These Painters Abandoned Brushes for Sledgehammers, Chainsaws, and Blowtorches

Alina Cohen
Dec 18, 2018 5:21PM

Artists aren’t fans of rules. After studying art history and theory for years, many creative practitioners subvert all they’ve learned in order to make something that feels fresh and new. Painters, in particular, wrestle with age-old ideas about their craft—which can be traced all the way back to when the Neanderthals brushed pigment on cave walls. Naysayers have been purporting that “painting is dead” since photography gave society a new way to freeze momentary images into everlasting art. How, then, to keep it exciting?

One way that artists address this quandary is through innovative materials and processes. Abandoning that most traditional painting tool—the brush—allows for greater experimentation and radical new gestures (though it can often run the risk of seeming gimmicky). Many of the following artists transform the physical act of painting into a violent act, often literally destroying to create.

Niki de Saint Phalle is probably best known for her “Nanas”—totemic, colorfully patterned sculptures of female forms. While these are giant celebrations of women, de Saint Phalle also defied 1960s conventions of femininity as she decided to use a most unusual device to make paintings: a gun. Early in the decade, she began a series of “Tirs,” or “Shooting Pictures.” To make these, she affixed paint-filled plastic bags to canvases, then shot them so they’d explode and drip pigment down the linen. Bullet holes remained, lending a rough violence—and a sense of randomness and chance—to the surface. De Saint Phalle left the plastic bags on the surface and often incorporated other elements (mesh, a metal seat, leaves) into her strange assemblages. The artist began wearing a white suit during her shootings and inviting other prominent artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg, to wield the gun themselves; her artmaking became a communal event.

After Lucien Smith graduated from the Cooper Union in 2011, he began using a fire extinguisher to apply paint to canvas. The results, his “Rain Paintings,” are lightly speckled with blue, black, yellow, and red drops. Collectors immediately caught on, and by 2014, a single work could achieve six figures at auction. Critics were not so keen: In a now-iconic 2014 article for Artspace, Walter Robinson coined the term “Zombie Formalism” to describe an emerging style of painting in which artists use “a straightforward, reductive, essentialist method” that “brings back to life the discarded aesthetics of Clement Greenberg, the man who championed Jackson Pollock, Morris Louis, and Frank Stella’s ‘black paintings,’ among other things.” These artworks, Robinson claimed, sell well, but are ultimately vacuous. Smith, he alleged, was one of the main offenders—just because he was the first artist to use a fire extinguisher doesn’t make his work any good.

Abby Leigh
Competitive Skies 1, 2018
Johannes Vogt Gallery

At first glance, Abby Leigh’s paintings look like lovely constellations of flowing lines and circles. Step closer, and the surfaces appear severely distressed—Leigh smashed them with a sledgehammer. The artist likens each mark to a scar, and the painting’s surface to a skin. To make the works, she layers wax, oil, pigment, and paint atop dibond, then pierces, sands, and otherwise assaults the material. Competitive Skies 2 (2018), for example, features intimate curlicue scribbles and stick figures alongside craters where the silver dibond peeps through—evidence of trauma, with displaced paint gathering around the edges. In Sand (2018), Leigh makes red marks against a light yellow background. Tracks and arrows suggest some kind of map, likening painting to cartography and placemaking. “Sledgehammering is an infliction of pain,” Leigh told Artsy. “But when I’m finished with the work, the end result can be much more delicate.”

Andy Warhol

In the late 1970s, Andy Warhol brought abstraction into his practice, with the same cheekiness that had already made him a star of the Pop scene. To make his “Oxidation” series (1977–78), he first primed canvases with copper metallic paint. Then, he or his associates at the Factory urinated on the wet surface. The mixed materials catalyzed a chemical reaction: The surfaces developed a greenish, speckled topography. Warhol’s assistant, Ronnie Cutrone, later described how painting itself became a transgressive performance. “The studio would become like a toilet, a giant urinal,” he said. (Cutrone’s own vitamin B binges allegedly enhanced the colorof the surfaces he helped soak for Warhol.) The Whitney Museum’s current Warhol presentation situates the “Oxidation” series alongside Jackson Pollock’s own paint-splattered works—as a wry, bawdy interpretation of the Abstract Expressionist’s macho gestures.

Charles Arnoldi, For Beauty Passed Away, 1982. Courtesy of the artist.

Charles Arnoldi, Scorched Pistons, 1988. Courtesy of the artist.

