Arts Desk

Three Works at the National Gallery We’d Have Defaced Before Gauguin

Like any of the other art critics you've talked to this week, we recoiled at the news that a visitor had attempted to savage a painting by Paul Gauguin at the National Gallery of Art. Granted, Gauguin was not anyone's idea of a sweetheart. "Peripubescent" is the word sometimes used to describe the subjects of his portraits, who were sometimes also the victims of his sexual appetites. In another time and place, Gauguin would be forced to host his film openings outside the U.S.—or he'd be tweeting about his Tahitian tiger blood.

So maybe the woman who screamed and pried at his work was mentally disturbed—or maybe she was morally piqued. As a rule, it's too hard to look back through art history and know the good apples from the bad ones. Which is not to excuse any gross colonial island sex crimes, but to acknowledge (with a little hand-wave-y moral relativism) that objects persist independent of and well beyond the crimes of their makers.

In any case, there are so many, many art crimes to prosecute. It's a great thing that Gauguin's "Two Tahitian Women" wasn't damaged. Still, if we had to see works at National Gallery of Art defaced, we'd prefer they were these ones:

Kriston Capps: Renoir may have been a family man, but his work shouldn't be suffered by decent folk. "Oarsmen at Chatou" at the National Gallery is a work I'd like to see flung from its frame. The Crayola brush stroke, the rainbow scenes of wealth at rest: evil! Well, not evil, really, but definitely pukey.

Jeffry Cudlin: I would like to build a stainless steel treehouse in the branches of Roxy Paine's "Graft," and live up there for a week dressed as the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, pleading with tourists to climb up and "oil me." I would do this because I am desperate for attention, enjoy playing dress-up, and am attracted to shiny objects.

John Anderson: Actually, I've been defacing a work of art very subtly since September last year. On the second Wednesday of every month I walk into the National Gallery's East Wing at the exact moment it opens and casually make my way down to the Sol LeWitt, "Wall Drawing #65." I then reach into my pocket to randomly select a colored pencil: one of the four colors on the wall—except I haven't been a careful study. The colors in my pocket are not exact matches, but I work them in so delicately it is nearly impossible to tell that my colored pencil is not the exact same tone as the colored pencil originally on the wall. To date I have yet to work up the chutzpah to add my touch to the "Untitled" Robert Ryman painting. But I carry a baby food jar filled with white paint, and a liner brush...just in case.

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  • Mercy Fork

    I'm so glad we have such brilliant art journalists in this town. Renoir isn't my personal favorite either, but Impressionism is about leisure, dumbass. As you wander through the Renoirs, you're going to see a lot of "pukey" middle class people in boats and parks enjoying their newfound discovery that they no longer have to toil in a mill 7 days a week. You're not seeing the ultra-wealthy in that painting. You're seeing the industrial-revolution equivalent of a group of DC young professionals heading up to Harper's Ferry for some tubing. (I'm guessing you find that scene equally repulsive.)

  • Lisa Horowitz

    You people are dangerous morons. It is not humorous when an original, unique artwork is attacked or defaced. And this sort of attempt to drive traffic by feeding off a mentally ill person's public breakdown is disgusting. And I work in the online media. This piece is stooping to a new low.

  • Christopher Russell

    It's like art criticism from the Tea Party.

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  • Colonel K

    LA Times isn't happy about this article. But LA sucks.

  • Ward 1

    "DC art critic." "Jamaican bobsled team."

  • J

    people - its obviously a joke. relax for godsake. The LA times is awful anyway

  • Mercy Fork

    Honestly, I know I'll be labeled as shrill and irony-deficient, but I'm sorry, I have to go there. My problem with this piece isn't so much the lame attempt at dark humor. It's that the writers are supposedly our local bright young thought leaders in arts journalism, yet they're spending this social capital on d-baggery for laughs. I could see Cudlin and Anderson's contributions as an irreverent way to draw attention to some interesting pieces in NGA's collection, albeit one that falls flat. But Capps' disgust toward the Renoir is just creepy and weird.

