Artist DNA: Picasso, Smithson, Shafrazi and Me



In the summer of 1973 I went to  Albuquerque, New Mexico as part of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. The program usually takes place in New York City, but just for this summer they did a one-time program in New Mexico.

There were several visiting artists including Robert Smithson, his wife Nancy Holt, and Tony Schifrazi. Shifrazi came to my studio and gave me a very friendly critique. I was intimidated and probably didn’t say two words.

One day, several of the visiting artists, along with David Diao and Ron Clark visited a renowned palm reader. I wasn’t there, but I was told that she read everyone’s palm, but when she got to Smithson she said that she was too tired and couldn’t read for him.  Smithson died about two weeks later in a plane crash while surveying a spot for a new piece in Amarillo, Texas.

Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson

I never knew the rest of the story until someone shared this article from artnet. Of course I knew that Shifrazi was the artist who spray painted Guernica, but I hadn’t known that the incident was related to the events of the summer.

Here is the rest of the story from artnet:

At the mention of Picasso’s Guernica, tears well up in his [Shifrazi’s] eyes and he begins telling his story from the beginning: “To understand something today, we must contextualize it. In the 1960s, we started to witness assassinations on television — JFK, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Bobby Kennedy. It was an assault on the senses. The Vietnam War came into our living rooms. You saw jungles on fire, an industrial power attacking little villages, defining the time and devastating the innocence of youth.” At about the same time, Shafrazi explains, the function of a gallery was in question, as art stepped out of its traditional context: “art went to the floor, to the city, to the outskirts, to the desert, to print, to text, to ideas and performances. . . . Institutions were no longer respected. . . .

“You have to remember a time when towns were literally on fire, streets were burning, in Philadelphia, in New York, in Chicago. The country was practically under martial law, there were tanks and military in the streets. By the early 1970s, if you walked the streets of Manhattan it was like medieval times. The clean modern world had collapsed. Debris was everywhere, people looked strange, beards and very long hair became common. Cataclysmic changes were happening. New York became the detritus of the Western world, and art lived in it almost like a parasite. The artists hovered in a state of worry and ineffectiveness. In this transition of the modern to postmodern fragmentation my role was painful, and I was beginning to feel the discomfort of the straitjacket that was art.”

But wasn’t New York also wonderfully romantic? In reality most artists lived in absolute states of poverty: “Even well-known artists were lucky if they had three or four exhibitions and made $10,000 or $15,000 a year. Philip Glass drove a taxi, John Chamberlain cut hair, Richard Serra had a moving company. Most of the artwork questioned the idea of value. It was about authentic expression. Chris Burden locked himself in a locker, Acconci masturbated in public. They were desperately trying to find true depths of expression. The scale and the staggering size of the war relegated art to among the rats and mice. That was the context. This is how you have to understand what happened with Guernica.” But before Shafrazi starts talking about the notable day in February 1974, he has to embark on another tangent in order to explain his unhinged state of mind.

An incisive moment of his life was the death of his friend Robert Smithson, which he was nearly witness to himself. In 1973, Shafrazi was staying in Santa Fe with fellow artists like Keith Sonnier and Joseph Kosuth, before Smithson persuaded him to join him and his wife Nancy Holt on a trip to Amarillo, Texas. On a quest in search of a suitable location for Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp, they rented a small plane and flew over the landscape together. “I had a horrible feeling,” Shafrazi says. “The spiraling flight paralleled the spirals Bob was building. He just laughed.”

On the last day of their sojourn, Smithson planned to get up early in the morning and survey the area once more, “I said don’t go. I am not going. We talked until 2 am in the morning, and then I had the deepest dream I ever had. There was a floating eye, no eyelashes, no head, the eye the size of the world, and the horror of an endless fall. Then there was a knock on the door, and then news of the accident, Bob was dead.”

Soon afterwards Smithson’s widow Nancy Holt, Shafrazi and Richard Serra realized Amarillo Ramp according to Smithson’s plans. They spent 45 days in the desert, Shafrazi rode the truck and unloaded rocks and rubble for the ramp. Back in New York, Shafrazi was drawn to the phenomena of displacement and to Michael Heizer’s art, where negative space becomes form. “What if there is a slippage? A phrase in a new context? Lawrence Weiner let words climb from the canvas onto the wall. What if a phrase slipped off the canvas onto the floor, the city? What if it crossed onto another painting? A work from another historic culture? What if the words slipped onto a great work of art? The idea wouldn’t leave me. For six months it tormented me.”


