The power of sights unseen

Empty space left by the theft of the Mona Lisa, Louvre, 1911

When the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911, more people turned up to stare at the empty space on the Louvre’s wall than used to visit the picture itself. Thirty years later, during the siege of Leningrad, the Hermitage’s artworks were removed for safe-keeping but gallery tours continued with guides describing what used to fill the empty frames and plinths.

Our fascination with art that isn’t there is the basis of the Gallery of Lost Art, a new web-based “virtual exhibition” from Tate which aims to tell the stories of important works that have been “destroyed, stolen, rejected, erased, ephemeral”, due to censorship, war, crime, natural disaster – or just plain carelessness.

In Florence recently, publicity has put a fresco by Giorgio Vasari on the tourist map, because it may have obliterated the remains of an important work by Leonardo da Vinci, “The Battle of Anghiari”. Can it be that you don’t have to see a work of art to appreciate it?

One of the more extreme answers to this question was provided by Robert Rauschenberg in 1953, when he scrounged a graphite drawing from his hero Willem de Kooning, explaining that he intended to erase it. Sportingly, de Kooning went along with the idea, even insisting that he provide, not a casual scrawl, but a drawing “which I would miss”. When, eventually, the blanked-out paper was exhibited as “Erased de Kooning Drawing”, Rauschenberg might appear to have been teasing. Yet he was making a point that is central to conceptual art and, I think, has a bearing on the origins of all art.

The artist, he was insisting, doesn’t have to make material objects: art can be expressed purely as a thought or as an action. The implication of this observation was not new. Even when art is made from a chunk of marble, or is painted on a canvas, its materiality is never the most important thing about it. If there is a single capability that applies to all art, it is that of causing a thought to be born in the mind of the viewer.

‘Napoleon’s Stallion, Tamerlan’ (1815) by Théodore Géricault

The first visual artists who depicted animals on the walls of their caves 25,000 years ago were not making material animals. They were bringing forth the thought of animals and making it visible even when the objects of the thought, at the moment of the making, were invisible to the makers. To do this, they were employing a peculiarly human ability – to “see” the invisible with their imagination. That, it seems to me, is a pretty good working definition of what artists have been doing ever since.

If the imagination makes present something absent, it can also do the converse: cause something to disappear and yet, in some way, remain. Rauschenberg used an eraser but it is doubtful he was able to remove all traces of de Kooning’s work. Something was still present – forensically, so to speak. This idea lies behind the much older tradition of visual artists evoking a subject through what is left behind. Painters from the 18th century understood the potency of classical ruins, and images, such as Géricault’s portrait of Napoleon’s riderless horse, painted at the time of the emperor’s fall. Any image of footsteps in the snow has become the stuff of cliché. At Arles, Vincent van Gogh made a pair of portraits, one portrait of Paul Gauguin, and a matching self-portrait, in which neither of the subjects is seen. He painted Gauguin’s wooden armchair and his own yellow rush-seated chair, with their occupants’ possessions lying abandoned on the seats – a pipe for Van Gogh and a book and candle for Gauguin.

Consciously or not, Tracey Emin echoed this in a Turner-prize piece, her rumpled and stained bed. Towards the end of his career, Andy Warhol took the theme in a different direction with his “Invisible Sculpture” (1985), a vacant white oblong plinth, which can be seen in London at the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition Invisible: Art About the Unseen. It’s an obvious choice, yet the piece does little more than make a literal statement of the emptiness Warhol always espoused.

Tom Friedman’s ‘Untitled (A Curse)’ (1992), an empty plinth cursed by a professional witch

The conviction that invisible art does not need to be as boring as this was upheld within a few years by his fellow American artist Tom Friedman. “Untitled (A Curse)” (1992) is a plain plinth almost exactly like Warhol’s but this time the artist commissioned a professional witch to cast a malign spell over the space immediately above it. The result is that while Warhol’s literal-minded piece is imaginatively inert, Friedman’s is wonderfully charged with the viewer’s anticipated response, since a good proportion of people who approach this work, perhaps almost all of them, are superstitious enough to be disturbed to some degree by the knowledge of what Friedman had done.

That leap across the conceptual divide from the ordinary to the genuinely disturbing is repeated at the Hayward exhibition by another pair of artworks from different artists. Both exploit the idea, first suggested by Yves Klein, the enfant terrible of French art in the 1950s, that an artwork can be made out of air. In 1972, the British artists Michael Baldwin and Terry Atkinson followed the hint when they opened an exhibition in New York that consisted of a room in which there was nothing but two air-conditioning units. The point, they rightly insisted, was that art is defined by what is felt and said about it, rather than by any autonomous physical existence it may have. But the Baldwin-Atkinson installation is defeated, like Warhol’s, by its unsubtlety. You get it too easily and, finally, there is little of interest to say, or feel. Indeed, the screeds of near nonsense the artists wrote to accompany the piece (“the concept ... relies primarily on finding a site which exhibits what we call the quality of being ‘non-juicy’”) only underline the point.

Then, in 2003, the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles created an almost identical artwork, which she called “Air”. But Margolles transformed it by adding a single gruesome variant: the cooling agent in the two units was water previously used at the Mexico City morgue to wash the bodies of unidentified murder victims. This became the imaginative driver, the energy, of the whole piece. The unsettling experience of being in Margolles’s room reveals the limpness of the Baldwin-Atkinson piece, just as to stand beside Friedman’s plinth, and wonder about the consequences of passing your hand through the “cursed” space, exposes the nothingness of Warhol’s.

In Margolles’s installation, the identities of the dead are as fugitive as the air we breathe; they disappear on the wind that cools us. But a lot of art deals in concealments that are less complete. Michelangelo’s unfinished slave marbles in Florence’s Accademia derive their considerable power from the sense that there is so much more there than we see: complete human forms locked inside the marble block, struggling to come out. In 1989, the neo-surrealist Robert Gober produced a comic modern riff on the same thing. His “Untitled” is the lower part of a man’s leg projecting from a wall. It is perfectly detailed and realised as to the trouser-cuff, the sock and shoe. What lies on the other side of the wall, however, belongs to the realm of the uncreated, the never-to-be-seen.

‘Gauguin’s Chair’ (1888) by Vincent Van Gogh

Then there is the phenomenon that reverses the conceptual position of the Michelangelo and Gober sculptures – the evanescence or dissolution of form. In 2007, Antony Gormley made “Blind Light”, an installation chamber in which your visual field, the experience of your body and those of others wandering through, continually dissolved in thick mist and perceptual uncertainty. The American artist-photographer Francesca Woodman’s haunting art was also about the elusiveness of the physical body – her own. During her short life as an artist – she committed suicide in 1981 at 22 – Woodman frequently photographed herself as blurred into near extinction, flitting into the periphery of vision, or largely hidden, if not by the edge of the picture then by some piece of furniture or section of half-detached wallpaper.

In these photographs, many of them astonishingly precocious, Woodman mapped a twilight territory all her own, in which she is always transitional, always sliding out of sight. In her art, as in the chair paintings of Van Gogh, Friedman’s haunted plinth, Michelangelo’s slaves and Gormley’s cloud chamber, the half-seen and the unseen inhabit a disputed area, tugging the viewer between thoughts not only of presence and of absence but, more disturbingly, of potential and of annihilation.

‘Invisible: Art About the Unseen’, Hayward Gallery, London, until August 5

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.