Consecrating ‘Guernica’: Kill Lies All – Artenol Magazine

 

IN THE EARLY 1970S, I had been a defense counsel for members of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) accused of killing two New York City Policemen. After the trial was over, I and other counsel were investigated by a grand jury for allegedly furnishing our clients with what became known as the “BLA escape kit.” One of the groups opposing the grand jury’s investigation of me and the others was the Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG). Their statement of support written as a one-page flyer in what could be called a protest flyer or a work of agitprop art that was laid out mostly in capital letters:

IN GERMANY, RIGHT NOW, RADICALS ON TRIAL ARE DENIED RADICAL LAWYERS. IN NEW YORK, RIGHT NOW, THE CONCEPT OF RADICAL LAWYERS, RADICAL DEFENSE AND RADCIAL SUPPORTERS IS ON TRIAL. THERE IS A VERY REAL DANGER THAT, IF THIS PROCESS OF MISUSE OF GRAND JURIES IS NOT STOPPED, YOU WILL BE NEXT.

The flyer was signed Jean Toche and Jon Hendricks.

The reference to denial of radical lawyers in West Germany refers to the difficulties faced by attorneys in the ’70s who represented the Red Army Faction, a militant urban guerrilla group. Lawyers who tried to represent them often wound up in prison or disbarred. I got to know some of these lawyers in the early ’80s and a number went into exile. West Germany was incredibly repressive at the time; its spying and surveillance would have made the Stasi proud. One had to be a very brave lawyer to defend those accused of acts of violence against the state.

The two signatories were people I knew well: the artists Jean Toche and Jon Hendricks. I and my law partner, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, had represented them or GAAG on various matters, one of which – the prosecution of Toche – was an extraordinary and remarkable overreaching by the state against an artist’s protest.

GAAG was perhaps among my favorite clients. They were utterly irreverent, smart, serious, courageous and fun. They reflected the best of the wonderful, chaotic, politicized ’60s and ’70s, in which activists took on various institutions of state and private power in their efforts to undermine the status quo, challenge authority and make the world a fairer, less violent place. I am not sure how their protest art would be or should be classified – they would object to any classification at all. Occasionally it was audacious, confrontational performance art and at other times provocative letters/flyers sent to those it challenged. There were scores if not hundreds of such actions in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Going public

GAAG was begun by Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche, artists in their late twenties or early thirties. Toche, heavy set, short, dark haired and intense, was from Belgium (Flemish) and often spoke of his position as head of the Belgian Liberation Front or something like that. Hendricks, taller, thinner and less voluble at least at first, for a while worked at the “liberal” Judson church across from Washington Square in New York City. He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and his working at the church was approved for COs. The church was a sanctuary for draft resisters – at least for a while. Eventually, while working there Hendricks reopened the Judson Art Gallery. Under Jon, it was not your usual art gallery. As Hendricks said, “All during the winter of 1967-68, we had events to do with destruction … It’s not hard to jump to the idea of destruction with a war raging.”1

Ultimately, Toche and Hendricks formed GAAG in part so their protests would not simply be in front of people with similar views, but in public spaces. As Toche said:

“We’re artists. So we decided, let’s use our tools for this art. To express ourselves. To express ideas … it was like Jon said one time, you know, a plumber uses his or her tools to fix the toilet of the rich. We use our own tools with the art to fix the toilet of the art establishment.”2

Hendricks said this about its formation: “GAAG became but one identity for our political activities. We … created new identities (it always helps to confuse the enemy) …”3

In 1970, Hendricks was one of the designers of the iconic, disturbing “And Babies” poster of dead children piled on each other after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Originally the poster was supposed to be a joint project by the Art Workers Coalition and Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). But when the head of the museum’s trustees saw the finished proofs for the poster, he refused to let the museum have anything to do with it and threatened to fire the director if it did. As a result, the Museum of Modern Art refused to have any connection with the poster. Members of the Art Workers Coalition then went into the museum, entered the room with Picasso’s “Guernica,” unrolled the poster and read statements against the Vietnam War.4

The art of protest

Here are some examples of the many other actions GAAG engaged in:

1969: A “bloodbath” in the Museum of Modern Art where Hendricks, Toche, Poppy Johnson and Silvianna wrestled each other in the lobby, had bags of animal blood under their clothes, ripped their clothes and the bags, spreading blood everywhere. The manifestos they issued called for the resignation of all members of the Rockefeller family from the museum board and pointed out their involvement with companies connected to the manufacture of weapons for the Vietnam War.5

1969: An action at the Museum of Modern Art involving the removal of Kazimir Malevich’s painting “White On White” from the wall, and “demanding that MOMA sell the equivalent of one million dollars worth of art,” demanding that the money be given “to the poor of all races of this country.”6

1970: A “Memorial Service for dead babies in front of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’,” held at MOMA, “to protest U.S. genocide in Vietnam.” The service was conducted by a priest with flowers, wreaths and a live baby.7

Controversial collaboration

Our deepest involvement with GAAG and particularly Toche occurred in 1974. On February 28, 1974, Tony Shafrazi, an artist, walked into MOMA, went up to “Guernica” and spray painted the huge iconic painting with red letters two feet high that spelled out “KILL LIES ALL.”8 A guard grabbed him as he yelled “Call the curator. I am an artist.”9 He did so the day after Lt. William Calley Jr., who was involved in the My Lai massacre, was let out on bail. Shafrazi had been part of the earlier protest at MOMA when GAAG and others unrolled the “And Babies” poster in front of “Guernica.”

