Building an artistic community from the ashes of destructivism

When it comes to self-destructive games, the artists clustered around the 1960s Destructivism movement didn’t pack a punch. At the 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) in London, for example, Yoko Ono performed her legendary “Cut Piece,” in which the audience could cut her clothes with scissors; the police repeatedly intervened in the DIAS, citing complaints of explosions, animal sacrifices and other outrageous acts; and prizes have gone to performers injured in events – one with an axe, another from a fall while staging a play, yet another when a bomb exploded prematurely in his hand.

The performances mentioned above, recorded in the diaries of American artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz, appear in a wall text for Ortiz’s comprehensive survey, A contextual retrospectiveat El Museo del Barrio in Harlem – the second such exhibition at the institution he founded in 1969. The exhibition chronologically traces his journey from an artist whose unleashing of aggression through ritualistic performances the once made famous – a New Yorker cartoon depicts him as the über-destroyer of pianos — the driving force behind a community museum in Boricua that has given voice to countless Latinx artists. At first glance, Ortiz’s transition may seem unlikely, but he gradually moved into an educational role, earning a doctorate of fine arts in higher education from Columbia University in 1982. Meanwhile, violence and attempts to accommodate this are central to the inquiry. . While the symbolic valences of his relationship to aggression, inner and outer, have changed over time, his methods have continued to adapt to both psychoanalysis and activism.

Raphael Montañez Ortiz, “Flesh Destruction” (performed at Truro Beach, Cape Cod, 1965), digital reproduction

The exhibition, which covers Ortiz’s career from the 1960s to the present day, occupies two separate museum spaces. The three opening rooms in the first section highlight his works from the 1950s and 1960s, including scratch films, such as Cowboy and “Indian” movie (1957-58), for which the artist tomahawks a Hollywood Western and combines random fragments into a synaptic loop. In the same gallery, two dark assemblages – “Monument to Buchenwald” (1961) and “Children of Treblinka” (1962) – featuring his sculptures of shoes burned with nails and other materials, testify to his belief that the Art could address important historical themes. But Ortiz soon redirected his energies to more vigorous action art, as evidenced by a series of works, each titled “Archaeological Discovery” (1961-65), and in a few pieces by other artists, ranging from Bruce Conner (depicted by a sculpture) to Gordon Matta-Clark, whose art included the gutting of entire houses.

The works grouped under this one are distressed chairs, sofas, bedding and bed frames, the sometimes charred and flayed remains of which are pinned to the walls. On the one hand, they are utilitarian objects immortalized in sacrificial “death”—pointing to recent acts of destruction, and the gestural energies these acts release. On the other hand, the reference to archeology implies that these flayed remains are imbued not only with the power of the body which devastated them, but also with the residues of the bodies which rested on them or sat on them. They are both haunting and sensual, as evidenced, for example, by the capricious horsehair entangled in metal and wood in “Archeological Find #9” (1964).

Raphael Montañez Ortiz, “Archeological Find: Sacrifice to Truro” (1965), upholstered chair, resin on wood. Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia

The tension between sensuality and aggression played into Ortiz’s destructive actions that followed. Certainly, the black and white documentation of “Mattress Destruction Concert”, which he performed at DIAS, confirms this: in one image, he tears the plush interior of the mattress, his body taut, but in another, his hand tenderly, almost sexually, plunges inside. the fabric – which brings out the Freudian foundations of the art of destruction. Ortiz refers to it directly in his journals, describing another ritual at DIAS in which he alternately called “Dad” and “Mom”. Freudian games resurfaced in his work in the 1980s. In a brief biographical video, he mentions being an altar boy. A wall devoted to what he called “Physio-Psycho-Alchemy” includes a case study (“Case History Number: 500391: Note Book [sic], torn, creased pages and broken pencil”) which details the suffering of a 14-year-old boy at the hands of a punitive father. Such evocations (in his diaries, Ortiz refers directly to Freudian concepts of the id and the death drive) are vividly felt throughout the show, with rituals that seek redemption and the release of psychosexual energies.

Ortiz ultimately considered DIAS not to be destructive enough to be revolutionary. Judging from his diary entries on the show, the movement has been a victim of its own success: it has excelled in commandeering media attention (“destructivism is finally getting its due,” he wrote in his newspaper, fragments of which are reproduced and displayed on the wall), but the press, always concerned with monetizing notoriety, cares little for its aesthetic aims. It may also be inherently difficult, perhaps increasingly so, to convince the public that brutal acts of any kind are humanizing. The destructivists pointed out that the consumer society could no longer viscerally connect to reality; art was shock therapy. Yet, reading Lamb Tripe, my inner borderline vegetarian winced. I wondered if the show couldn’t use an animal rights disclaimer, even though such instinctive sensibility was precisely what Ortiz disdained (“if the cruel and evil don’t belong in art, I don’t know where they belong,” he wrote in his diary entry accompanying DIAS).

Raphael Montañez Ortiz, “Mattress Destruction Concert” (performed at Duncan Terrace during the DIA Symposium, London, 1966), digital reproduction

Ortiz’s insistence on a radical approach to art led to his political involvement in the 1970s. He participated in numerous actions protesting against systemic racism, the underrepresentation of Latinx artists in American institutions and Vietnam War. For example, a showcase in the exhibition has a cut of The New York Post with the caption, “At NYU, a frightened mother flees with her baby from a ‘guerrilla theater’ re-enactment of the Kent State massacre, complete with students drenched in slaughterhouse blood.” (One photograph dutifully shows a woman’s face contorted in terror as she flees with a stroller.) Above the display case, a photograph captures artists and the wall behind them soaked in copious amounts of this which I can only imagine to be blood. This work is not for the faint-hearted, but in this case it embodies — and by incarnating denunciations — concrete acts of political violence. Throughout the 1970s, American-born Latinx artists and those exiled to New York repeatedly brought public attention to those not only dying in Vietnam but also caught up in South American regimes. Americans supported by the United States. El Museo del Barrio has played a fundamental role in consolidating this growing awareness and, with it, the collective identity and ambition of Latinx artists – with New York as their focal point. A recent show at the Americas Society, This Must Be the Place: Latin American Artists in New York, 1965-1975, which featured Ortiz’s work, made precisely that point. Thanks to Ortiz, who saw El Museo del Barrio from the beginning as centered on workshops and community engagement, the museum is an integral part of this rich and still underexplored history – more than a repository, it is a powers community art lab.

Raphael Montañez Ortiz: a contextual retrospective continues at El Museo del Barrio (1230 Fifth Avenue, Harlem, Manhattan) through 9/11. The exhibition was curated by El Museo chief curator Rodrigo Moura and guest curator Julieta Gonzalez.

Christopher S. Washington