We look at why John Baldessari burnt his art and baked cookies with the ashes, Francis Bacon slashed his best paintings, and Robert Rauschenberg erased a work by Willem de Kooning
During the mid-20th century, the 'art of destruction' emerged as a theme in the work of many celebrated artists. Although this tendency has existed for centuries – Claude Monet allegedly slashed at least 30 of his water lily canvases – the 20th century heralded a new age for creative auto-destruction. Defined by artist Gustav Metzger in the 1960s, 'auto-destructive' art reflected the recent violence of the Second World War, the ideological nihilism of existential philosophy, and the rising tensions of nuclear warfare during the Cold War.
Conceptual artists sabotaged, ruined or destroyed their artworks, either as a deliberate, artistic strategy, or as a result of malaise, anxiety, or displeasure with their work. To destroy an art object was not only radical but iconoclastic – a gesture that disavowed the artwork as a material object that could potentially sell for vast amounts of money.
Contemporary artists, from Gerhard Richter to Banksy, have followed in the footsteps of their predecessors. Ironically, some of these artists have proved that destruction isn’t always defeatist, or for the purposes of sheer vanity, but allows for liberation, which in turn, inspires new bounds of creativity.
Named the ‘godfather of conceptual art’, John Baldessari passed away on 2 January 2020, at the age of 88. An artist who irreversibly changed the landscape of American conceptual art, he worked across all artistic mediums, from installation to video art to emojis.
In 1970, he decided to destroy his entire ‘body of work’ created between 1953 and 1966. Rather than throwing them away, he took them to a crematorium. Afterwards, Baldessari stored the ashes in a bronze urn (in the shape of a book), which he placed on his shelf. He also bought a bronze plaque inscribed with the birth and death dates of his deceased works, as well as the recipe to make the cookies.
“Cremation Project” was not only practical but strategic – Baldessari was commenting on the cyclical process of the creative process, which could be conceptually ‘recycled’.
“At one point I made cookies out of the ashes”, Baldessari reflected, “only one person I ever knew ate one.”
By erasing his past oeuvre, Baldessari cleared his artistic slate. The following year, he gave instructions for a work titled “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” – an oath to never create dull work again.
In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg arrived at the house of abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, who – at that time – was one of America’s most respected and highest-earning artists. Then, a little-known artist, Rauschenberg asked de Kooning whether he could erase one of his works.
Reluctant at first, de Kooning eventually agreed. He offered the 27-year-old Rauschenberg a pencil, ink, charcoal, and graphic sketch. Over the following two months, Rauschenberg ‘erased’ the artwork. When finished, he retitled it “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953)
Echoing the readymades of Marcel Duchamp and precipitating the arrival of appropriation art, Rauschenberg’s gesture ignited conversations about the limitations of art (specifically, can art be created through ‘erasure’?), as well as questions about authorship.
In late 1954, at the age of 24, Jasper Johns destroyed all of his work. Later in life, he would reflect that it was time “to stop becoming and to be an artist... I had a wish to determine what I was... what I wanted to do was find out what I did that other people didn’t, what I was that other people weren’t.”
Just as Baldessari found a new vision after destroying his work, the obliteration of John’s practice boosted his creativity – as if freed from the intellectual shackles of his former self.
Not long after, Johns dreamed of painting an American flag. Shortly after, he made his dreams a reality and conceptualised his most famous work, “Flag”, 1954.
In 1967, the Canadian-born painter Agnes Martin – one of the few female members affiliated with abstract expressionism – decided to destroy her earlier works. Known as a reflective and quiet woman, her modular, muted paintings reflect a desire for tranquillity.
Before dedicating her energy to the motif of lines, bands, and the grid (her trademark) she experimented with biomorphic abstraction: pale-hued paintings influenced by organic, or geometric forms. Her mature style developed in the 1960s and moved towards restrained abstraction.
1967 brought about great rupture in Martin’s life. Not only did she experience the sudden death of her close friend, the artist Ad Reinhardt, but she also suffered from a decline in mental health, which would eventually lead to schizophrenia in her 40s. She retreated from New York and left for New Mexico where she followed the principles of eastern philosophy: Zen Buddhism and Taoism.
Martin’s decision to negate her former style could be read as a purifying of her former life as she embarked on a new journey, albeit one characterised by descending mental health. Her displeasure for her older work was so great, that she commented that if collectors wanted to “sell them back to me, I’d burn them”.
Towards the end of Georgia O'Keeffe’s life in the 1980s, she purged works of art she no longer liked. But she also destroyed photographs by her former husband, Alfred Stieglitz.
Among many paintings, she attempted to bury “Red and Green II” (1916), an early watercolour that she documented as “destroyed” in her personal notebooks. Only publicly displayed once, in New York in 1958, O'Keeffe’s work – despite her attempts to remove it – resurfaced at a Christie's sale in November 2015.
After Francis Bacon’s death in 1992, hundreds of destroyed canvases were found in his cluttered studio in South Kensington. In total, 100 slashed canvases were retrieved from his home.
Known for his masochistic tendencies and emotionally-charged works, the cycle of creation and destruction was central to Bacon’s torturous, creative process. He allegedly referred to his art as an ‘exorcism’ – a cathartic, painful release of raw emotion. And once described the violent application of his paint as “to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself.”
One of the destroyed works found in his studio “Gorilla with Microphone” used his repeated motif of a glass box, within which a central figure was cut out, leaving two white, negated spaces.
According to Jennifer Mundy, Bacon reflected that some of his destroyed works were among his best. He found it difficult to ‘finish’ a work, and “his canvases often became so clogged with pigment that they had to be discarded. He also routinely destroyed works he was not pleased with.”
Noah Davis was a “prodigiously talented” LA-based painter who founded the Underground Museum. He tragically died aged 32 from a rare form of cancer in 2015, though he left an impressive artistic legacy.
A visionary and efficient painter who followed the mantra of ‘less is more’, one of his closest friends, Henry Taylor, described him as an artist who “was constantly growing”.
According to Bennett Roberts (the co-founder of Roberts & Tilton) “The only problem with Noah, was that he would call me and say, ‘Come to the studio, I painted 10 great new paintings.’ He was very fast when he was working. I’d go in there and just be mesmerised. ‘These are unbelievable, can we get them to the gallery? I’ll photograph them.’ Two days later, he would say, ‘Oh, sorry, I painted over every one of them.’”
Banksy’s self-shredding artwork dominated the headlines in 2018. When his most recognisable work, “Girl With Balloon”, sold for over £1 million at a London Sotheby’s auction, the artwork promptly began to self-destruct. Unbeknown to onlookers, the artist had previously installed an automated shredding device into the frame of the picture.
Shortly after, Banksy uploaded a video of the scandalous moment on his Instagram account, with the caption “Going, going, gone…” Ironically, the destruction of the work was left incomplete; the work was supposed to shred entirely but stopped halfway through. To the surprise of many, the artwork increased in value after its public decimation.
In homage to Picasso, Banksy remarked: “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge”
One of the most prolific artists of the twentieth century, Louise Bourgeois left her New York townhouse in a state of bohemian disarray after her death in 2010. Known for her chronic anxiety, erratic moods, and sudden outbursts of creativity, the artist’s close friend and assistant, Jerry Gorovy once remarked, “If she worked, she was OK. If she didn’t, she became anxious... and when she was anxious she would attack. She would smash things, destroy her work.”
If Bourgeois disliked a small sculpture she’d been working on, she was known to push it off the end of her kitchen table and watch it smash and break into small fragments.