The title of this exhibition suggests a trichotomy of violence and destruction. The works present a wilful reforming of the canvas through burning, cutting and nailing. Yet the impetus behind the works is predominantly one of construction. Working post-World War II, these artists were all united by a desire to create a new aesthetic; one that was capable of reflecting the advances in technology that signalled a new era of radical change. Surrealism, the dominant pre-war art movement, had become rather whimsical and redundant in this new world of scientific and industrial potential. Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein and Gunther Uecker, along with their counterparts, spearheaded a new gestural abstraction, which introduced the notion of transforming the surface of the canvas into the location of the action, rather than having it played out figuratively within the work itself.
This exhibition focuses on the unity of vision shared by these artists. The gallery space has been carefully curated to present predominately monochrome and sepia works. This largely homogenous colour palette serves to unify the pieces as a comprehensive body of works, whilst also emphasizing the material practice of each individual artist. All of the pieces can be defined by aesthetic elegance, which defies the industrial processes used in their creation. Uecker’s white nails create mesmerising light and shadow patterns that oscillate according to the viewer’s angle. When viewed from afar they appear almost organic in nature, moving according to an exterior force. This sense of movement is reiterated in New York Dancer IV, one of only two sculptural works within the exhibition. Consisting of a column of cloth through which protrude numerous nails the sculpture contains a mechanism that spins it round to create a piece that is simultaneously elegant and menacing. The inclusion of sculpture within the exhibition space serves to highlight that although Uecker’s canvases have begun to blur the boundaries between the two media by challenging the traditional flat format of painting, these pictorial pieces are still very distinct in form and conception from their sculptural counterparts.
Klein’s canvases form part of his Fire Paintings series, which he created using Bunsen burners and flame-throwers. The art consists of an interesting rapport between abstraction and the concrete; the forms appear at first to be nonrepresentational, yet they have been created using tangible objects. Klein made a number of works by wrapping female assistants in fire resistant material before burning cardboard over their bodies to capture an imprint of the forms beneath. Within L’Eau, le feu et la marque du corps if one looks closely enough the curves of a female form can be seen to emerge from the cardboard canvas, creating a work that sits somewhere in the liminal space between two-dimensional and three-dimensional; as, whilst the work itself is undoubtedly two-dimensional, it has taken it form from a three-dimensional object.
Fontana’s metal and material canvases also play with the notion of dimensionality. They have been slashed and pierced to allow the viewer access to the space beneath the surface. There is an element of violence to the metal sheets that is missing from the canvas works. The force necessary to rupture the metal is immediately evident and as a result the surface of Concetto Spaziale, Metallo, which forms part of the buchi (holes) sequence, appears almost bruised by the action. In contrast, the tagli (cuts) found in Concetto Spaziale, Attese, 1964 appear to have been done with such ease that it denies the violence of the slicing action.
The exhibition features a total of 14 works, which successfully provide a succinct but cohesive exploration into the use of burning, cutting and nailing in the work of these three key post-war artists. The gallery space has purposefully been used sparingly to reflect the straightforwardness of the artists’ aesthetic vision, as well as to allow the viewers’ focus to remain explicitly on the works themselves.
Burning, Cutting Nailing is on at Skarstedt Gallery until 31 July, 23 Old Bond Street London W1S 4PZ,
1. Günther Uecker (b.1930), New York Dancer IV, 1965, nails, cloth, metal and electrical motor, 78 3/4 x 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (200 x 100 x 100 cm.)(L0394). © Günther Uecker. All rights reserved. DACS 2015. Courtesy of Skarstedt.