It was front page news all over the world, and many, even opponents of the Vietnam War were outraged, as “Guernica” was perhaps the world’s most famous work of modern art, and certainly one of the most famous anti-war paintings in history. Picasso based it on the bombing and destruction of Guernica in Spain during the Spanish Civil War by fascist forces

of Germany and Italy. The painting hung in MOMA because Picasso refused to have it return to Spain until Franco was out of power. Its presence at MOMA had been controversial – even considered hypocritical. As the Vietnam War escalated, the painting became a focus of GAAG protests of many other artists.

On the same day as Shafrazi’s act, GAAG issued a public statement, sent to the Director of MOMA and the prosecutor. It was signed by Hendricks and Toche, and read, in part:

“Toni Shafrazi has now joined Picasso in a collaborative work called GUERNICA/MYLAI – each artist in his own way expressing his own anger and disgust of a genocidal action by governments against an innocent people …”

The leaflet went on to ask for Shafrazi’s immediate release. It spoke about the act as an “art action,” as a “profound tormented, humanistic expression against the callousness barbarity of a nation.”10

Also, on February 28, a leaflet from the Ad Hoc Artists Movement for Freedom (an identity sometime used by Toche and Hendricks) was issued. It was only signed by Toche and is the one that got Toche arrested by a federal prosecutor. The letter, sent to many museums, said that Shafrazi “has freed ‘Guernica’ from the chains of property,” that his “arrest was a crime against free speech,” went on to talk about “cultural crimes committed against all people and artists” by “trustees, directors, etc.,” and called for the kidnapping of museum trustees, directors and others to be held as “war hostages” until a people’s court could deal with their cultural crimes.11

 

THE TRUTH: In this clip from Spanish television, bystanders describe Tony Shafrazi’s attack on “Guernica,” and Shafrazi explains his actions.

Desecration or revitalization?

I admit I was shocked by what I considered the desecration of a work of art that was so important as a statement against the terror bombing by the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. If there was a painting we all knew and millions went to the museum to see, it was “Guernica.” I had seen black and white pictures of the bombed out city and knew many Americans who had fought on the side of the Republicans in the war. Guernica, both the painting and the bombing, represented the utter destruction and brutality of war. It also represented the failure of the United States and other countries to support the Spanish Republicans which ultimately allowed Franco, Hitler and fascism to kill tens of millions. The painting was sacred.

GAAG and others had used “Guernica” as part of their protests, as a place from which to amplify their message against the Vietnam War. GAAG’s work pointed to the hypocrisy of MOMA and to the irony that this anti-war painting was housed in the United States. One of their earlier protests had targeted museum trustees who profited from the war.

This was different. Some would say, most for that matter, that Shafrazi had desecrated a sacred work. But had he really?

Was not the desecration that “Guernica” was hanging in MOMA while the U.S. was engaged in a brutal war in Vietnam that was killing millions and desecrating a landscape for eternity? Was not the desecration that the money supporting that museum was based in part on the profits of war? Was not the desecration that we could look at the brutality of war in “Guernica” and yet not see that we are looking at events that are also happening today, now? Were we not being told by Shafrazi + Picasso that we must make every effort to stop the slaughter instead of going from “Guernica” to the Impressionists and then having our tea and cake in the museum restaurant?

A lasting impact

I am still shocked by Shafrazi’s act, and perhaps that is the point: to get us all to think about the nature of art, museums, hypocrisy and even more importantly our own passivity in the face of our responsibility for violence. We should not be viewing or walking past “Guernica” in what Melville called a “dead wall-reverie.” In the context of the incredible slaughters carried out in Vietnam, the celebration of “Guernica” in the U.S., as if somehow it were others and not us murdering civilians, was an abomination. I am sympathetic to the message Shafrazi was sending. Business as usual, both in the United States and in our rich, fancy museums, had to be taken on. What better way to do it than with “Guernica”?12 Our museums could somehow divorce themselves from the massacring of others, while exhibiting a painting that screamed about a massacre by others. The message had to be brought home.

In a 2007 interview, Shafrazi reflected on his actions 33 years before. He rejected the notion that he was defacing the painting and believed he was enhancing it, bringing the message of what he called “the greatest depiction of the horrors of war” to the world. He went on to say:

“But art does have a central place in life – it’s a tool, a weapon – and it was being treated as if it was irrelevant, ineffective, nothing … I was giving it a voice – and by giving it a voice, I was waking it up to scream across the front of the world.”13

Our clients had astutely said that Shafrazi had joined Picasso in a collaborative work. Shafrazi’s act sent a powerful message that Guernica is not just about the Spanish Civil War or war in general, but about our country’s violence and war. Through his act, the maimed and dead bodies of Guernica became the maimed and dead bodies of the Vietnamese.

Rather than desecrating “Guernica,” it could be said that the painting had been consecrated, made sacred again: “KILL LIES ALL.

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