Photo of the devastation at Guernica

Guernica seemed to be the epitome of anti-war art, “and there it was gathering dust, castrated in a minor place in comparison to how the world was moving. As horrific as it was, the sacred surface seemed violated by being in a dysfunctional place, reduced to ineffectiveness.” Shafrazi’s idea of writing on Picasso’s masterpiece with red paint seemed like a crazy, totally stupid idea at first, “an enormous taboo,” disrespectful and illegal. “What would my father say?” he asked himself, “my family, the New York art world? Would I be crucified? I was not a U.S. citizen, maybe I would be thrown out or put to jail. I did not talk about it with anyone. I was haunted.”

Initially, he had envisioned using stencils, brushes and a bucket of blood-red paint to apply the writing. However, he figured he would only have a few minutes for his action and therefore decided to be more pragmatic and use a spray can. Picasso’s painting, created for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, had been on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York since the 1950s. (It was ceded to Spain in 1981.) Shafrazi has a clear memory of getting ready on February 28, 1974: “dressing up, all very clean, shaved head, with a black turtleneck, a leather jacket and black jeans, and I made sure I had my passport and traveler’s checks on me.” He arrived at the museum around 2 pm and the first thing he did was call the press from a public phone. “I had to be my own Judas. I had to do it and I had to tell them.”

Picasso’s Guernica was in a room of its own on the museum’s third floor. About a dozen people were stunned as Shafrazi pulled out the spray can from his bag and wrote “LIES ALL” and then added “KILL” in capital letters across the canvas, words which he says were influenced by James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and the media — and which he describes as a Zen-like anti-war message. The agitation that he had been feeling in the preceding months had disappeared: “I was absolutely calm,” he says, “not angry, not stoned.” There had been total silence in the room during his act of vandalism, then the guard came, Shafrazi handed him the spray can, and shortly afterwards the police arrived to arrest him. MoMA’s restorers went to work on the painting just 20 minutes after the attack, and it is said that they were able to remove the spray paint from the varnished surface without any permanent damage.

Shafrazi remembers approximately 20 to 30 police cars gathered in front of the museum, a train of them escorting him to the notorious jail in Lower Manhattan known as “The Tombs.” The police officers there greeted him with the words: “Che pasa, Picasso?” before they took him off to a cell, where he waited for his hearing with 30 to 40 other detainees. By this time some of the inmates had already seen him on the news on television and congratulated him, “Man, kids in our neighborhood have been doing that for years, but you made history!” Warhol had used newspaper clippings with disaster reports as images for his silk-screen prints. Now Shafrazi’s action was reversely making headlines out of art: Shafrazi says his action made it to the front page of newspapers in China, Sweden and France the following day.

It wasn’t until the middle of the night that he was taken to court for arraignment. Shafrazi was surprised to find the courtroom full of artists who had already been hanging around waiting there for him for hours. He doesn’t want to mention any names, because he imagines that his friends might still get into trouble about it after more than 30 years. “I was naïve. I expected a Socratic occasion.” Instead, the judge insisted on $1,000 bail for Shafrazi, although he had a clean criminal record. He wouldn’t accept Shafrazi’s checks, so the artists in the room dug through their pockets and came up with the money. Then the crowd moved on to Max’s Kansas City, the legendary bar where a whole generation of artists and musicians congregated for many years, from the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol to Carl Andre, Joseph Kosuth and Richard Serra. Their reactions were varied, spanning from pure horror to disbelieving astonishment — and respect.

Shafrazi’s luck had it that the prominent lawyer Jay Topkis approached him and took on his case on a pro bono basis. “It was very complicated; I think I had to plead guilty, but it was ruled a misdemeanor, not a felony. . . I got five years probation.” Shafrazi remembers how the judge asked him if he would do it again. “I said no, I did it already. I have to do other things. ‘What other things?’ he asked, and I said ‘I don’t know.’”

For the full story: