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MCA’s ‘Painting the Void’ long-overdue homage

is among artwork “Destroy Picture: Painting Void 1949-1962”  Museum Contemporary Art Chicago.

is among the artwork “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962” the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

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Destroy the
Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962

♦ Through June 2

♦ Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago Ave.

♦ Suggested admission, $12; free for all Illinois residents on Tuesdays

♦ (312) 280-2660;

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Updated: February 20, 2013 4:40PM

An array of curators, critics and academics in the 20th century worked to codify a tidy, sequential history of that transformative era’s art, overlooking, ignoring and marginalizing scores of artists whose work didn’t fit their narrative.

A little more than decade into a new century, work is under way in the art world to challenge this orthodoxy, to rethink and expand the story of 20th century art and to rediscover important artists and movements that were unfairly left at the fringes.

Among the leaders of this reclamation effort is curator Paul Schimmel, who has sought to put the spotlight on a group of international artists who tried to redefine the very nature of painting by slicing, singing and puncturing surfaces and sometimes doing away with paint altogether.

A new touring show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962,” offers what organizers are calling the most comprehensive look yet at this surprisingly widespread yet little-known phenomenon.

“I like to think of art history as a series of vessels,” Schimmel said. “In some ways, there have been some dinghies and medium-size ships, but there hasn’t been a big ship that sort of picks all these people up and puts them together.”

The MCA is the second and only other venue for “Destroy the Picture,” which closed in January at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. It was the last show Schimmel organized there as chief curator before his much-publicized firing following a rupture with top leaders over the institution’s direction.

Although the works in this exhibition are more than a half-century old, it makes sense for the MCA, chief curator Michael Darling said, because it bridges past and present. A new generation of abstract artists is confronting many of the same formal issues and challenges and looking anew at many of works shown in it.

“Destroy the Picture” contains works by familiar names like Lee Bontecou, Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg and Antoni Tapies, focusing sometimes on lesser-known examples, such as Klein’s lava-like “Untitled Fire Painting (F271)” (1961).

But it casts them in an often surprising light by setting them in the context of a group of less widely known, and, in some cases, almost forgotten artists like Jean Fautrier, Adolf Frohner, Salvatore Scarpitta, Shozo Shimamoto and Chiyu Uemae who were working at the same time, using many of the same approaches.

“All of sudden,” Schimmel said, “[works by] artists like Shimamoto look not like sort of isolated, weird experiments and reactions to abstract-expressionism in Osaka but in fact part of something far more continuous. With an absolute simultaneity and no knowledge of each other, you have Shimamoto and Fontana doing these remarkable works — same year, same time and they are clearly approaching the same issue: art and destruction, breaking down the picture plane.”

In all, “Destroy the Picture” contains more than 85 works by 26 artists from Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Great Britain and the United States.

Besides making fresh connections between artists working in similar ways on opposites of the world, the exhibition also goes further than many previous offerings by exploring the historical milieu surrounding them.

Nearly all of these artists ­­­— some more directly than others — were responding in some ways to the horrors of World War II and the upheavals and doubts it provoked, offering their own takes on creation and destruction and in some cases creating black voids on their canvases much like the emotional and societal voids around them.

Nowhere is this link more obvious than in the works of Burri. He served as a military doctor for the Italian army in North Africa before becoming a prisoner of war, and some of his sewn and patched burlap paintings, like “Sacco (Sackcloth)” (1953), can be seen as makeshift bandages and sutured wounds.

Because many of the artists in “Destroy the Picture” do not have the name recognition of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, Schimmel acknowledges the show is not likely to attract a blockbuster audience. But he believes it has all the ingredients to be a significant draw.

“People really do want exhibitions that are thematic,” he said, “that take on a kind of bold and broad revisionist approach to art history and, most important, have outstanding works by people they would like to be familiar with.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer and arts critic.

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