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Artists who destroy their own art

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 22, 2013 01:47 PM

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The day after Christmas I posted about the confused market for late-Dalí sculptures. One lesson from the story, which was adapted from an exceptional investigative report on ARTnews, is that Dalí's legacy as a sculptor would probably be stronger today if he’d destroyed more of his work. (Instead he flooded the market with subpar creations in order to finance his extravagant lifestyle.)

In that spirit, here’s another great piece from ARTnews, this time about the rich tradition of “auto-destruction” in the art world—artists who sacrifice their own works in order to control how they’re remembered.

As ARTnews editor Ann Landi explains, Claude Monet had auto-destructive tendencies. She quotes University of Massachusetts, Boston, art scholar Paul Hayes Tucker who recalls how in 1909 Monet thinned his famous “Water Lilies” series: “He shredded at least 30 canvasses, just slashed ‘em up.”

The methods of destruction have varied. A young Robert Rauschenberg submerged some of his sculptures in the Arno River. The painter Gerhard Richter applied a box cutter to 60 canvases that Der Spiegel estimated would be worth $665 million today. John Baldessari set fire to every single painting he made between 1953 and 1966 and preserved some of the ashes in an urn. Jasper Johns simply tossed dissatisfactory work to the curb.

You could imagine these destructive moments as acts of passion, but Landi writes they’re usually more calculated than that. “The decision to demolish is about an artist wanting to take control of his or her legacy before death wrests away that option,” she writes. Artists improve over time and their styles evolve and settle into mature form; often they don’t want their misguided early efforts to cloud the way they’re remembered.

It’s a nice option to have. You could imagine writers and filmmakers wanting to edit their oeuvres like this, but in those pursuits, there’s no putting the cat back in the bag (or, err, drowning it in the Arno). And for fans of these artists, there’s a kind of delightful horror in the stories of destruction. Picture Monet, his razor poised above a canvas. If only we’d been there to intervene: “Oh no, Claude, please don’t, I’d be more than happy to take this junk off your hands.”

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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