Anna Piccoli

Pissing on canvases

How urine was used as artistic material

In the 1980s the Oxidation Paintings were created. Praised abstractions, they are actually created by means of our waste material, pee. A short story that tells us (once again) the value of urine and shows the relevance of its materiality over chemistry and aesthetics.


Rust and dirt - Patterns created on a baking plate by rust, one of the most common example of corrosion

It's 1978 and a series of iridescent, abstract canvases called Oxidation Paintings appears, generating bewilderment in the modernist world of arts. The artworks are beautiful, yet those strokes, splashes and drips are made by spreading a surface covered in copper-based paint with pee. Andy Warhol, his friends and acquaintances produced the abject material and tried to make the most of its oxidising effects in order to explore colour and texture. They experimented changing metallic backgrounds as well as personal food intake. In all cases, the copper reacted with the uric acid: components of the pure metal were removed and mineral salts were formed, whilst colours changed over time, varying from yellow, red and brown to green and blue.


Rust - Colourful patterns created by rust on iron

This brazen painting practice is supposed to come from the underground homosexual scene of sex clubs and gay bath houses in New York. Nevertheless, it could also hark back to old techniques according to which urine was used in sculpture to accelerate patination of metals. In addition, it may remind those who are familiar with Pasolini of his Teorema (1968). In both the book and the movie, the young Pietro hopes to create cutting-edge pieces of art and his attempts end up in a scatological approach to art-making, namely an act of urination on the canvases. Finally, it may be a way of mimicking and parodying Pollock's work, which, in turn, may be seen as mirroring the masculine act of demarcating surfaces by drawing patterns when peeing – so the authors of Jackson Pollock: An American Saga claim. Freudian readings see both artistic gestures – Pollock's and Warhol's – as a return to the instinctual and pre-civilised. This can be interpreted either as a conscious denial of prescribed behaviours or as a display of (homosexual) sexual potency translated into artistic potency.
Regardless the psychologic explanations, the series Oxidations is an interesting mix that disrupts the almost sacral space of high-brows galleries with the use of a vulgar, dirty and smelly material. It is a (thought-)provoking encounter between beauty and offence as well as between materiality and abstraction that illuminates the physicality of the substance urine and its impact over chemistry and aesthetics.

P.S. You might have read about the Oxidations on this blog before, but, given the upcoming Pis' Talk on urine as material, we thought the series had still something to tell.