10 Artists Who Destroyed Their Own Work


Remember that life-size dollhouse that Canadian artist Heather Benning created that we fell in love with? Well, it was recently burned to the ground — by the artist. We feature a photo of the abandoned barn turned candy-colored dream home in flames after the jump. Historically, there are many reasons why artists have destroyed their own work. For some, it’s a way to keep a tight leash on their public image and bury the embarrassing early creations they’d like to forget about. Others incorporate the remains into new pieces, and several see the act of destruction as the work itself. Here’s a brief survey of artists who ruined their own creations and wreaked havoc on the art world.

Photo credit: Heather Benning / Reston Recorder

“It was always my intention that I would destroy The Dollhouse . I did not want to see it fall down or get vandalized. No one vandalizes a memory unless it was a bad one,” Saskatchewan installation artist Heather Benning recently said of her life-size prairie dollhouse. The installation had a cheery interior, but Benning’s statement about the work was grave:

“This project is/was about the difficulty and sadness of leaving home due to economics. It’s about remembering home — a home when you were a child and there were moments of complete stability, as though nothing would ever change, like the walls of a dollhouse — then becoming an adult and realizing that one’s world will always change. And there is always something left behind — some trace, a structure, a toy, a tea kettle… ”

But the reason Benning burned the house to the ground had nothing to do with this subtext:

“We decided to tear down the house this winter because it was starting to lose its structural strength. When I began the project the foundation was showing its age… add six more years of winter and record-breaking weather.”

We’ll miss you, dollhouse.

It’s hard to imagine that the man who painted serene landscapes, many of his own flower garden at Giverny, frequently destroyed his own work, but Claude Monet often struggled with the life of his paintings. The French Impressionist shredded 30 of his water garden paintings before they were set to be exhibited in 1908/1909. Monet’s increasingly poor eyesight and a serious bout of depression led him to frequently doubt his work. In a letter written by Monet’s wife, Alice, she discusses her own frustration with his self-destructive behavior:

“Today Monet is so very frustrating; he has just told me that he would definitely refuse to have the exhibition. He punctures canvases every day, it is truly distressing. One day, things are not too bad; the next day all is lost. He keeps putting the blame on himself, on old age, and his own inability, as he says, and the way he treats the results of eight years’ work is most unfair!”

Despite his harshest attempts to obliterate his work, the Water Lilies series remains one of the most celebrated artworks of our time.

During the early 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg traveled through Northern Africa and Europe (with friend and lover Cy Twombly) and assembled collages out of trash and found objects as a way to create cheap, portable artworks. Several of the pieces were exhibited throughout Italy, but the artist tossed the works that didn’t sell into the Arno River. Several of the “subversively crude artifacts,” which became a visual diary of Rauschenberg’s early career, were exhibited last year.

Photo credit: Gerhard Richter Archive

Gerhard Richter was his own worst critic, which led him to take a box cutter and match to 60 of his photo-based paintings. Spiegel Online International estimated that the works would have been worth upwards of $655 million today. “Richter was garnering his first acclaim at the time, but he was often at odds with his own art,” writer Ulrike Knöfel explained. “Still, since his urge to destroy some of his paintings also made him feel uneasy, he photographed them before doing so… They are testaments to his refusal to compromise.”

California conceptual artist John Baldessari is known for plastering the faces of his subjects with colorful dots — an artistic choice that arose out of annoyance. “I just got so tired of looking at these faces [of people at civic events],” Baldessari told NPR. In 1970, the artist had a creative dry spell and no buyers. He took everything he painted from 1953 through 1966 to a morgue and burned it. “And so I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to stop. I have them in my head. I don’t really need them. So I decided I’ll just destroy them,” he explained. He viewed the pyre as an artistic rebirth, and turned to photography and the appropriated pop culture images he’s known for today.

In 1960, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely (with the help of other artists and engineers like Billy Klüver and Robert Rauschenberg) created a 27-foot-high, self-destructive machine that ruined itself — at MoMA’s sculpture garden and the Las Vegas desert. “An hour and a half later, the suicide-fated machine started flaming and sawing at its mixed-up insides, turned balky despite several judiciously aimed kicks from its creator, got doused betimes by an anxious fireman, and had to be finished… ” Time wrote of the MoMA performance. Viewers were invited to take the remnants of Homage to New York as souvenirs.

The 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium saw artists like John Latham, Yoko Ono, and Gustav Metzger constructing towers of books, just so they could burn them down. Skoob Towers (books spelled backwards) were erected outside the British Museum and in several other public spaces to be set ablaze. When asked about the radical burnings, Latham said: “Perhaps the cultural base had been burnt out.”

For his 2001 installation Break Down, Young British Artists figure Michael Landy went through the extensive process of cataloguing all his possessions (all 7,227 of them) and then destroyed everything in a vacant London department store. This included his car, clothing, works of art that he created, and works of art by others — including pieces by one very pissed off Tracey Emin. The performance “was an examination of society’s romance with consumerism,” but also “reflect[ed] an emotional break down.”

Janine Antoni’s Lick and Lather saw the artist sculpting several busts of herself out of chocolate and soap. She licked the sweet sculpture to re-mold her image and took the soap bust to the bathtub with her until the water erased its features. “I think it’s a funny thing when you think about the creative process and what we go through when we’re making a work. A lot of times, there’s this element of destruction, that we have to kind of unmake in order to make, and that interests me very much,” the artist told ART21.

This excerpt from Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s radical 1962 Destructivist Manifesto reveals the spirit of the artist’s modern rituals (piano smashing amongst them) that connect political, historic, and social concerns:

“There are today throughout the world a handful of artists working in a way, which is truly unique in art history. Theirs is an art which separates the makers from the unmakers, the assemblers from the disassemblers, the constructors from the destructors. These artists are destroyers, materialists, and sensualists dealing with process directly. These artists are destructivists and do not pretend to play at God’s happy game of creation; on the contrary, theirs is a response to the pervading will to kill. It is not the trauma of birth which concerns the destructivist. He understands that there is no need for magic in living. It is one’s sense of death which needs the life-giving nourishment of transcendental ritual.”