In 1974, Lee Krasner, an outstanding force in abstract expressionism, but generally known as “Mrs Jackson Pollock”, began tearing up a folio of her old cubist etchings, drawn over forty years before while still at art school.
But this was not an act of destruction, an artist at the end of their career eliminating their rough working, as Michelangelo had with his cartoons. This was a process of re-invention. The drawings were cut into strips, long and spikey to complement the sharp edges of the cubist images, in the process creating a collage that intensified the dynamism and vibrancy cubism, amplifying the drawing’s original intent but erasing the original image. At the age of 68, Krasner was treating her life’s work as a word document – something to go back to and tinker with.
These late works are now on display as part of the Barbican’s Lee Krasner: Living Colour, the first ever UK retrospective of Krasner’s work. To view them is to see a woman who held nothing as sacred, not even her own past. “I am not to be trusted around my old work for any length of time”, she once said.
Self-cannibalisation was not new to Krasner. Some of the most exquisite works in the exhibition are her “Stable Gallery” paintings of the early 1950s. After her first solo show had failed to sell in October 1951, a downhearted Krasner returned to her warehouse studio in New York, and embarked on a series of preliminary sketches. One day she decided she “despised it all” and tore them up. Returning after a number of weeks to the scene of devastation, Krasner found herself interested by the patterning created by the falling shreds.
She glued them together, adding newspaper, burlap sacking and even some of Jackson’s disposed daubs for good measure, pasting them to a background of dark pink, burnt ochre and alizarin crimson. A work like Desert Moon is aesthetically-charged chaos, fragments thrown together not to create the delicate precision of collages by Joseph Cornell or Man Ray, but to show the jagged rough edges of nature, where nothing exists or grows by design. There is much beauty to be found in exploded duds.
Krasner was drawing on an artistic approach that is quintessentially modernist. It was through a liver-spotted Matisse in the early 1940s elegantly cutting up coloured paper and arranging them into a pattern of cut-outs that this new art-form gained traction. Krasner merely gave it the abstract expressionist treatment, a visceral renting of the paper instead of delicate and controlled snipping.
Trashing one thing to give birth to another is now a well-known feature of modern art – even then its function is to point out how art only has value if we believe it has value. Ai Wei Wei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn of 1995 is a photographic triptych showing the artist holding a 2,000-year old urn of immense cultural and financial worth, valued at $1million. It then hangs in mid-air, lies smashed at the artist’s feet, worthless. Banksy (mis)quoted Picasso as saying “the urge to destroy is also a creative urge” when he shredded both Love is in the Bin and art-market pretence at Sotheby’s last year.
But the idea of creative destruction had been around for a while. In 1942 economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out that capitalism is inherently based on innovative individuals using a new idea as a wrecking ball for traditional systems and thought, ensuring long-term economic growth. By its very nature, the modern age rests on upheaval.
But this reaches beyond the 20th century. New ideas often come through deconstructing the familiar and merging components together. In her 1831 preface to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley admitted that her big idea had been found at the intersection of several different discoveries of the age – experiments with electricity, the barbarism of the French Revolution – catalysed by the brooding weather of the “year without a summer” in 1819. “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of a void, but out of chaos; the material must, in the first place, be afforded”. Like Krasner, Shelley’s work was created through fragments and scraps. The artist, writer, economist, scientist, inventor who create the “new” are often clever people who have managed to break things up and merge them together again.
It may well be that the seeds for the next eureka moment are already among us, waiting to be arranged from pre-existing bits and pieces. Demis Hassabis’s breakthrough in machine learning came from his own experiences of learning how to play board games. Combining this with his training in neuroscience and computer programming resulted in DeepMind, one of the biggest breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence in recent years.
A case can be made that a damaged object should be cherished as a unique piece in its own right. Would Venus de Milo be so iconic if she still had her arms? Damage reminds of history; scars that can tell lessons and stories. Pockmarks litter London’s V&A, St Clement Danes and Westminster Hall, visual reminders of the horrors of war. In Berlin, the Wilhelmskirche has been left in a ruinous state for the same reasons. Perhaps reconstruction of ancient artefacts, such as the ones blown up by ISIS in Mosul and Palmyra, would be to paper over history and the potential lessons of the past. Each smashed vase, graffitied book or ruined building is a creation in its own right, a new meaning smashed into it. By this logic, restoration is the purist’s vandalism.
In contrast to Monet binning water lily canvases that didn’t make the grade, or Van Gogh painting over works that displeased him, Krasner was aware that destruction is integral to the creative process, an opportunity to make something new.