The Artist as Destroyer

What to do with unsold or unwanted art is a challenge all prolific artists eventually have to reckon with. Some resort to decimation.

Underneath the beds in Barbara Nechis’ house in Calistoga, California are framed paintings—specifically, her own paintings. Indianapolis, Indiana artist Charles Warren Mundy has more than one hundred of his works hanging on or leaning against the walls of his house—twenty in the living room alone!

A woman stands in an art studio
Artist Barbara Nechis in her studio. Courtesy Barbara Nechis

What are artists supposed to do with their output? The prospects are by no means limitless: sell it, lend it, give it away or put it in storage. Most artists want to exhibit and sell their work, but pieces that don’t sell eventually come back, and those artists are still producing. The end result is a cache of art that grows year over year, creating a what-to-do-with-it problem of varying magnitude.

There’s storage. Most of Nechis’ work is matted and kept in a large deep bin of her own design, recessed into a cabinet in her studio. “I can fit over a hundred matted watercolors in it and the paintings are easily accessible,” she says. “I also have a flat file to store stacks of unfinished work and paper.” But what happens when this obvious storehouse gets filled up, reducing the amount of available space for creating new pieces?

Watercolorists, printmakers and others who work with paper have it the easiest, as large numbers of their pieces can fit in flat files, but artists who paint on canvas usually keep their work on stretchers, which calls for vertical shelving. Frames make the problem worse, but not to the degree that sculptors face, since they generally cannot stack their pieces.

To solve this pressing problem, New York painter Tom Christopher bought a 6,000-square-foot former factory fifteen years ago, dedicating a third of the space to storage for his artwork. Beyond that, he does “send out a lot of work to the galleries” that represent him, “and they hold onto it. That’s free storage.”

An even more unusual solution was the creation of the 18,000-square-foot Bo Bartlett Center at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia, which was given seed money by painter Bo Bartlett’s brother-in-law and filled with the artist’s works. Today, some of those pieces are continuously on display while others are in storage. “I’ve never liked to keep work around,” Bartlett says. “I’d give it away rather than hold onto it. An empty studio makes me get to work. I have to fill it up again.”

SEE ALSO: It Seems Art Destruction Is a Trend but Only Time Will Tell if It’s Good

But what works for drawings and paintings may not work for three-dimensional media. Phillip Grausman, a sculptor in Washington, Connecticut, says he moved out of New York City in part because he “needed room to do sculpture and to store it. Storage facilities in New York are very expensive.” One issue is that the foundries he uses to produce his editioned work “no longer have space to store molds, and they are now charging artists to store them or asking artists to take them back.”

Still, too much is too much, and artists have differing ways of dealing with excess. Nechis distributes paintings to family and friends “as gifts and loans,” she tells me. “I have also given work to hospitals, schools and libraries.”

Others employ a more permanent solution. “There’s enough bad art in the world,” Charles Mundy has said. “I want to spare the public bad art, especially if it’s mine.” Because city ordinances in Indianapolis prohibit bonfires, he has knifed unwanted paintings, cutting them up and putting them in trash bags. In 2001, he destroyed one hundred and eighty paintings at once. Still, the production continues, and Mundy generates approximately one hundred paintings annually, down from one fifty per year in the past—not due to concerns about too much inventory but just because he is getting older and cannot produce as much.

Another prolific artist, Frank Webb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who died last year at the age of 95, took a ruthless approach to work that didn’t measure up, stating that he stored “surviving paintings in boxes labeled A, B, C and D. If inventory become unmanageable I destroy the paintings in the D box, then some of the grade C are downgraded to the D box.”

How to destroy artworks that don’t measure up—and when— is like the art itself, a personal decision. Johanna Harmon, a painter in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, uses a table saw to destroy paintings that are failures or that “burden and clutter my space and mind,” while Christopher has “taken a box cutter to a lot of work. I once got rid of one hundred and fifty works at one time that way. I think I saved the art world a lot of grief.” Of course, those were paintings that he no longer liked, “that made me cringe. I wish I could take back a lot of early works I sold and just paint over them.”

Manhattan artist Mark Tennant actually does that with some regularity, scraping the paint off unsold canvases and using them again. The new painting, he claims, is often improved by the mix of old and new images. “The pentimento comes through and adds depth to the new painting,” he says. A painting without an underlying image forcing its way to the top is “too clean. A painting needs to be besmirched.”

