7 Famous Artists Who Destroyed Their Own Works

Art vandalism is a serious crime that threatens our cultural legacy. But what if a famous artist decides to ruin their own creation?

Apr 25, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art



In our minds, art is closely associated with the act of creation and the transformation of raw materials into something new. But can we reverse the process and call destruction an act of artistic expression? Read on to learn more about some of the famous artists like Camille Claudel, Jean Tinguely, and Banksy, all of whom destroyed their own artworks at some point in their careers.


1. Camille Claudel: The Famous Artist Whom We Almost Lost

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Camille Claudel at work, c. 1885-87. Source: Wikipedia


Despite the growing fame of the previously forgotten sculptor Camille Claudel, we have a very limited range of her works available in museums and private collections. Claudel, who was an outstanding woman sculptor at the time when women were barely allowed to create art, destroyed most of her work with her own hands during a mental breakdown. For years, she lived in an abusive and dramatic relationship with the famous Auguste Rodin but was treated neither as an equal partner nor as an equal artist. Her mental health collapsed after a miscarriage and a breakup, and so did her career, as the powerful people of the art world, most of whom were Rodin’s friends, turned against her. She shattered all plasters and marbles in her studio, leaving us only a small amount of works that were purchased from her by collectors.


Soon after the act, Camille’s brother, concerned not for her health but for the indecency of her relationship with Rodin, forcefully committed her to a mental asylum. She remained there for thirty years. She was never visited by her family and she never made art again. Some of Claudel’s works were later uncovered in Rodin’s studio. As it turned out, she was the artist behind many works of Rodin, usually sculpting arms and legs for his sculptures. Moreover, before her rediscovery, some art forgers added Rodin’s signatures to her sculptures, attempting to sell them for more money.


2. Agnes Martin and The Minimalist Perfection

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Night Sea, by Agnes Martin, 1963. Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


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Abstract Expressionist Agnes Martin had always maintained a distance from the rest of the art world. Martin found the greatest interest in the exploration of the spiritual realm. Originally starting as a landscape painter, she discovered abstract art and Eastern philosophy in the late 1950s and decided to destroy all of her figurative work. To erase her previous artistic identity, she tracked down the paintings she sold, bought them back, and destroyed them. In her later practice, destruction became her constant companion. While creating her minimalist compositions, she was known to ruin the canvas over and over again, until the result became satisfactory.


Over the years, Martin’s impulses for destruction received different interpretations from art historians. Some believed these were solely manifestations of the artist’s progressing schizophrenia paired with her expanding social isolation. Others, however, saw it as a spiritual act of purification, a sacrifice made to the higher power to aid in one’s transformation and to pay for some forbidden knowledge. Agnes Martin severed all ties with her pre-abstract work, deliberately erasing the further possibility of addressing the superficial level of the world around her as if figurative painting never existed in her universe.


3. Louise Bourgeois and Family Trauma

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The Destruction of the Father, by Louise Bourgeois, 1974. Source: Hauser & Wirth Gallery


Louise Bourgeois was one of the icons of installation art whose works are closely linked to feminist art. The overwhelming majority of her work was autobiographical and referred to the traumatic memories of her childhood, home, and later life. A traumatized, anxious, and emotional person, Bourgeois felt safe only during her creative process, and any interruption of it could be followed by an angry fit of destruction. If something or someone stopped her from diving into her work, Bourgeois became overly critical, looking for the tiniest flaws in her finished work. She would mercilessly destroy sculptures and installations, smashing them into pieces.


In some ways, destruction was at the core of Bourgeois’ work. Her mother, a tapestry weaver, represented the creative and protective force of a spider weaving its web, but the overtones of violence and destruction came from the father’s side. In Bourgeous’ childhood, the father represented threat, discomfort, and instability. The artist’s subconscious need for revenge revealed itself in the famous work The Destruction of the Father, where blob-like children devoured their father in a womb-like setting.


4. Jean Tinguely and Self-Destructive Machines

Homage to New York, by Jean Tinguely, 1960. Source: MoMA, New York


Our previous examples focused mostly on the deliberate destruction of artworks made during mental breakdowns or radical changes in one’s style and habits. But there have been artworks which were made only to be destroyed.


