On 28 February 1974, the artist Tony Shafrazi (Abadan, Iran, 1944) spray-painted in red letters the words ‘Kill Lies All’ on Guernica. A member of the Art Workers’ Coalition collective, Shafrazi’s act was an individual reaction to President Richard Nixon’s pardoning of William Calley, the only US Army officer on trial for the My Lai Massacre in 1968, during the Vietnam War. However, this gesture was also an attempt to grant a new voice to Guernica in a demonstration of his disapproval over the deactivation of the painting’s political potential in the art world, particularly by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Tony Shafrazi studied Art at the Royal College of Arts, London, and from 1965 made various trips to the USA, particularly New York, where he encountered some of the key figures from the time, such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Leo Castelli. He would later talk of the latter becoming his mentor and the person to whom he owed his transformation from artist to art dealer, an occupation he continues to work in today.
Shafrazi’s act in the Museum of Modern Art connected with actions carried out by the Art Workers’ Coalition between 1969 and 1970, both inside and outside the museum, in protest against the Vietnam War and against some of the art centre’s policies. The lithograph And Babies? (1969), displayed opposite Guernica in one of his actions, used an image of the My Lai Massacre, where US soldiers had killed around 500 people and raped women and children. Nixon’s pardoning of Calley, the only officer on trial for the massacre, saw the perpetrators of this killing go unpunished.
The spray-painting, the act of vandalism causing his arrest, alluded to a quote from James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake: “Lies. All lies”, which he re-worked into ‘Kill Lies All’. The layer of varnish applied to the painting’s surface four years earlier by Museum of Modern Art restorers meant the red letters could be removed with minimum damage caused.
Shafrazi argued that he was attempting to reactivate Guernica as a cry of protest against war and civilian deaths. On one side, he sought to give the museum-confined painting visibility, a painting which had completely lost touch with events outside, thereby cancelling out its original potential as a symbol of protest against violence. In an interview in 2009, Shafrazi maintained that if Guernica could speak, in 1974 it would have decried the events occurring in the Vietnam War. On the other side, he envisaged the painting as a kind of ready-made to which new meaning could be attached; nevertheless, his action was not supported by the Art Workers’ Coalition: activists opposing the war saw his act as sacrilegious.
In 1976, Shafrazi returned to his native Iran, where he worked as an art advisor on American art for the Contemporary Art Museum of Tehran, a city in which he would later open his own gallery. The Iranian Revolution (1978–1979) caused him to move to New York definitively, and, in 1979, he founded the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, managing the work of artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Since that year, the gallery has organised numerous exhibitions which have included works by Picasso and homages to the artist.