasingly synthetic age a local gallery is one of the few places you can purchase unique expressions of human creativity. The speculators and corporate collectors have had control of the art market for too long; it’s about time we took it back and started animating our walls with something other than the products of Ikea and B&Q.