Why These 6 Artists Destroyed Their Own Art
Photo by Zlatko Unger, via Flickr.
The Belgian painter Luc Tuymans never spends more than one day on an artwork. After completing it, he once told the BBC, he leaves his studio, returns the following day, and decides whether it’s good enough to keep. If so, it goes to his dealer; if not, he destroys it.
One might marvel at the idea that Tuymans—whose paintings regularly carry million-dollar price tags—would dispose of something so valuable. Perhaps if they were preparatory sketches or studies, this act would be less shocking. Yet the history of art provides numerous instances of artists willfully discarding finished works of art, including as an expression of traditional beliefs and practices, from Buddhist sand mandalas—sacred diagrams representing the cosmos, which are labor-intensively and meticulously constructed, only to be destroyed—to the bisj or “spirit poles” of the eastern Indonesian Asmat culture, which are created to honor the dead before being left to decay.
Here are six stories of artists who chose to destroy their own art.
Michelangelo, The Deposition (1547–55)
Michaelangelo, The Deposition, 1547-55. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Michelangelo’s Pietà (1498–99) in St. Peter’s Basilica is an extraordinarily detailed and tender portrayal of the Virgin Mary holding Christ’s limp body after being removed from the crucifix. It is one of the artist’s most cherished works, carved and polished to a state of almost hyper-finish when the sculptor was only 24 years old.
When, decades later, at the age of 72, Michelangelo began work on The Deposition (1547–55)—which depicts Christ’s body being taken down from the cross and is now housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence and known as “the Florentine Pietà”—things didn’t go so smoothly. His friend, the historian Giorgio Vasari, said that Michelangelo complained of a material flaw in the marble that made construction near-impossible, though we know the artist was good at selecting his stone.
Scholars now point to the possibility that something in the composition itself—perhaps Christ’s leg, thrown over the Virgin Mary’s lap, which could have been read as suggestive—led the sculptor to attack his piece with a hammer after eight years of work. Though the work was saved by a church official and partially restored, Christ’s missing left leg betrays Michelangelo’s violent outburst.
Claude Monet, Water Lilies (1905–08)
Monet, arguably the best-known pioneer of the French Impressionist movement in the 1860s and ’70s, painted around 250 “Water Lily” paintings over the last three decades of his life—works that are now the cherished possessions of major institutions and private collectors alike.
Originally, however, there were more. Before an exhibition of the paintings in 1908, Monet destroyed a group of them, disappointed by their quality in comparison to “better” canvases. Some scholars report that around 15 of the paintings were trashed, others over 30. If that seems wild given Monet’s fame and the enormous price tags attached to his work, consider this: Near his death, the aging Impressionist allegedly commanded his daughter-in-law Blanche Hoschedé-Monet to get rid of even more of his remaining works, concerned about how they would be viewed by future generations.
Gerhard Richter, early photo-based work (1960s)
In 1961, Richter escaped East Germany to West Germany, months before the construction of the Berlin Wall. Rejecting both the then-popular styles of abstraction and the Socialist Realism he had been taught in his hometown of Dresden, he experienced a breakthrough when he began painting from photographs, both ones he had found in print media and those from his own personal collection.
However, as his art developed and he oscillated between the figurative and abstract modes of painting that he has become known for, Richter began to destroy many of his photo-based works. Credited as one of the few post-World War II German artists to deal directly with the heritage of National Socialism (Richter’s family included both Nazis and their victims), Richter ultimately destroyed certain works that referenced Germany’s loaded recent history, such as a work depicting Adolf Hitler.
“Cutting up the paintings was always an act of liberation,” the artist told Der Spiegel in 2012. He is thought to have taken a boxcutter and fire to around 60 paintings from this transitional period in his career. Fortunately for those interested in his development as an artist, he was nervous enough about this destruction to photograph many of the works beforehand, prints that still exist in archives today.
John Baldessari, Cremation Project (1970)
John Baldessari, Cremation Project, 1970. Courtesy of the artist.
In what he would later title Cremation Project (complete with documentary film and photos of he and his assistants burning his works), Baldessari effectively destroyed the abstract stage of his career. Having turned to more conceptual works involving text and photography, Baldessari ritualistically closed the door on one style to make way for the next. The artist had a bronze commemorative plaque made for the works’ “burial.”
Baldessari’s destructive act also freed up some room. Scholars have pointed out a more practical motivator for Cremation Project: The artist, who was based in San Diego at the time, had recently been offered a teaching position at CalArts in Los Angeles, and it didn’t make sense to pay moving and storage costs on 13 years of work he no longer deemed relevant.
(Baldessari’s fellow conceptual artist Susan Hiller similarly immolated a number of her paintings, beginning in 1972, placing the ashes in test tubes and tagging and signing them as new, individual works, part of her ongoing series, “Relics.”)
Georgia O’Keeffe, assorted work (1980s)
According to Whitney Museum curator Barbara Haskell, O’Keeffe trimmed her oeuvre on the eve of a show planned at the museum in the 1980s. “She wanted to go into storage to destroy some of the paintings that she didn’t think were at her level,” Haskell noted. “When she got to the end of her life, she really wanted to purge, so that her reputation remained strong.”She allegedly destroyed works throughout her career for the same reason, though some have apparently slipped through the cracks. Red and Green II (1916), one of her first watercolors, is listed in her notebooks as having been destroyed after she showed it once in 1958 at New York’s Downtown Gallery. Yet the work surfaced in a Christie’s New York American Art sale in November 2015. More recently, Michael Grauer, curator at Texas’s Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, featured the work in an exhibition about O’Keeffe’s time in Texas.
O’Keeffe destroyed not only her own works, but those of her former husband Alfred Stieglitz, at his request. In a September 1983 interview with Andy Warhol and her friend Juan Hamilton for Warhol’s magazine, Interview, O’Keeffe admitted to trashing a large number of Stieglitz’s photographic negatives at his death. The late photographer, who printed all of his images himself, wished the negatives destroyed so that no one else could print them.
Michael Landy, Break Down (2001)
Michael Landy, Break Down, 2001. Photo by Julian Stallabrass, via Flickr.
In 1998, the Young British Artist Landy approached the London-based arts organization Artangel requesting sponsorship for his latest work, which would manifest a simple, if rather extreme, idea: He would take each of his 7,227 personal belongings—cataloguing them over the course of three years—and destroy each and every one of them. The operation, pitched as an attack on consumerism, would be staged in a department store.
The resulting artwork, titled Break Down, took a team of assistants and a sort of reverse assembly-line process to dismantle all of Landy’s belongings, which included his car, his own artworks, and those of a number of other artists, including fellow YBAs Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
In the end, Landy realized that the work was about much more than consumerism. Destroying all of his possessions in the name of art led him to grapple with existential questions about his memories and identity, and the way in which people are shaped by the things that they own.