Hope Railey, chair of the fine arts department at Laguna College of Art + Design in California, isn’t quite as violent with her art as Harmon, Mundy and Christopher, preferring to get rid of  “artwork that I see as a failure” by donating it to charitable organizations or gifting it to friends and family.

"Damien Hirst: The Currency" Burn Event
Damien Hirst destroying his own artworks as part of a project. Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

Disposing of unwanted art poses several other practical problems, especially for artists who have reached a level of art world prominence and whose works are regularly sought-after and sold for thousands of dollars (or more) on the primary and secondary markets. Paintings, drawings and other works on paper must be shredded and burned, sculpture armatures crushed while the molds are chopped up into smaller and smaller pieces. In other words, just putting unwanted artwork out with the trash isn’t good enough.

Robert Arneson (1930-92) discovered this when he taught at the University of California at Davis. Periodically, he’d have trouble with the glaze on a sculpture, taking the piece out of the kiln and breaking it on the floor before putting it all in the school’s dumpster. “Students would go through the dumpster, picking out all of the pieces and gluing them back together,” Sandra Shannonhouse, administrator for the Arneson estate, told Observer. “And then they’d keep them or sell them—mostly sell them. It irritated him, first, that students would retrieve things he thought were below his standards and, second, that they would rip him off.”

Arneson was not alone in having this problem, as the population of art scavengers extends beyond students. Jamie Wyeth stated that “it has happened a lot”—that he or his father (Andrew Wyeth) found people going through their garbage. And sketches, false starts and classroom demonstration pieces created by Wayne Thiebaud that went out with the trash have later shown up in auctions, according to his stepson and business manager, Matt Bult. As a result, both Bult and Paul Thiebaud, a San Francisco art dealer and the artist’s son, periodically and methodically tear up works on paper, efface printing plates and slice up canvases that Wayne wants to discard. They became more diligent about this in the 1980s, “when we saw this happening a lot,” Paul Thiebaud says. “Sometimes, we’d find someone trying to sell a piece of a drawing. Dad would have torn the paper in half, but that half has a figure on it.”

For his part, Jamie Wyeth, who claims he destroys “a third of what I do,” sometimes tears artworks up into small pieces, although his method of choice is burning. “It’s an integral part of my work… destroying unwanted art.”

One might think that an artist is the best judge of what is good and bad when it comes to his or her work, but the heady art market often rates demand for product and name recognition as more important than quality. Perhaps, in some instances, the artist is not the best judge? Visiting Sol Lewitt’s studio in 1970, artist Dorothea Rockburne spotted in the waste basket a piece of paper Lewitt had used to test a new pen. “Oh, that’s lovely,” she reportedly said, retrieving the crumpled paper, which is now titled Scribble Drawing and has been included in every retrospective of the artist’s work since then. Painter Wolf Kahn (1927-2020) once saw some of his unedited proofs from a 1949 etching edition, which he assumed had long ago been thrown out, on display at the annual Works on Paper exposition in New York City. “I don’t know where they came from or how anyone got a hold of them, but they looked very good to me,” Kahn said, “so I bought them.”

The second life of thrown-away artwork is more likely to involve the art market; pieces an artist discarded and presumably disavowed may generate high prices and (possibly) damage to his or her reputation. At least once, the matter has found its way into a court of law. Frank Stella, for example, placed some damaged artwork outside for trash pick-up only to find the work on exhibition at a Manhattan art gallery several months later and sued for the return of his work. He won but had to purchase his own work back. Stella’s second try at getting rid of the piece was more successful.

It usually takes finding a discarded work up for sale only once to make artists more careful about how they destroy items. In 1971, Bob Dylan beat up the self-titled “Dylanologist” A.J. Weberman, who regularly looked through the songwriter’s trash for written lyrics. As Weberman later told Rolling Stone, “I’m thinking, ‘Can you believe this? I’m getting the crap beat out of me by Bob Dylan!’ I said, ‘Hey, man, how you doin’?’ But he keeps knocking my head against the sidewalk. He’s little, but he’s strong. He works out.” After that, Dylan treated his garbage differently.

Unless artists decide to go on strike en masse, the problem of too much art will remain, leading to internal or (as in the Dylan example) external conflicts. Discarding art can be quite freeing, unburdening an artist of the weight of every piece of paper or canvas he or she has touched over time, but on the other hand, overproduction without destruction can serve a purpose. If an artist gets sick and can’t work, they still have artwork to sell. Inventory, whether in storage or propped up against a studio wall, is a type of retirement plan.

Subscribe to Observer’s Arts Newsletter

The Artist as Destroyer