With November slowly approaching, the presidential election has sent the general public into a flurry of frenzied energy and constant debate. From Facebook statuses to Twitter updates, the entire country is spilling their thoughts onto the world wide web for all to see. And with every election, the political climate changes and citizens find a new way to voice their concerns.
During World War II, communication proved especially prevalent in the art sphere. Artists not only manifested their emotions about war and other issues through the canvas but also started to push the boundaries of the surface they worked on. By attacking the canvas, they hoped to create a new way of seeing and making art. The Museum of Contemporary Art looks back on this time of innovation with its show “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void 1949-1962,” which opened Oct. 6. The exhibit showcases a range of artists that spans multiple nationalities and aesthetic preferences yet come together under the purpose of doing something new — and oftentimes destructive — with the average blank canvas.
Of all the artist-specific displays in the show, one stands out the most: the portion on Lee Bontecou. In particular, her “Untitled” (1962) causes the viewer to do a double-take and then inspires them to look closer to take in all the detail. Made of welded steel and canvas, the work extends out from its flat surface and pulls in the viewer. An amalgam of parts come together to create a telescopic creation that looks like something out of a dystopian movie. The canvas still exists, but only as a base for the three-dimensional pieces of the work. The pieces seem to rip through the canvas, asserting their own independence.
Most interestingly, Bontecou left an opening near the topmost part of the work through which the viewer can only see black. That small decision lends a haunting feeling to “Untitled,” creating an uncertainty as to whether we are truly looking at the work or if the work is actually looking back at us. What’s more, the black creates a visual abyss of sorts, adding to the three-dimensionality of the piece while giving it an ominous twist.
The explanatory text near Bontecou’s work refers to the importance of her teenage years during World War II. In a quote used for the text, Bontecou expresses that she “was angry” and “used to work with the United Nations program on the shortwave radio.” That act greatly influenced her artwork and “in a way the anger became part of the process.”
The fact that, decades later, a visitor can still gauge a certain feeling of ire and frustration not only proves that Bontecou captured her emotion by breaking through the canvas, but that art can encapsulate a mood from a specific political era and still elicit a response generations later.
“Destroy the Picture,” then, does more than just show us the journey of moving away from traditional modes of art-making, it also displays the power of politically charged art. The strongest feature of “Untitled” is its ability to convey a timeless frustration. From small details, such as the arrangement of materials on the canvas, to the overall haunting look of the piece, there lies a genuine power in the artwork that will continue to endure the passage of time.
In this current political climate, it is important for modern artists to look back at artists such as Bontecou in order to push their own art. Creating a piece that this generation responds to is impressive, but making one that will elicit emotions from viewers decades later proves more powerful. The elements that escape the canvas of “Untitled” might stand for Bontecou’s style itself, which looked to announce the work as a means of conveying a real emotion, not just a visually stunning piece.
Bontecou ultimately looked to create art that showed her reaction to a specific event while also referring to universal themes. In another quote from the show, she explained that she wanted “to glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty, and mystery that exists in all of us and which hangs over all the young people today.” Bontecou took her generation’s frustrations and translated them onto the canvas, but ultimately also created a work that spoke to broad themes, such as fear that cross the boundaries of time.
“Untitled” might make some viewers uncomfortable. It might make some people wonder why something so harsh and aggressive hangs on a pristine museum wall. The fact that these thoughts will swirl inside the heads of MOCA’s many visitors serves as a testament to the power of Bontecou’s work. In order to stand out from the next group of artists, today’s artmakers must look at what makes a viewer react — oftentimes, that comes in the emotions stemming from political climate and change.
America might have moved beyond the effects of World War II, but politics always remains a constant subject of conversation; each day, citizens wake up to news that something is changing politically. Today’s artists know to move beyond the flat canvas, but the lesson that art can be more than just aesthetically pleasing should remain food for thought for this generation — and ones to come.
Eva Recinos is a senior majoring in English. Her column “Two Cents A Piece” runs Tuesdays.