The Hirshhorn’s exhibit “Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950” wastes no time getting to the point. The first work visitors come upon is a wall-sized projection of nuclear detonation tests, with terrifying clouds blowing away every wisp of life in the deserts around them.
Hope you brought a friend, or some Xanax.
From beginning to end, “Damage Control” vibrates with the tension between the absurdities and the realities of destruction. The show took about five years to pull together, and was a challenge because the subject matter is so charged, says Kerry Brougher, the museum’s interim director and chief curator.
The atomic age broke a dam in the art world, Brougher says: “Art seemed powerless at first, which is why what we begin with is straight documentary.”
As photography and television brought images of potential destruction into the living rooms of the world, artists began to respond.
In 1958’s “Letter from Yves Klein to the President of the International Conference (‘Blue Explosions’),” the French artist offers to paint all existing A- and H-bombs red and a special “Klein Blue.” All he asks for are the bombs’ coordinates and money for materials.
As the world got used to living under the threat of nuclear annihilation, artists’ attention turned to “protest, catharsis, release,” Brougher says. For some, that meant channeling dark humor or irony. (Brougher says works with a lighter touch were woven into the exhibit both to explore different responses and in an effort to not totally depress visitors.)
American pop artist Robert Rauschenberg wanted to “release” a drawing by Dutch abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, so he asked de Kooning if he could have one to erase. “De Kooning immediately understood the idea of destroying something to create something new,” Brougher says. “He said, ‘OK, but it’ll be a hard one to erase, one with lots of darks. It took Rauschenberg weeks” to produce 1953’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing.”
At the show’s end, a quiet, untitled 1990 work by American painter Christopher Wool stands sentry. It reads: “The show is over/ the audience get up to leave their seats/ time to collect their coats and go home/ they turn around/ no more coats/ and no more home.” It’s full circle back to the bomb test footage: Total destruction could be just outside.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW; through May 26, free; 202-633-1000. (L’Enfant Plaza)