Throughout art history, artists’ studios are always burning down. Until only three or four decades ago, it was typical for artists to warm their workspaces with wood or coal fires. In January 1946, Arshile Gorky was settling into a borrowed studio in a barn on the Connecticut property of his friends Henry and Jean Hebbeln. Strapped, as ever, for cash, he had installed the wood-burning stove himself. When one day he smelled burning, he at first thought it was one of his cigarettes; when he saw that the hot stovepipe had set the roof of the barn on fire, he calmly walked up to the main house to fetch a pot of water to pour down the chimney. It wasn’t until his third trip back to the house that he quietly announced to his host, “Fire.”
Among the few items that Gorky was able to retrieve from the barn before it burned to the ground was, ironically, a box of powdered charcoal. His biographer (and son-in-law) Matthew Spender speculates that one reason the Armenian artist rescued so little of his work may have been the residual influence of Zoroastrianism, in which fire is a sacred symbol, never to be extinguished. Neighbors reported seeing a distraught Gorky hitting his head against the ground as the building went up in flames, the inept local fire department unable to help. Nevertheless, the fire’s contribution to Gorky’s psychological decline and, two years later, his suicide, tends to be overstated; soon after, he told his wife Mougouch that he felt “a new freedom from the past now that it is actually burned like you feel when you are young and there is no past.” The trio of grisaille paintings in which he memorialized the fire, Charred Beloved I, II and III, are not nightmarish, oppressive, or violent pictures as is often claimed. Rather, their expansive compositions convey a sense of release, of possibility, in which ash and air meet glowing forms that flame out of the darkness.
Fire stories are riddled with coincidence. It is a factor of their metaphysical significance that they reshape the meaning of events around themselves. Fires are traditionally seen as omens, they are signs from above, they were preordained, and they are destined to reverberate forward into the future. In 1952, the Hungarian artist Sari Dienes designed the sets and costumes for a play by the poet Arthur Gregor entitled Fire!, which was performed (to lukewarm reviews) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Three years later, her studio on 57th Street in New York—in which she let the younger artist Robert Rauschenberg store some of his paintings—burned down while she was on a residency in California. That fire postdated one of 20th-century art’s most iconic acts of destruction, Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), a gesture for which the universe made him pay not once but twice, the second time in 1969 when Rauschenberg suffered a fire at his Lafayette Street studio. Shortly after, he moved to Florida.
On October 17, 1966, a terrible fire tore through the home and studio of the figurative painter Alfred Leslie, in a building also shared by the artists Herbert Brown and Adolph Gottlieb. When Leslie’s dealer, who occupied the ground floor and used the basement for storage, moved a wall to give himself more space for art and the other flammable art materials he kept there, he left the upper stories fatally unsupported. Twelve firefighters died when the building collapsed—one of the worst catastrophes in the New York City Fire Department’s history, before 9/11 set a new bar for tragedy.
Leslie, who was in the midst of preparing a midcareer survey at the Whitney Museum, lost years of work—around fifty portraits—as well as drawings, notes, and hours of film. The Whitney show was canceled. The blow was almost unbearable in the wake of events only months before. Leslie was planning to ask his friend, Frank O’Hara, to write the exhibition’s catalog essay, when the poet was struck and killed by a dune buggy in a freak accident in the middle of the night on a beach on Fire Island. O’Hara’s senseless death on an island that shared its name with the same disaster that would befall Leslie three months later seemed, at the time, like a world-ending signal. As Leslie watched, from the sidewalk, a self-portrait from 1964 go up in flames inside his studio window, he knew that his life would henceforth pivot upon this moment.
Soon after the fire, he stretched fifty canvases in preparation for repainting his lost works. Over the following year, he completed none. Instead, he became obsessed with cataloguing his past, writing to friends to ask them to send him copies of reviews of his past shows, trying to buy back old paintings, and photographing studios and apartments he had previously occupied. He realized, however, that he needed to find a way to step forward into the future. In 1966, he began a suite of seven narrative paintings depicting the circumstances around O’Hara’s death, which he called The Killing Cycle. Remarkably, he began to use color—something he had steadfastly avoided up to this point—later explaining, “Adding the color did enable me, I suppose, to distance myself from the loss of my work and to enter into this new phase. The new pictures didn’t remind me of the old ones.”
In 1970, John Baldessari committed one of the century’s most notorious acts of artistic arson. The San Diego–based artist, who was just cementing his own Conceptually oriented methodologies at the end of the previous decade, resolved to incinerate every artwork in his possession that he had made between 1953 and 1966 (all of which were paintings) and to document the event as a work of Conceptual art. Even though he had stopped making paintings in the conventional manner four years earlier, Baldessari spoke of wanting to “shut off the faucets somehow.” The Cremation Project happened just as Baldessari was preparing to relocate from San Diego to Los Angeles to take up a post on the faculty at CalArts, where he would introduce an influential new course titled “Post-Studio Art.” He was pleased to divest himself of the baggage and clutter that a traditional studio entailed; the future of artmaking, it then seemed, was to be emancipated from the burden of real estate, storage, and maintaining an artisanal workshop.
Three years earlier, on a visit to Los Angeles, Baldessari had witnessed another artist’s oeuvre go up in smoke. He was driving a van around Venice with his friend, the painter James Hayward, collecting artworks for a show Baldessari was organizing in San Diego. Hayward was depressed because he had just found out that his wife was cheating on him, and that morning he had lit candles around his home, shaved his long hair and begun to write a suicide note. He was interrupted by the unannounced Baldessari, who persuaded him to join him on his errands. Later that day, the pair saw a plume of smoke in the distance, rising from the streets near Hayward’s home studio, and they drove closer to investigate. Horrified, they discovered that it was indeed his home that was burning, and that Hayward’s paintings (and his sizeable stash of marijuana) had fed the blaze. The painter got out of Baldessari’s van and was immediately handcuffed by two plainclothes policemen. At that moment, his wife drove past in a silver Chevy convertible with his old friend Barry. Hayward described it as “the worst day of my life.”
It is not known whether Baldessari had that day in mind when he fed his own paintings into the crematorium incinerator in 1970, nor whether he was thinking of his colleague Ed Ruscha’s 1964 book Various Small Fires, published a year before the 1965 Watts Rebellion left much of South Central Los Angeles in flames. In the 1960s, combustion figured prominently in Ruscha’s conceptual vocabulary: as a metaphorical threat, in his pictures of gasoline stations and his smoky drawings of words on paper done in gunpowder, but also manifested as pictorial reality in paintings such as Norm’s, La Cienega, on Fire (1964), Burning Gas Station (1965–66), and the iconic Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965–8). Ruscha told me that fire holds no special biographical significance for him; it is simply a device that, when added, “can make a picture different, or better.” He described it as a “coda.”
It is fitting, perhaps, that so many of the protagonists in this book happen to reside in Los Angeles, a city built mainly of wood, resting on oil fields, and edged by tinder-dry brush. For reasons political and environmental, fire is as much a part of the Southern Californian collective subconscious as earthquakes and sunsets.