Artist’s using their own unwanted works to create new artworks is a nearly ubiquitous practice, one most commonly borne out by painters wanting to make good use of expensive frames and canvases, who often prefer “well-used” surfaces to raw ones. Making art from the art of other artists, however, strikes a different tone.
And yet there are plenty of precedents, ranging from deferential to downright devious. Perhaps the most famous art historically is the (reluctantly) consensual “Erased de Kooning” by Robert Rauschenberg (1953), which is what it sounds like. When requesting a drawing to erase from his idol Willem de Kooning, Rauschenberg was driven in a Duchampian pursuit to find the edges of art, in this case, defining it through the act of erasure (an extension of a gesture frequently used by de Kooning himself).
Perhaps the very inverse of Rauschenberg’s piece are the détournment* paintings of situationist Asger Jorn, who collides his own intuitive, painterly gestures and figures with found original paintings. Jorn, too, was looking for limits – in his case, the limits of painting. “Painting is over” he said, “You might as well finish it off. Détourn. Long live painting.” Though written in 1959, this could well have been a post-modernist swan song vis-à-vis Douglas Crimp in 1981 (or 1840 Paul Delaroche’s declaration upon seeing his first daguerreotype). But like many painters professing painting’s alleged death, Jorn’s ‘vandalism’ of the genre is an attempt to midwife it into the modern: more oblation than obituary.
Asger Jorn, The Disquieting Duckling, 1959
Less forgiving/forgiven are the provocative works of Ai Weiwei and brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman. For the work that first launched him into the public eye, Ai destroyed a Han dynasty urn by dropping it to the floor, a high-stakes gesture documented in a series of three sparse photographs. In this incredibly potent and symbolic gesture, an ancient object that had survived for thousands of years was laid to waste in a matter of seconds, an act that archaeologist Paul Barford called a “cultural property crime” that Ai should be arrested for (neither the first nor likely the last time the artist has been threatened with incarceration or literally detained for creative acts). Perhaps even more taboo are the interventions of Jake and Dinos Chapman on Francisco de Goya’s “The Disasters of War” etchings from 1810-20, in what they title “Injury to Insult to Injury” (2004). The brothers rendered campy horror elements into the prints – alien heads, socketless eyeballs, cycloptic bats – in their words, “improving” Goya’s work by accentuating what they saw as his inappropriate black humour. For critics like Jonathan Jones, however, this iconoclasm was an “evil” act of vandalism which could not be forgiven, “something nasty, psychotic and value-free.”
Viewers and lesser-known artists have also sought to be part of an art historic conversation through by attempting to destroy, edit, and consume the works of others, often as a critique of perceived value. On March 21st, 1986, Dutch museum visitor Gerard Jan van Bladeren famously slashed Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III” (1967) while on display at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Bladeren then returned to the same museum eleven years later to slash Newman’s “Cathedra” (1951). He claimed that his first act was in reaction to the museum’s lack of realist representation (which, by the way, sits directly beside the Rembrandt House Museum, with realism aplenty), while the second time he and his lawyer made claims that the act was gestural, akin to the work of Lucio Fontana (an argument likely gleaned from public conversation between acts).
Barnett Newman, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, 1967 (pictured here after slashing)
Felix Gwemlin, Painting Modernism Black, 1995
In 1994 an “unemployed artist” named Mark Bridger poured blank ink into Damien Hirst’s “Away from the Flock” (1994), one of his formaldehyde tanks containing a white lamb displayed at Serpentine Gallery in London. He titled this gesture “Black Sheep,” a “work” which was later appropriated by Swedish artist Felix Gwemlin in a sculpture titled “Painting Modernism Black” (1995). More recently, of course, we have performance artist David Datuna eating Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian” (2019), and the Russian security guard who drew eyes on Anna Leporskaya’s “Three Figures” (1932-34) while on display at the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg. Though the former does proclaim his to be an artistic gesture (to critique an artwork created by a populist trickster that was not intended to hinge on a single banana), the latter’s motivation is unknown (thought to be a “lapse in sanity”, or boredom). Regardless, all of these gestures tend to emit a whiff of desperation – the need to feel included in an artistic conversation happening far outside of one’s own reality. The outsider bites their thumb at artworks and artworlds that are enough of an affront to their sense of self to act, while forgoing the tempering forces of (just a bit of) comprehension and empathy. In other words, their feelings and impulses are no different than those the vast majority of us have in reaction to any of the other myriad complex topics that polarize and divide us in present day.
Anna Leporskaya, Three Figures, 1932-34 (pictured here with ballpoint pen “defacement”)
Maurzio Cattelan, Comedian, 2019 (pictured here being eaten by David Datuna)
But what of those for whom destruction is an opportunity for remediation and reconciliation? In two colossal niches carved into an Afghan cliffside once stood the Buddhas of Bamiyan, one 55 metres and the other 38 metres**, created by sixth-century sculptors and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. In his “What dust will rise?” (2012), Michael Rakowitz took pieces from those destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan and used them to create new work with locals during workshops in the very caves of Bamiyan. With the help of stone carvers from Afghanistan and Italy, women and men from the region learned skills required to make the Buddha’s in the first place, and used them to create their own forms from destroyed fragments, both of the Buddha’s and of the World Trade Center in New York City. The sculptures they created were realist works, which in places where speech, culture, and freedom of religion are stifled, is a far more radical act than abstraction. The loss, hope, and meaning behind this work continues to deepen as human rights – particularly the rights of women and girls – are further infringed upon in the wake Taliban takeover since August of 2021.
Michael Rakowitz, What dust will rise?, Bamiyan travertine, glass, vitrines, bullets, shrapnel, meteorites, Libyan desert glass, trinitite, fragments of the destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan, books burned during the Second World War, 2012
The idea that art is sacred, and to some, perhaps the only thing of lasting cultural value we leave behind, is just that – an idea. Duchamp himself, when describing “how to create a readymade,” wrote about his unrealized concept to create a “Reciprocal Readymade”: “Use a Rembrandt as an Ironing Board” (written between 1911-1915). The use of another’s art in this way may strike one as a different gesture than Duchamp’s typical arrangements composed of everyday objects. Yet just like his “Mile of String” (1942) installed for the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in Manhattan, Duchamp is consistent in probing authorship and the space between himself and other artists as a means to question the notion of art as sacrosanct.
Whether in the charge of institutions (which are subject to acts of war and nature, both becoming more regular occurrences in the twenty-first century) or the parts that make the sum of your bicycle, no material – stone or otherwise – lasts forever. Ethnographer Tim Ingold in his writings on culture and materialism has described makers as mere interveners in the lives of objects, which go on living, changing, and being altered (intentionally or otherwise) long after their makers have passed. As we continue to walk the line between preservation and destruction, as the gatekeepers continue to accession and deaccession their decrees of cultural relevance, and as we continue to learn what we have precisely when it’s gone, let’s meditate on what those interventions can look like. Destruction and creation may be bedfellows, but the latter is a far more generous lover.
**Still Canadian and still using metric :*D The future is now, America!
***Remember! This is a forum. Submit ideas for me to tackle to keeleyhaftner (at) gmail (dot) com