7 Art-World Breakups That Changed Art History


Forget love this Valentine’s Day. Crumbling relationships and emotional wreckage are often what birth artistic productivity, much more so than illusions of happily-ever-after. Here’s a look at some of the most tumultuous breakups that resulted in complete personal abasement and misery — but also occasionally some decent work. To spurned love and frustrated desire!

Gian Lorenzo Bernini + Costanza Piccolomini
It was when Costanza took a third lover that things got uncomfortable. In March 1638, Gian Lorenzo Bernini spied his younger brother Luigi leaving the home of Costanza, Gian Lorenzo’s mistress whom he had carved in marble just the year before. An aristocrat, the 25-year-old love interest was the wife of a worker in Bernini’s workshop, possibly “borrowed” by the master, as was not uncommon practice in workshops at the time. But clearly Bernini saw her as his sole possession, as Sarah McPhee recounts in her book. After spotting his brother, he pursued him in a wild, violent chase across Rome, pummeling Luigi with an iron rod and cracking his ribs. Only the appearance of the brothers’ mother broke up the near fratricide. Meanwhile, Costanza made out even worse, her face cut with a razor, a punishment usually reserved for prostitutes and resulting in permanent disfigurement. And yet, all was not lost. In later years, Costanza became a prominent art dealer in Rome, while Bernini turned to themes of damnation and heaven, going on to immortalize Christian remorse in stone.

Sophie Calle + “X”
In 2007, Sophie Calle presented mounds of paper in the gallery, all the same text of a breakup email that ended with the line “Take Care of Yourself” (also the name of the artwork) sent to her by a former boyfriend (called “X”). Calle explained:

“I received an email telling me it was over.
I didn’t know how to respond.
It was almost as if it hadn’t been meant for me.
It ended with the words, “Take care of yourself.”
And so I did.
I asked 107 women (including two made from wood and one with feathers),
chosen for their profession or skills, to interpret this letter.
To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it.
Dissect it. Exhaust it. Understand it for me.
Answer for me.
It was a way of taking the time to break up.
A way of taking care of myself.”

More than 100 women then performed a mass exegesis on the email, each from the perspective of their own discipline: a lawyer, a women’s rights expert at the UN, a clown, a Latin scholar. The attorney, for example, declared fraud because, while “X” in fact is a famous French writer, the email reads like total garbage: all passive tenses, cryptic constructions, and elusive meaning. In total, Calle’s work equally acknowledges the value of women’s collective emotional reckoning and labor, as well as the absurdity of collectivizing personal experience.

Marina Abramovic + Ulay
In an elaborate, coordinated breakup in 1988, the performance-artist couple started walking towards one another from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China and, after more than 1,500 miles, met somewhere in the middle to embrace one final time. But it turns out that the stunt wasn’t the last they’d see each other. More than 20 years later, Ulay surprised Abramovic when he plopped himself down across from her during her marathon stare-off contest in the MoMA lobby. Today, however, all those soaring romantic gestures are tainted slightly by the fact that Ulay is suing Abramovic in a dispute over artworks they produced together.

Bjork + Matthew Barney

After deep emotional trauma and a strenuous divorce battle with artist Matthew Barney, Bjrok emerged last year in full force to create the crowd-pleasing MoMA exhibition. Or, err…

Tracey Emin
+ Billy Childish

“Billy,” Tracey Emin said years after their breakup, “your paintings are stuck, you are stuck! Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!” With this denouncement, the dyslexic poet and artist Billy Childish founded the Stuckists in the late ’90s, a group, as they put it, “against conceptualism, the jingoism of Britart, and the cult of the ego-artist.” The gang gallivanted around the British art world demanding that Tate director Nicholas Serota step down, arriving at the Turner Prize dressed up as clowns, and wreaking other such antics. In no way could it be interpreted as a thinly veiled, jealous attack on his ex- elevated to artistic practice! Although Childish left the group in 2001, he maintains that the stint was the result of the careful cultivation of an artistic posture over the course of 20 years.

Chris Kraus + Sylvere Lotringer

Chris Kraus was a 39-year-old filmmaker and Sylvère Lotringer a 56-year-old professor when the couple met Dick, a cultural critic from Melbourne. Kraus documented that encounter and subsequent obsession in the art-world cult classic epistolary novel “I Love Dick.” As the writer Eileen Myles put it, Kraus was “marching boldly into self-abasement and self-advertisement, not being uncannily drawn there, sighing or kicking and screaming, but walking straight in,” as her marriage to Lotringer unwinds and Dick rebuffs her advances. But instead of submitting to Young Werther-style anguish, Kraus in the end carries on and, on the last page, shows her film.

Jeff Koons
+ Cicciolina

Jeff Koons immortalized his relationship with Ilona Staller, better known as La Cicciolina, in the erotic “Made in Heaven” series that premiered at Sonnabend in the fall of 1991. “The show came about specifically because Koons, for all his success at the time, allegedly could not get laid, due to his good personality,” Charlie Finch has written. He continued: “Many was the time I myself observed Koons in the late 1980s goofily hitting on young women at Fanelli’s during the cocktail hour with the surefire line, ‘Hi! I’m Jeff Koons and I am a famous artist.’” Teasing aside, Koons fell in love with his human readymade, had a child (Ludwig), and divorced Cicciolina after she refused to give up her, ahem, career. Afterwards, she moved with Ludwig to Italy and effectively blocked Koons out of their son’s life. In response, Koons directed his sense of loss into the 1993 “Celebration” series, making children’s toys (building blocks, a balloon dog, dangling cat) into outsized works of art.