If there’s an a polar opposite of Agnes Martin’s whisperingly gentle marks on linen, it’s Chuck Arnoldi’s chainsawed cuts. In the 1980s, the artist stacked sheets of plywood together, then carved into them. The results make for some of art history’s most jagged, splintering works. Sometimes, Arnoldi eliminated large chunks of the wood, leaving gaping holes. He mounted the works on the walls, and sometimes painted on the plywood before revving up his chainsaw—efforts that blurred the line between painting and sculpture. Arnoldi once described the dance-like nature of his practice: “You start cutting in references and you are making hundreds of decisions a second, but it’s a physical thing, you’re actively engaged in it.”

Howardena Pindell brought Pointillism back from the dead with buoyant, celebratory canvases. Starting in the 1970s, she scattered hole-punched, colored dots across her paintings. The results often look like fallen confetti, with an underlying grid peeking from beneath the paint. Pindell eschewed paint completely in some works, coating boards with multi-hued, multi-sized hole punches. Sometimes, she piled on the rectangles of paper from which dots had been punched—creating a sense of presence and absence; of positive and negative space. In the 1980s, Pindell worked on irregularly shaped, unstretched canvases that similarly incorporated the hole-punch motif. When exhibited, they lie flat against the wall, recalling nubby, textured quilts or blankets. Earlier this year, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago mounted Pindell’s first major survey. Her shimmering, unapologetically beautiful works are finally finding a place in art history.

Many artists worry that their exhibitions will end up as disasters; meanwhile, Richard Jackson once made art that was a literal plane crash. In 2012, for Los Angeles’s Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival, he flew a remote-controlled, paint-filled drone into a wall inscribed with the words “Accidents in Abstract Painting” (the title of the performance). Situated in a large Pasadena field, the “canvas” acquired new red, yellow, and blue splatters. A crowd cheered, many filming the incident on their phones. In the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Knight called the work a “raucous lampoon of Abstract Expressionist painting” that “recalls the post–World War II era that saw America emerge as an international artistic powerhouse while Europe smoldered in ruins.” There’s something arrogant and buffoonish about destroying a plane to make art—the piece functioned as good satire. After the incident, the wreckage went on view at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts.

Yves Klein

Yves Klein
Peinture de feu sans titre (F 80), 1961
Yves Klein
F 87 "Body imprint made with water and fire", 1961
Galerie Gmurzynska

Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give light to humans; phoenixes burn and rise from the ashes. In the 1960s, Yves Klein integrated such mythology into his practice by charring cardboard and plywood. With Bunsen burners and flamethrowers, he created dark rings, splotches, streaks, and shadows across his surfaces. Bodily elements appear—no surprise, given that Klein’s most-famous series (“Anthropometries”) required women to roll around in blue paint and then press themselves against canvas. To make some of the “Fire Paintings,” Klein sprayed nude women with water as they briefly rubbed against fireproof cardboard. They left the staging area and the artist sprayed the material with fire. These assistants’ corporeal traces—which resemble holes, hills, and valleys—remain.

Evan Robarts painting with a mop. Photo by Elena Parasco. Courtesy of the artist.

After graduating from Pratt Institute in 2008, Evan Robarts supported himself, in part, by working as a superintendent for several years. Sweeping and mopping hallways, he said, “became muscle memory.” When he was finally able to afford a studio, he integrated the tools from his old job into his practice, mopping plaster across tiles to create lush, gridded paintings. Sometimes, he scraped away at the surface with a trowel, creating texture and a sense of layering. Boot marks often remained, leaving traces of his labor. “It’s important to have a fingerprint in the work,” he told Artsy. “It was a personal narrative that I could expand on that spoke to art history.” One such precedent: Janine Antoni’s 1993 performance Loving Care, in which she mopped a floor with her hair.

Installation view of Ahmet Civelek “Number 3: Grit.” Courtesy of the artist and Pi Artworks Istanbul.

Starting in the 1970s, Julian Schnabel began shattering plates and affixing them to canvas. His bombastic, fractured picture planes neatly aligned with his self-mythologizing, larger-than-life personality. Turkish-American artist Ahmet Civelek is taking a page from Schnabel’s book—and that of ancient vase–smashing Ai Weiwei—by breaking plates and other objects for the sake of art. Civelek once filled an entire floor with dishware shards, making the gallery floor into its own colorful painting. He’s also taken apart sunglasses, hedge shears, sieves, and pitchers, then mounted the separate pieces on canvas. “I grew up in Istanbul, living with terrorist attacks, a big earthquake in 1999, lots of destruction,” he told Artsy. He began thinking more deeply about how “destruction” could simply mean “a change of form.” In his own practice, he’s both ruining objects and preserving them, on canvas, for posterity.

Alina Cohen