If the subject will talk, there's no need for torture—it's when the subject won't yield that torture begins. Somewhere after World War II, painting stopped talking, or at least talking sense. It still made noise, but even the artists didn't pretend to know what it was saying: Jackson Pollock's storms of drips expressed expression, which is like yelling that you're yelling. Painting was trapped, and what happened next was an extended, exquisite torture scene—the torture of painting by a mob of muscular young artists between roughly 1950 and 1980—that forced painting to talk again.

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On the fourth floor of the Seattle Art Museum this summer is a tantalizing reenactment of the stabbing, the cutting, the pissing on, the burying alive, the burning, the beating, the shooting, the running over by locomotive, the dunce-capping, the erasing, the stomping on, and the mockery that painting endured at the hands of artists in Europe, Asia, North America, and South America. Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949–78 is an exhibition of 82 artworks and photo documentations mostly on loan from museums, collectors, and foundations around the world, but also shrewdly mobilizing SAM's permanent collection in a strategic play to build up its holdings in postwar antiheroism.

If the installation feels oddly both formulaic and scattershot in parts, the selection of works, by SAM's modern and contemporary curator Michael Darling, is creative and energetic. Darling is not restating a canon, he's refining it, bringing together artists from several continents and pairing lesser-knowns with household names. The arch sensibility of Pop, the communalism and performance of Brazilian art of the period, the sunny California renegades, the anarchic Viennese Actionists, Japanese postatomic hysteria and despair, the quotational impulse of the pre-Pictures generation, hippie-style madness, the chilly conceptualists, the early feminists, highly codified and organized German pain—all these come together in a grouping that's different from the classic (and overly cerebral) New York–centric story of minimalism-and-after. This version of the story is deliberately visceral.

The introduction to the exhibition is a Jasper Johns target painting lined up in front of the elevator on the far wall of the opening gallery, but it's the wrong introduction: too dry. The real welcome to the show should be the nearby video of the young French artist Niki de Saint Phalle walking on screen in skirt and heels, setting down a purse, and taking out of it a rifle, a handgun, and a cannon. She's an expert in painting S&M. She loads the plaster-packed canvases with bags of liquid paint, and they explode as she shoots.

De Saint Phalle made her shooting paintings in the early 1960s, more than a decade after the earliest pieces in the show—torn and stabbed works by Italian artist Lucio Fontana and Japanese artist Shozo Shimamoto. The two artists were working without knowledge of each other, but both were tearing apart in a last-ditch attempt to create anew after the terrible decade of the 1940s. Shimamoto leaves raw, unsuturable, bomb-sized holes in his skinlike painted surfaces; Fontana leaves something more cosmic, creating punctures and cuts that provide a patterned view through the two-dimensional surface. In four photographs by Ugo Mulas, Fontana takes to the canvas with the weapon he eventually preferred, the X-Acto knife, acting as an existential warrior. War and its aftermath are referenced also in the sad-sack burlap work by Italian abstractionist Alberto Burri, from SAM's collection, and in Austrian artist (and certified weirdo) Otto Muehl's destruction of a sackcloth canvas, which resembles feces in a straitjacket. Photographs of the Japanese Gutai artists punching canvases with paint-loaded gloves and furiously throwing glass bottles of paint at canvases are over-the-top, yes, but also bursting with agony. They make the American Pollock's gestures at the canvas look academic.

Not everything is so serious. Not at all. A found thrift-store painting of a tree turned on its side and given cartoonish facial features by Asger Jorn, the Danish-born member of the Parisian situationists, is pure slapstick. Yoko Ono's Painting to Be Stepped On (a scrap of canvas lying on the gallery floor—when I was there, it had not only footprints but wheelchair tracks on it) and Painting to Hammer a Nail (a canvas on the wall, a hammer, a box of nails, and permission to do it) have a dark side, but they're also just amusing. German artist Guenther Uecker's storm of nails hammered into a board has dark overtones, but it is an irresistible proto-Op eyepopper, too. Arman's expended paint tubes are sad-funny little after-erections. Richard Pettibone provides a detailed forensic report on a tube of yellow cadmium paint run over by a train. Brazilian artist Lygia Pape's video of smiling children sticking their heads through a giant canvas with holes in it on a sunny day is simply exuberant. Like Yayoi Kusama's intense 1967 video Self-Obliteration (which makes Carolee Schneeman's Meat Joy look like a schoolgirl frolic), Pape's video is a little bit of a stretch for the exhibition's theme, but you barely notice because it's so good to see it.

