An evocative project about the presence of absence at a museum whose beloved Old Masters disappeared in a notorious heist
“Every time there is a major theft somewhere in the world, it comes up,” says Pieranna Cavalchini. She’s referring to the unsolved 1990 heist of 13 objects, including drawings by Degas and paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt, from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where Cavalchini is the curator of contemporary art. “It’s always somebody else telling the story,” she continues. “I thought it would be wonderful to be able to think about a thing like a theft, which leaves an incredible mark, through the work of an artist.”
To that end, the museum presents “Last Seen,” an exhibition of text-and photo-based works by French conceptual artist Sophie Calle. Up through March 3, the show consists of two series about on the stolen pieces: the seminal “Last Seen…” (1991), for which Calle asked museum staff what they remembered of the works and photographed them in front of the then-blank walls, and “What Do You See?” (2012), which revisits the project two decades later. Calle created another series of works inspired by the Gardner heist called “Purloined,” which is currently on view at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York.
While for “Last Seen…” Calle interviewed curators, conservators, and guards, she also talked to museum visitors for “What Do You See?.” “In the first project, everyone spoke with their professional vocabulary,” Calle recalls. “The man who carried the painting spoke about the weight, the restorer about fragility.” With the second undertaking, she “knew it would go in all directions.”
Calle asked her interviewees to describe what they envision in the empty frames that have hung, since 1995, where the missing works once were. Those familiar with the lost art recall specific images. Others conjure more abstract ideas, or things that aren’t there—one viewer imagines seeing butterflies in the frame that once held Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633).
Before coming back last year, Calle had not been to the Gardner since making the 1991 series, so the empty frames on the walls were new to her. “The mise-en-scène of absence was even more obvious and visible,” she says. “I had never seen this: Such a busy museum where you still have blank spaces. Even if it was not on purpose”—founder Isabella Stewart Gardner put in her will that the permanent collection couldn’t be altered after her death—“the result was absolutely striking and poetic.”
“Last Seen…” has been exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, and elsewhere, but this is its first trip to the Gardner. Cavalchini long wanted to present the work there, but early on, the trauma of the theft was too fresh; plus, there simply wasn’t enough space, until the museum opened its contemporary wing last year. Several of Calle’s artist’s books are also on display, including Ghosts, which examines art that has been lent, lost, or stolen—including the Gardner works—via viewers’ memories.