Art is both a precious commodity and a significant cultural symbol of our time. The museums and art centers that display the works are public domains, in which anything is likely to happen. Throw a bunch of publicity loving crackpots, wannabe performance artists, youthful vandals, social protesters, and accident-prone eccentrics into the mix and you enter the damage zone, where art gets hurt — or at the very least, publicly humiliated.
After recently reading about a portrait of Mao Zedong getting shot because its hallucinating owner thought it was the actual Chinese despot in his house, we decided to investigate other tales of artful accidents involving works by celebrated artists — ranging from Monet and Picasso to Warhol and Serrano — and bullet holes, crowbars, felt-tip pens, and flying elbows and fists. Click through below to discover our gallery of damaged goods.
Two bullet holes in Andy Warhol’s 1972 screenprint of Mao didn’t deter a collector from buying it for $302,500 — 10 times the high presale estimate of $30,000 — at Christie’s in New York last month. The reason the piece was coveted has to do with the shooter as much as it has to do with the artist and subject matter. During a wild night in the 1970s, Dennis Hopper got spooked by the picture and shot it twice. Warhol loved the results and annotated the holes with circles and the words “warning shot” and “bullet hole,” which made the work an unplanned collaboration.
Museum guards are supposed to protect the art on view, but that wasn’t the case with a temporary guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the summer of 1993. Bored with the task of watching over Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 painting Curtains, the young guard drew a heart with an inscription with a felt-tip pen on one of the widow panes and scribbled some writing on the other one — supposedly damaging the priceless painting beyond repair.
Andres Serrano’s 1996 photograph The History of Sex (Christiaan and Rose) was among the works on exhibit at a Swedish art gallery in 2007 when neo-Nazi youths attacked the show with crowbars and axes, leaving $200,000 worth of art in ruin. The masked vandals posted a video of their violent act on YouTube, but it was later removed. Meanwhile, Serrano proposed letting the wrecked version of The History of Sex show remain on view, but the museum declined.
Guards at the Museum of Modern Art thought a 22-year-old art student had fallen ill when he vomited blue throw-up on Piet Mondrian’s 1940s masterpiece Composition in Red, Blue and Yellow, but later found out it was part of a trilogy of colored vomiting acts that the perpetrator had planned. His destructive 1996 performance, titled “Responding to Art,” was exposed after he upchucked a red slime on a Raoul Dufy painting at the Art Gallery of Ontario a month. Fortunately, he never completed the series and neither work was permanently damaged.
After New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani denounced Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, which was on view in Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, the canvas itself became an overnight sensation. However, the controversial painting, which is partially made with elephant dung and clippings from porn magazines, soon became a target for religious fanatics and was attacked by a zealot who smeared white paint over the Madonna’s head and bust. Acting quickly, conservators removed the paint and restored the painting to its natural state.
Claude Monet’s 1874 Impressionist masterpiece Le Pont d’Argenteuil was also the victim of vandals in 2007 when five, drunk youths broke into a Paris museum during the night and punched the painting without reason. Four boys and a girl were caught on the Musée d’Orsay’s surveillance camera and caused the alarm to go off, but they managed to escape. The abused painting was later restored.
Tracey Emin’s iconic piece My Bed became a platform for wannabe performance artists in 1999 when two Chinese men threw off their shirts and jumped into the bed to have a pillow fight. The messy readymade was made messier over the course of the next 15 minutes by the two detained artists, who handed out flyers to the Tate Britain event prior to staging it. The following year, the Chinese duo visited the Tate Modern and took a performance art piss in Marcel Duchamp’s famous “R. Mutt” urinal, La Fontaine (The Fountain.)
Speaking of Duchamp, the conceptual artist’s most famous work of art, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (aka The Large Glass, which dates from 1915-1923) was shattered into hundreds of pieces after being transported back to the artist’s studio in the back of a flatbed truck, following a 1926 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Duchamp decided he liked it better broken and laboriously glued the work back together ten years later — an act that has since inspired many artists to embrace accidents and chance occurrences in their work.
Casino magnate Steve Wynn had just sold his most famous Pablo Picasso painting, Le Reve (The Dream,) a surreal portrait of the artist’s famous mistress Marie-Therese Walter, to hedge-fund honcho Steven Cohen for $139 million and was showing the 1932 masterpiece to celebrity friends when, oops, he accidentally poked his elbow through the canvas — leaving a gaping hole in it. One of the guests, author and screenwriter Nora Ephron, later leaked the woeful tale in a story she wrote for the Huffington Post, causing Wynn to have to keep the damaged painting; but he eventually had the last laugh by claiming the work’s $54 million loss in value from his art insurer.
Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker is one of the most recognizable works of art in the history of mankind. The Cleveland Museum of Art had owned its edition of the sculpture since 1917 and proudly displayed it on a pedestal outside the museum. That’s where it was in 1970, when a pipe bomb was placed at the thinker’s feet and the statues base and figure’s lower legs were blown apart. The museum debated ways to repair the piece, but in the end decided to leave it permanently damaged — as a symbol of protest and the power of art.