One of the classics of anti-painting is John Baldessari's giant text painting (one in a series), made by a sign painter, coyly instructing viewers about how to look at a painting. ("Ask yourself questions when standing in front of a well composed picture," it suggests.) It hangs across from one of curator Darling's great finds: a painting that Canadian conceptualist Iain Baxter made in 1962, when he was a student in painting at Washington State University. Numbers strewn across the surface reference a list of painterly terms along the side of the painting, including "Main Area of Interest," "Blending," "Foreground," "Background," "Mistake." (The numbering technique brings to mind Warhol's paint-by-numbers works from the period, which are not included in the exhibition.)

The gallery that contains the Baldessari and the Baxter is the glowing, prismatic heart of the show, the place where painting most powerfully reasserts itself under duress. A multicolored fluorescent square—an empty-centered "painting" by Dan Flavin—bleeds red, yellow, and green toward a giant wall slathered with juicy, layered paint in all colors by the California artist Richard Jackson, who has re-created an earlier work here and retitled it SAM. Jackson's work is made by applying paint thickly to canvases, then turning the canvases toward the wall and smearing the paint onto the wall in (Johnsian) arcs, finally leaving the backward-facing canvases hanging in the midst of the glorious, swooping goop.

Darling has taken this backward-facing trope as the theme of this entire room: Johns's gray backward canvas mounted on a forward-facing canvas, which is almost enough of a vortex to suck in even the brightness of this room; Roy Lichtenstein's benday-dot painting of the backs of two paintings; Arte Povera artist Giulio Paolini's three backward-turned canvases nesting inside one another (like a reverse version of Johns's stacked American flags); and a marvelous Pettibone the size of your palm—a tiny photo­realistic painting of a painting sitting on a floor and leaning against a wall, hiding its face, called Andy Warhol, "Flowers," 1964 (rear view) made in 1974. This is a great, distilling room.

In other rooms, the staging is not as wonderful: The first two galleries feel crowded and awkward; the last few, plodding. By the end, at Warhol's sidelined Oxidation (piss) Painting and Lynda Benglis's poured-paint piece (did it have to be mounted on a pedestal rather than lying on the floor?), the exhibition has run out of energy.

So much is covered—after an apotheosis of physicality in a small, almost unbelievably rich Robert Rauschenberg "combine" (a painting-sculpture combination) from 1954, the material of paint itself disappears in conceptual works by Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, and Daniel Buren—it's inevitable that some things will be left behind. One unfortunately undeveloped larger theme is feminism. While Bruce Nauman's well-traveled four-channel video of himself applying paint to his body gets prime placement in the exhibition, projected at enormous size, feminist artists exploring the same terrain more pointedly—Suzy Lake, for instance, applying makeup as if it were oil paint both to her face and to the surface of her photographic prints—are absent. (There is one reference to the feminist association of paint and blood: George Maciunas's photo documentation of Shigeko Kubota's 1965 painting made by squatting over a surface with a loaded brush attached to her underwear is here.) More subtly feministic works by Howardena Pindell and Karen Carson feel stranded.

But other historical chapters are clarified in Target Painting. For instance, the Gutai group, often associated with abstract expressionism, fits here instead, on the flip side of ab-ex, in the midst of fragility, abjection, and critique.

Fragility, abjection, and critique: They turn out to be a winning and convincing combination at this vulnerable American moment. SAM and Darling have taken the oldest story in modern art—the death rattle of painting—and interrogated it anew. In the process they've revealed hidden segments and twists in the root system that feeds today's painters. They've also presented works from the collection—by Johns, Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, Ed Ruscha, Richard Tuttle, Burri, and Neil Jenney—in important context. Trustees, collectors, and donors: I hope you're paying attention to the pitch implicit in Target Practice. SAM and Darling have proven they care astutely for the postwar collection; gifts are in order. recommended