While destruction as a theme can be traced throughout art history, from the early atomic age it has become a pervasive cultural element. In the immediate post-World War II years, to invoke destruction in art was to evoke the war itself: the awful devastation of battle, the firebombing of entire cities, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, and, of course, the Holocaust. Art seemed powerless in the face of that terrible history. But by the early 1950s, with the escalation of the arms race and the prospect of nuclear annihilation, the theme of destruction in art took on a new energy and meaning. In the decades since, destruction has persisted as an essential component of artistic expression. Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950 offers an overview of this prevalent motif.
Many of the earlier works in the exhibition directly record nuclear bombs or their aftermath, or use such documentation as a starting point for broader commentary. The use of found film, television, and photography as a source expanded more widely in the 1960s as the importance of media coverage of disasters on a cataclysmic or everyday scale increased. Other artists adopted more conceptual or symbolic approaches to address the potential for destruction in the world or as a reaction to social conventions. Destruction has also been employed as a means of questioning art institutions or challenging the very meaning of art itself. In many of the artworks on view, regardless of time period, medium, or intent, the desire to control destruction or to emphasize the integral relationship between construction and destruction is central.
But whether as rebellion or protest, as spectacle and release, or as an important facet of re-creation and restoration, it is apparent that for generations of artists internationally, destruction has served as an essential means of considering and commenting upon a host of the most pressing artistic, cultural, and social issues of our time.
Raphael Montañez Ortiz performs one of his historic Piano Destruction Concerts on the Hirshhorn’s outdoor plaza as part of the opening night of Damage Control.
Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950 is organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, in association with Mudam Luxembourg and Universalmuseum Joanneum/Kunsthaus Graz and is curated by Kerry Brougher and Russell Ferguson. The exhibition received major funding from the Terra Foundation for American Art, and is also made possible through generous support from Kathryn Gleason and Timothy Ring, John and Mary Pappajohn, Melva Bucksbaum and Ray Learsy, John and Sue Wieland, Lewis and Barbara Shrensky, Marian Goodman Gallery, Inc., Peggy and Ralph Burnet, the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, Dani and Mirella Levinas, Barbara and Aaron Levine, the Broad Art Foundation, the Japan Foundation, David Zwirner, New York/London, the Embassy of Switzerland, and Home Front Communications.
Length: 59:22 | Listen in iTunes
This panel discussion with Yoko Ono and Raphael Montañez Ortiz, participants in the original 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium; artist Monica Bonvicini; and art historian Dario Gamboni will explore the ways in which artists have used destruction as a means of responding to cultural and social issues.
Length: 1:42:55 | Listen in iTunes | Video
Spectacle of Destruction
Moderated by Robert Rosen, former dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, artists and scholars—including artist Ori Gersht; anthropologist Joe Masco, University of Chicago and Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; and Kevin Rozario, Smith College—investigate the impetus and implications of society’s fascination with destructive spectacle.
Length: 1:31:16 | Listen in iTunes | Video