An example of such an approach could be the self-destructive machines of Jean Tinguely. Tinguely was a Swiss sculptor who went on to continue the Dadaist tradition of working with found objects, arranging them in complex compositions. However, Tinguely rearranged his objects to create moving mechanisms whose only purpose was to destroy themselves. Tinguely’s mechanical monsters were a bitter mockery of the industrialized society, its anxious and chaotic self-replication, and the escalating dependence of human society on machines.


The irreversible act of self-destruction made his works interactive and unpredictable. During the presentation of his Homage to New York, attended by hundreds of guests, the mechanism failed to disintegrate in the designated order, instead setting itself ablaze. The following events included a team of firefighters finishing Homage with their axes—a final act that Tinguley could not anticipate.


5. John Baldessari’s Cookies

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Cremation Project, by John Baldessari, 1970. Source: Elephant Art


The American conceptual artist John Baldessari had a long and remarkable career that effortlessly migrated between mediums, formats, and genres. He started to work in the mid-1950s, experimenting with traditional techniques of painting, hyper-realism, and text-based art. However, in 1970, Baldessari gathered all his previously made works and took them to a local crematorium, incinerating dozens of paintings. He made slides of some of the objects destroyed, but neither the artist nor experts on his art could be sure how many of them were lost. Baldessari then gathered the ashes and baked cookies out of them, sealing them in jars with a recipe enclosed. The work, titled Cremation Project, became one of the most famous instances of artistic self-destruction.


Baldessari believed the Cremation Project was one of his best works ever. The action symbolized the always-renewing cycle of life and death and the transgression of materials into one another. It was a symbolic gesture of artistic evolution that did not reject the ashes of the past entirely but lovingly incorporated them into the new sense of the world. Ironically, it had a practical purpose for Baldessari. In 1970, the artist decided to move from San Diego to Los Angeles and was not thrilled by the idea of bringing hundreds of his old works with him.


6. The Wax Sculptures of Urs Fischer

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Untitled, by Urs Fischer (fragment), 2011. Source: My Modern Met


Swiss artist Urs Fischer works with a variety of unconventional art materials, including bread, earth, and plasticine. However, his most famous works include wax sculptures which are essentially giant candles created to be melted and burnt.


Fischer created wax copies of famous works of art like The Abduction of a Sabine Woman by Giambologna, portraits of his friends, silhouettes of conventionally attractive women, or even pieces of furniture. Upon presentation, all of them are lit and you can see them slowly disintegrate throughout the art show. Status symbols, beauty standards, everyday objects, celebrities, and even friends and family members melt away into puddles of wax, all turning into a uniform mass. This process, however, is neither terrifying nor anxiety-provoking. The audience watches the impermanence of human life and artificial societal constructs to its original organic state, beautiful in its unpredictable naturalness. The beauty of decay and destruction seen in these works gives a hint of sadness over the things lost but it never crosses the border towards grief.


7. Banksy: The Famous Artist Mastering Provocation

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Girl With Baloon / Love is in the Bin, by Banksy, 2006-18. Source: SkyNews


Banksy, an anti-establishment street artist turned into a gallery favorite, uses his status to the full extent, effortlessly making millions of his work and maintaining a mask of relative anonymity and constant media hype. His main strategy is the mockery of the art world and capitalist society paired with his participation in it.


One of the most famous and scandalous works made by Banksy was not the work itself but the events that happened around it. In 2018, his painting Girl With Baloon, a painted variation of his popular street art motif, went on sale at Sotheby’s auction house in London. The moment it was sold for $1.4 million, someone activated a built-in shredder, cutting the work in half. Banksy framed it as a protest against the greed and absurdity of the art world. However, critics of Banksy pinpointed that such type of sabotage could not been possible without Sotheby’s knowledge or even direct involvement. Ironically, the new owner of the work did not ask for a refund. He even resold the work three years later for a shocking $25.4 million. Together with Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Love is in the Bin became the most infamous artwork of the past decade.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.