When it comes to self-destructive games, the artists loosely grouped around the 1960s movement Destructivism pulled no punches. 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 off her clothes with scissors; police repeatedly intervened in DIAS, citing complaints of explosions, animal sacrifice, and other scandalizing acts; and prizes went to artists injured in happenings — one with an axe, another from a fall while staging a piece, yet another when a bomb prematurely exploded in his hand.
The above-mentioned performances, recorded in the diaries of the American artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz, feature in a wall text for Ortiz’s comprehensive survey, A Contextual Retrospective, at El Museo del Barrio in Harlem — the second such show at the institution he founded in 1969. The exhibition chronologically tracks his journey from an artist whose unleashing of aggression through ritualistic performances once made him notorious — a New Yorker cartoon portrayed him as the über-destroyer of pianos — to the driving force behind a Boricua community museum that gave voice to innumerable Latinx artists. At first glance, Ortiz’s transition might seem unlikely, but he transitioned steadily into a pedagogical role, receiving a PhD in Fine Arts in Higher Education from Columbia University in 1982. Meanwhile, violence, and attempts to reckon with it, are the survey’s central focus. While the symbolic valences of his relationship with aggressivity, within and without, changed over time, his methods continued to hew to both psychoanalysis and activism.
The show, which spans Ortiz’s career from the 1960s to the present day, occupies two separate museum areas. The three opening rooms of the first section highlight his works from the 1950s and ’60s, including scratch films, such as Cowboy and “Indian” Film (1957-58), for which the artist tomahawked a Hollywood western and combined random fragments into a synaptic loop. In the same gallery, two somber assemblages — “Monument to Buchenwald” (1961) and “Children of Treblinka” (1962) — featuring his sculptures of burned shoes with nails and other materials, gesture at his belief that art could address weighty historical themes. But Ortiz soon redirected his energies to more vigorous action art, as evidenced in a series of works, each titled “archeological find” (1961-65), and in a few pieces by other artists, ranging from Bruce Conner (represented by a sculpture) to Gordon Matta-Clark, whose art included gutting entire houses.
The works grouped under it are variously distressed chairs, sofas, bedding, and bed frames, whose at times charred, flayed remains are grimly pinned to the walls. On one hand, they’re utilitarian objects immortalized in a sacrificial “death” — pointing to recent acts of destruction, and to the gestural energies these acts release. On the other hand, the reference to archeology implies that these flayed remnants are imbued not only with the power of the body that lay waste to them, but also with the residue of bodies that laid on or sat in them. They’re haunted yet sensuous, as evidenced, for instance, by the wayward wiry horsehair enmeshed in the metal and wood of “Archeological Find #9” (1964).
The tension between sensuality and aggression played into Ortiz’s destruction actions that followed. Certainly the black and white documentation of “Mattress Destruction Concert,” which he performed at DIAS, confirms this: In one image, he rips the mattress’s plush insides, his body tensed, but in another, his hand tenderly, almost sexually, dips inside the fabric — which brings out the Freudian underpinnings of destruction art. Ortiz refers to them directly in his diaries, describing another ritual at DIAS in which he called out alternately for “daddy” and “mommy.” 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, Crumpled Pages and Broken Pencil”) that details the suffering of a 14-year-old boy at the hands of a punishing father. Such evocations (in his diaries Ortiz refers directly to Freudian concepts of the id and the death drive) are keenly felt throughout the show, with rituals that seek redemption and release of psychosexual energies.
Ortiz ultimately considered DIAS not destructive enough to be revolutionary. Judging by his diary entries in the show, the movement was a victim of its own success: he excelled in commandeering media attention (“destructivism is finally getting its due,” he wrote in his diary, whose fragments are reproduced and displayed on the wall), but the press, always eager to monetize notoriety, didn’t care much for his aesthetic goals. It might also be that it’s inherently difficult, perhaps increasingly so, to convince audiences that brutal acts of any sort are humanizing. The Destructivists stressed that the consumer society could no longer connect viscerally to reality; art was shock therapy. Still, reading of lamb guts, my inner borderline vegetarian flinched. I wondered if the show couldn’t use an animal-rights warning, though such instinctual squeamishness was precisely what Ortiz disdained (“if cruel and fiendish don’t belong in art I don’t know where they belong,” he wrote in his diary entry accompanying DIAS).
Ortiz’s insistence on a radical approach to art led to his political engagement in the 1970s. He participated in numerous actions protesting systemic racism, the underrepresentation of Latinx artists in US institutions, and the Vietnam War. For instance, a vitrine in the exhibition features a clipping from The New York Post with the headline, “At NYU a frightened mother flees with her baby from a ‘guerrilla theater’ reenactment of the Kent State Massacre, complete with students drenched in slaughterhouse blood.” (A photograph dutifully shows a woman’s face contorted in terror as she flees with a stroller.) Above the vitrine, a photograph captures artists and the wall behind them drenched in copious amounts of what I can only imagine is blood. This work isn’t for the faint of heart, but in this case it embodies — and in embodying decries — concrete acts of political violence. Throughout the 1970s, American-born Latinx artists, and those exiled in New York, repeatedly called the public’s attention to those not only dying in Vietnam but also caught under South American regimes backed by the United States. El Museo del Barrio has been fundamental in consolidating this growing consciousness and, with it, the collective identity and ambition of Latinx artists — with New York as a focus. 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 this point. Thanks to Ortiz, who saw El Museo del Barrio since the start as centered on workshops and community engagement, the museum has been an integral part of this rich, still under-explored history — more than a repository, it is a laboratory of communal art potencies.
Raphael Montañez Ortiz: A Contextual Retrospective continues at El Museo del Barrio (1230 Fifth Avenue, Harlem, Manhattan) through September 11. The exhibition was curated by El Museo chief curator Rodrigo Moura and guest curator Julieta Gonzalez.