  • unsuckDC

    Lisa Horowitz "And I work in online media" - most unintentionally funny thing I have read in weeks!

  • get.a.grip

    THE PAINTING WAS UNDER PLEXIGLASS. Seriously? Who cares if it got destroyed anyway? Its been reproduced so many times the original is not really important. Even if it was the Mona Lisa.....come on. Most Impressionism and Post Impressionism is for coffee mugs and calendars.

    The Sol LeWitt part was funny. Institutions should be able to withstand some lighthearted critique. How else can the public voice their opinion on what selections are now historically important?

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  • Michael Markowsky

    I'm assuming that it's a lame attempt at what the Onion does (ironic, smart-ass humour), but instead it just comes off as openly hostile, mean-spirited philistinism.

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  • A bomb would have been more effect than just hitting that damn painting

    What the fuck is a "thought leader"?

    That term is wow kinds of creepy.

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  • Linda Smith

    This is a very junior high school attempt at humor but that's what humor has come to these days, unfortunately. (Shouldn't humor at least be funny?) We should all take out our box of colored pencils and use them on this article.

  • John Anderson

    So… let me get this straight: I can write ABOUT an ironic work of art, but I can’t write AN ironic piece of fiction about art and vandalism? For an alternative weekly tabloid? On its blog?!?! Well… EX-QUE-OOOSE   ME!  (editor’s note: deliberate quote of Steve Martin, not being belligerent)

    I chose to "vandalize" the Sol Lewitt – a work I like - because Lewitt’s work questions many things about art and the art market. A question like: if an artist never actually touched the work of art he created, did he create it? Or, a question like: if an artist only thinks about a work of art and writes the idea down, but never actually makes that work of art, does the work of art exist? Or, a question like, if an artist's work that the artist didn’t make is vandalized in near exact a manner as the artist intended his work to be created (according to instruction), was the work of art actually vandalized?

    These are heady questions. And fortunately enough I get to tackle them with students every semester: some of whom think Michelangelo is a ninja turtle. And some semesters I get students to not only appreciate the ideas of both artists, but to actually LIKE both of them. It’s a pretty neat gig!

    And, my little ironic epistle, to which you took such great offense, is all sarcasm and lie. A practicing artist  and arts writer willingly admitted he defaced a work of art in a museum? If you bought that lie, I have real estate on Atlantis to sell you. (The greater lie is suggesting I have the time to do it!) What I wrote could also be considered plagiarism since I have the occasional student who suggests doing something similar.

    I accept that our piece was childish, sophomoric, tacky, and in bad taste. I’ll even accept dickish since, in jest, we promoted an act none of us would condone (and since some of you thought we poked fun at the mentally ill (other than Sheen) - which we were not; perfectly healthy people vandalize (and simply touch) art, sometimes unnoticed (a subtextual point to my note)).

    I won’t accept d-baggery, though. It's a pantheon that only has room enough for the egos of LeBron James, Barry Bonds, and Thomas Kinkade. Oh… and Renoir. I forgot about him.

    ps. Linda Smith, please print the article before defacing it. The authors, City Paper, and its parent company will not be held responsible for how you violate your computer.

  • Russ McIntosh

    Dang-Nab-It!! I followed Linda's lead and started scrawling all over this article with my crayons before I got to John Anderson's little post script. Now I've got streaks of Vivid Violet, Blizzard Blue, and Forest Green on my monitor!

    I honestly got quite a chuckle out of the article. Seriously people, some of you really need to get grip and find the humor in things more often.

  • Jonathan Swift

    Man, you'd think the writers suggested that the Irish eat their own children or something. Because that would also be distasteful and not make any points at all or anything.

  • David

    If we decided to damage every work of art that we don’t like because of the author’s personal life then there would be no arts left. I hope this woman will get the mental health treatment now that she’s made the news.

  • anon

    I'm at art historian and an employee of a major, national-level museum. In the era of Tea Partyism, slashed arts budgets, and cases like the Steve Martin 92nd St. Y debacle, this just isn't funny. I can appreciate irony, but only when it's used in a thoughtful, effective manner. This has obviously failed.