Just as history is written by the victors, so is art history written by the extant artworks. And yet, sometimes absence increases influence and unseen, unfinished, unrealized artworks gain legendary status. The Gallery of Lost Art, a year-long online exhibition curated by the Tate explores how such loss silently shapes the course of art history.
The exhibition appears as an overhead view inside a warehouse in which works by over 40 artists are profiled, surrounded by the evidence of their existence. An investigation appears underway; sporadic figures bend over paperwork or type away at computers while spooky ambient music provides the soundtrack. Artworks are classified by their mode of disappearance -- attacked, ephemeral, erased, destroyed, missing, rejected, stolen, transient, or unrealized -- though many pieces bridge several of these at once. Zooming in on a single case, an array of photographs, documents, video segments, and other visual material comes into focus, along with thoughtful essays by Jennifer Mundy, the exhibition's curator.
Daniel Buren's Painting I, one part of the work Painting-Sculpture 1971, installed in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 1971.
While many of the pieces and their stories will be well known, The Gallery of Lost Art is a rabbit hole of juicy art world inside information. I was shocked to learn about Daniel Buren's Painting-Sculpture (Painting I and Painting II), made specifically for the Sixth Guggenheim International in New York. Though cleared with the curator in advance, Painting I caused other artists in the exhibition to feel their work was -- literally -- overshadowed when the gargantuan striped cloth reached its full length in the museum's atrium. The piece was removed just prior to the show's opening without consulting Buren. The Guggenheim refused to reverse its actions even when Buren supplied a petition signed by 15 of the 21 artists in the show. Factions divided, recriminations flew, and in a pithy about-face Dan Flavin, one of the aforementioned 15, even described Buren's work as "miserable nonsense."
While Buren's piece remains in storage to this day, many of the profiled works were lost suddenly and violently. Many were unfortunate victims of authoritarian regimes. All that remains of Otto Dix's The Trench is a few fuzzy black and white photographs, one of them taken at Reflections on Decadence in Art, the 1933 exhibition organized by the Nazis (along with the 1937 exhibition Degenerate Art) to condemn modernist works they found repellant. Otto Freundlich's Large Head (The New Man) graced the cover of the Degenerate Art catalogue. Kurt Schwitters' original Merzbau was destroyed by WWII bombing, as was Wassily Kandinsky's Composition I.
Rachel Whiteread, House, 1993.
Other works were never meant to last, but became significant when the art world's impulse to preserve came in conflict with the material reality of the art. Rachel Whiteread's House, for instance, was a short-term public sculpture created by casting the interior of a home set for demolition. During its existence it was both heralded and condemned, the subject of petitions, outcries, and pleas. Though many considered it an important artwork that should remain in the public view, it was demolished after 11 weeks, as planned. Such instances demonstrate the powerful effect art can have on the public, as well as the fine line between permanent and ephemeral works of art.
Invitation card for Bas Jan Ader's exhibition In Search of the Miraculous at Claire S. Copley Gallery, Los Angeles, April 1975.
The most interesting elements of The Gallery of Lost Art arrive in the form of insights into controversy. Why was this considered radical? How did this go missing? Where is it now? The stories can be incredibly sad, especially when the works cannot be repaired, reproduced, or finished. Bas Jan Ader's Search for the Miraculous was the artist's last project, a solo sailing journey from Massachusetts to England he never survived. As curator Jennifer Mundy writes, "His final work was not completed, and he himself was lost in the process of trying to make it, but this loss did not undermine the effectiveness of the work itself." Ader's goal was to test his physical abilities in the historic romantic tradition of 'the search.' Unfortunately, nature bested his abilities.
Search for the Miraculous has attained a level of magical unreality, just as the fictitious gathering of works in The Gallery of Lost Art nod to an alternate dimension where these invaluable pieces exist as tangible objects rather than digital renderings. New artworks will be added through the end of the year, demonstrating the many ways art can cease to exist and yet continue to grow in terms of its physical impact. This engrossing and clever exhibition encourages visitors to pick up the narrative of art history where the featured lost artworks leave off, valuing the empty spaces as much as occupied ones.